The Whiteboard: Franz Wagner is in the midst of a special rookie season

Orlando Magic, The Whiteboard

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The Rookie of the Year race has tightened and it seems likely that Evan Mobley, Cade Cunningham and Scottie Barnes will finish 1-2-3 in some order. While there may be a lack of consensus on those top positions, if the official ballots extended to four places you might find Franz Wagner holding that spot on every single one.

Wagner has been overshadowed by the rest of this rookie class but his production this year has been remarkable. He has appeared in and started every single game for the Magic this season, one of just four players in the league who has appeared in every game for his team. He’s been a reliable contributor at both ends of the floor, averaging 15.5 points, 4.6 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 0.9 steals per game, on a 55.9 true shooting percentage.

The most impressive parts of Wagner’s rookie campaign aren’t just his availability or consistency, it’s been his versatility. He’s been a spot-up threat (37.7 on catch-and-shoot 3s) and, at 6-foot-10, an above-average creator in the pick-and-roll. He’s shooting 46.0 percent on 9.3 drives per game — only Cade Cunningham and Davion Mitchell have been more efficient as rookies on at least 6.0 drives per game. He also has the lowest turnover percentage on drives of the 17 rookies averaging at least 4.0 drives per game. And, he can shoot off the dribble — among the most accurate pull-up shooters among this year’s rookie class.

Franz Wagner has looked like a solid piece at both ends of the floor

On defense, Wagner has more than held his own. He’s spent a lot of time defending smaller wings — Saddiq Bey, Khris Middleton, R.J. Barrett, Aaron Gordon, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, DeMar DeRozan, Gordon Hayward, Harrison Barnes, Kevin Durant and Tobias Harris are the 10 players he’s spent the most possessions defending this season. Despite those difficult assignments, 538’s RAPTOR all-in-one metrics estimates that he’s one of just 11 rookies to have played at least 750 minutes this season and been a net positive on defense. He’s also the only rookie, according to their estimates, who has been a net positive at both ends of the floor.

The Magic have struggled this season and are likely to finish with one of the worst records in the league, but they’ve had their moments and Wagner has been involved in many of them. The Magic have just two lineups that have played at least 50 minutes together this season and outscored their opponents. Wagner features in both and, on the season, the Magic have been better by 8.4 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor.

Wagner’s production doesn’t scream “future star” in the same way that Barnes, Cunningham or Mobley’s does. But he’s already having a dramatic impact on his team’s performance and demonstrating a diverse two-way skill set that could be extremely useful for the Magic as they continue rebuilding towards a playoff competitor.

He hasn’t been the best rookie in the league this season but he’s been very, very good and there’s every reason to think he will continue to be for years to come.

Other NBA stories:

This week on The Long Two, Ben Ladner looks at how the Celtics will need to adapt without Robert Williams and the tiny group of players who have managed to player in every game this season.

For the second consecutive season, the Oklahoma City Thunder are one of the worst teams in the NBA. For Sam Presti, it’s all going according to plan.

The Pelicans won’t entertain Zion Williamson trade offers unless he forces their hand. But if he does, the New York Knicks should be ready to pounce.

Mike Krzyzewski has been a central but intensely private figure in the history of college basketball. It appears there may be a reason for that.

The playoffs are coming and it’s worth remembering that every team, even those battling injuries and flaws like the Celtics and Warriors, still have what it takes to go all the way.

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