Three in the Key: Explaining why Franz Wagner should win Rookie of the Year

·7 min read

As part of an ongoing series at HoopsHype, we’re breaking down some of the most interesting trends we have seen around the NBA throughout the season.

Of course, the name of this column is derived from basketball’s three-second violation rule. With that in mind, the goal of this exercise is to find one of the most interesting subjects about the game and explain the three keys to why it is happening while also providing context on what makes it interesting.

For this edition, Three in the Key will take a look at someone that has been heating up of late. We’re focusing on Orlando Magic rookie Franz Wagner, who deserves to hear his name in the Rookie of the Year conversation.

Not only does Wagner have the single-game scoring high for rookies so far this season (38 points) but he also owns four of the ten largest scoring nights for first-year players thus far in 2021-22.

THE KEY

(Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Wagner joins No. 1 overall pick Cade Cunnigham as the only rookies who are averaging more than 15.1 points, 4.1 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and 1.1 three-pointers per game.

Last year, the only players to reach those thresholds were LaMelo Ball and Anthony Edwards. Ball and Edwards, of course, finished No. 1 and No. 2 when it came time to decide who was the Rookie of the Year.

Before last season, among those who played at least 25 games, this is the full list of players who ever accomplished as much during their first professional season in the NBA: Luka Doncic (2019), Joel Embiid (2017), Stephen Curry (2010), Steve Francis (2000), Paul Pierce (1999), and Allen Iverson (1997).

Ball, Doncic, Francis, and Iverson all went on to win Rookie of the Year during that effort. But every single player on this list went on to earn multiple All-Star appearances during their time in the NBA.

If the season ended today, it’s more likely that either Cleveland’s Evan Mobley or Toronto’s Scottie Barnes would win RoY. However, advanced stats suggest that Wagner is deservedly someone who is in the running.

Wagner currently trails just Mobley on the impact metric RAPTOR Wins Above Replacement, via FiveThirtyEight. His “estimated wins” ranks in the 87th percentile among NBA players, per dunksandthrees.

So what has allowed Wagner to take such a massive step forward? Let’s take a look!

1. ROLE

(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

The main difference between his last season in the NCAA and this season for Wagner is that despite turning pro, he has a bigger role within Orlando’s NBA offense than he ever did playing for Michigan’s at the collegiate level.Following a gut instinct, I took a look at the 314 players in the NBA who logged at least 100 minutes both before Dec. 1 and also since Dec. 1. Then using tracking data from NBA.com provided by Second Spectrum, I examined how long each individual had the ball in their hands while on the floor during each of those two periods.

During the first 23 games of his professional career, Wagner averaged 2.70 seconds per touch. It ranked No. 13 among rookies (min: 100 minutes) during that stretch. But in games since then, he is averaging 3.98 seconds per touch, which ranks as the fourth-most among players drafted in 2021.

In fact, that increase (1.28 seconds) is the single biggest difference in seconds per touch — either positive or negative — among the 314 players who met the aforementioned criteria for playing time. If you watch the Magic, it’s fairly obvious that Wagner has the green light to initiate the offense whenever they have the ball.

It was never more clear than when Wagner scored 38 points when playing against the Milwaukee Bucks on Dec. 28:

Even in college, despite playing as a wing and forward, it was not uncommon for Wagner to have the ball in his hands. He finished 22.0 percent of his possessions as the ball handler in pick and roll sets during his sophomore campaign at Michigan, per Synergy. But as a rookie, he has increased that rate all the way up to 28.3 percent.

He has leveraged those pick and roll opportunities to an assist percentage that ranks in the 80th percentile among forwards, per Cleaning the Glass. His plus-playmaking ability speaks well to his staying power in the league.

2. SHOOTING

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

It’s fairly insane what Wagner has already achieved since turning pro given his modest pre-draft expectations. However, when you realize his skill set, it starts to make a lot more sense.

The fact that Wagner can run pick and roll and shoot well makes him a huge threat to opposing defenses. Defenders are at a significant disadvantage when they see 7-footers like Mo Bamba, Robin Lopez, or the 6-foot-10 Wendell Carter Jr. setting screens for Wagner, who is also 6-foot-10.

If the defense attacks Wagner, that gives some extra space for Orlando bigs to roll to the basket or for Carter to lift to the perimeter for a pick and pop:

But what are some of the areas where Wagner could still use some work before he is considered a primary option for a contending NBA team? Despite playing with the ball in his hands more often, it’s worth mentioning that he still isn’t someone who is creating his own basket on the perimeter very often.

According to Bart Torvik, 77.1 percent of his three-pointers were assisted during his pre-draft season. This year, via PBPStats, teammates have assisted 84.0 percent of his shots beyond the arc. He is shooting significantly better from the corner than he is above the break, for example.

But there are signs that indicate such development is perhaps on the way. Wagner attempted 31.6 percent of his jump shots off the dribble during his sophomore season at Michigan, per Synergy.

Now, when playing against NBA competition, that rate is currently 41.2 percent. So with more confidence to shoot off the bounce, the unassisted looks should come eventually.

3. ATTACKING

(Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, Wagner is also someone who thrives when cutting to the basket or driving to the hole after spotting up on the perimeter. His slashing ability is one of the most productive and efficient ways that he is able to score.

He is averaging 0.68 dunks per game, which is significantly more than his 0.39 dunks per game in 2020-21. Plus, as you can see below, he is already very good at creating space for himself with nifty moves towards the rim:

However, much like his jump shot, he does technically still rely on his teammates to set him up for these looks. As a sophomore at Michigan, per Bart Torvik, 41.3 percent of his shots at the rim were assisted. This season, via PBPStats, that rate has increased a bit and is now at 54.5 percent.

Once he is able to put the ball on the floor and drive to the rim to create his own basket without even needing the entry pass, he’ll become an even bigger threat to score the ball than he already is for the Magic.

But until then, his game looks incredibly natural and within the flow of the offense for Orlando. He has all the makings of a long-time pro in the NBA.

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