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The Orlando Magic found 2 franchise cornerstones at once in Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner

The Magic are playing good ball behind the unique talents of Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner.

Philadelphia 76ers v Orlando Magic Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

Franz Wagner is absolutely fearless. The 21-year-old German wing kept coming at MVP candidate and former Defensive Player of the Year finalist Joel Embiid at the rim. Embiid won the battle almost every time, but that never deterred Wagner.

And Embiid came away impressed. The pair had a friendly exchange after Embiid got another stop with time expiring as the Sixers were able to salvage a split with the plucky Magic.

“From the first quarter,” Embiid said postgame last Wednesday, “I kept telling him, ‘Stop doing that,’ because he kept trying to attack me. I don’t think he got a bucket. And then we were just having a conversation on that last one. A really good young player.”

A couple nights earlier, it was Orlando’s standout rookie, Paolo Banchero, that took it to Philly. The Rookie of the Year favorite scored 19 of his 29 points in the second half, leading the Magic back from a deficit as large as 21 to beat the Sixers.

Veteran forward P.J. Tucker has had success against Banchero this season, but not in the second half of that one. The Sixers simply had no answers for the Duke product.

“Him. Give him credit,” Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said when asked how Banchero got going. “He’s a good player. He made some adjustments on his own. We didn’t change anything defensively.”

But the Sixers are not the first team to underestimate this young and hungry Orlando squad. The Magic have already tied their win total of 22 from last season. Their two young unicorns have led the way and are separating themselves as franchise cornerstones.

Both Wagner and Banchero stand at 6-foot-10, yet possess freakish versatility — and that’s saying a lot considering the players Orlando has rostered over the years.

The Magic have seemingly been attempting to build a team that can block out the sun. They’ve drafted the likes of Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba, and have undertaken the development of players like Wendell Carter, Jr. and Bol Bol.

But none of the players Orlando acquired are as uniquely gifted as Wagner, selected eighth overall in 2021, and Banchero, the first overall pick in 2022.

Both guys can score. Only four other players 21 or younger are averaging over 19 points a game, per Stathead. Banchero is fourth among that group (20.3) and Wagner is sixth (19.5).

Of those six players, Wagner has the most win shares (3.6) and the best true shooting percentage (59). The efficiency jump is impressive for Wagner. What makes it more notable is that he’s taken more shots and his usage rate jumped from 21.2 to 24.2. His points per shot attempt is in the 74th percentile among wings, per Cleaning the Glass. That’s after being in the 52nd percentile as a rookie. All this to say: Wagner is making a hell of a jump in year two.

Efficiency will come for Banchero, but he’s carrying a big load for a rookie surrounded by so many other young players. Of the rookies that qualify, Banchero’s 27.9 usage rate is by far the highest. The next closest first-year player is Bennedict Mathurin of the Pacers (25.6).

And with that much time on ball, Banchero isn’t just scoring. His general playmaking skills at his size are a big part of what makes him so special. His 17.1 assist percentage puts him in the 84th percentile among all forwards, per Cleaning the Glass.

Wagner’s playmaking chops are also making the Magic’s offense much more dangerous. He’s in the 80th percentile in assist percentage for wings.

All of that on its own would be great, but there’s an element to both players that’s impossible to quantify but easy to see. They’re two of the hungriest and feistiest young players you’ll find in the NBA.

“Their last two draft picks, Wagner and Banchero, they added some [toughness],” Rivers said pregame Wednesday. “They are tough guys. They’re competitive. And to me, to win, especially when you’re young, young players have to be competitors, tough. And they have that. So, they’re a dangerous team every time they play now because they do pose problems with their size.”

It’s a culture second-year coach Jamahl Mosley has cultivated — and his two budding stars fit right in.

“I really think it’s a belief system,” Mosley said pregame last Wednesday, “and having them know that any given night, anything can happen. If you play hard, you give it yourself a chance. And obviously, going down and knowing the game plan as you’re walking into the game, that’s a huge factor in it. But our guys knowing that, if we play hard, we give ourselves a chance.”

The Magic haven’t been simply competitive or racking up moral victories. They’ve been straight winning lately. Since Dec. 7, they’re 17-12 — that’s a 48-win pace. That would easily put them in the playoff picture in the East. As it stands, even after a 5-20 start, Orlando is still just 2.5 games back of a play-in spot.

They’d have to jump a couple veteran teams to get there, but those veteran team shouldn’t take them lightly. Just ask the Sixers ... or the Celtics ... or the Clippers.

The Magic will catch you sleeping.

“Obviously you can tell [Wagner’s] competitive,” Embiid said, “because he kept attacking even though he was not getting the better of me. But I like him. Great talent. And as a team, they’re a pretty good team.”

And their young unicorns are just getting started.