ORLANDO, Fla. — Everywhere Detroit Pistons budding superstar Cade Cunningham looked, he had to be seeing double. Maybe, just maybe, that’s why he missed his first 11 shots and suffered through one of the worst nights of his young career. The one-two punch of Orlando Magic rookies Jalen Suggs and Franz Wagner can have that effect on fellow rookies from time to time.
For one night at least, Suggs and Wagner — Orlando’s haul from the 2021 NBA Draft — proved that two rookies are better than, ummm, one — as in the No. 1 pick. More than the result from one game, the night showed what sort of potential the Magic might have working with two tough-minded rookies leading the way.
Rookie stars Cade Cunningham, Jalen Suggs, and Franz Wagner have lived up to the hype
When the Detroit Pistons visited the Orlando Magic this past Friday, it brought together two of the worst teams in the NBA. But it also allowed for a showdown of three of the best rookies from the 2021 NBA Draft class.
Cunningham, the No. 1 overall pick, has proven himself worthy of that lofty distinction with some stellar play following a slow start to his career. His 34-point, eight-rebound, eight-assist, four-block night last week against Denver put him in the rarified air of Michael Jordan.
Meanwhile, Orlando’s Franz Wagner has looked like the steal of the 2021 NBA Draft as the No. 8 pick throughout his rookie season. He came into Friday ranked second among all rookies in scoring (15.5 PPG) — second only to Cunningham’s 16.2 PPG, of course. As for Suggs, he has bounced back nicely from a slow start, and a fractured right thumb courtesy of a Joel Embiid whack and has been an impactful player on both ends of the floor. At the time of his return, Suggs predicted that his six weeks away while his thumb healed would be great for him, and he’s proved that with seven straight double-digit scoring performances and some hard-nosed defense.
Orlando Magic’s Jalen Suggs and Franz Wagner team up on star Cade Cunningham
Though it’s been painful and especially dour for the Orlando Magic to rebuild yet again, they can take comfort in that they got Jalen Suggs and Franz Wagner from the first round of the 2021 NBA Draft. Suggs came from their own pick, while the selection used on Wagner was a result of a draft pick they got from the Chicago Bulls in the Nikola Vucevic trade.
Even as a rookie, Franz Wagner has been one of the steadiest members of the Orlando Magic this season. Not only is he one of a handful of NBA players to play every game this season, but he’s also been a player the Magic could count on for offense. Two of the most telling aspects of his game are how completely under control he is and how he never tries to do more than he’s capable. That has allowed him to craft 12 20-point games and a rookie high of 38 on Dec. 28 against Milwaukee.
Wagner’s aggressiveness and craftiness in getting to the rim were on display last Friday as he pounded the Detroit Pistons for 13 first-quarter points and 24 in the game on 7-of-12 shooting. The versatility in his game allowed him to bury two 3-pointers, get to the rim for several point-blank looks and create contact for eight free-throw makes.
“Once he gets going, he’s hard to stop,” Suggs said of his teammate on Bally Sports Florida’s postgame show. “He’s a smart basketball player, and he knows how to get to his spots, knows when to attack and when to get off the ball.
While Wagner was scoring in various ways, Cunningham looked like a shadow of the player coming off a career night 34-point night. He missed his first 11 shots and even requested the ball from an official during a timeout so he could take — and make — a jumper from 2 feet.
A big part of the reason for Cunningham’s mighty struggles was the defensive grit and physicality of Suggs. The former football player wasn’t afraid to body up to Cunningham, and he used his strength advantage to guide the Detroit point guard in the direction he wanted him headed. The final result was Cunningham going just three of 17 from the floor and zero for five from 3-point range.
Suggs, the No. 5 pick from last summer’s NBA Draft, said he wanted the challenge of guarding the No. 1 overall pick.
“I talked to the coaching staff before the game, and I said, ‘This one is personal on the defensive end,’ ^” Suggs said afterward to Bally Sports Florida. “Every night, that’s the option that you can choose to do — play defense. I might not have been going on offense — I missed a couple of finishes, and I got sped up — but on the defensive end, I hung my hat on that and made sure I’d make an impact on that and let these guys (like Wagner) take care of the offense.”
The Jalen Suggs-Cade Cunningham matchup will be one to watch for several years to come
Cade Cunningham and Jalen Suggs have known each other for several years after repeatedly playing on the AAU circuit. Also, they were teammates on USA Basketball’s Under-19 squad, and their families are close.
However, that hasn’t stopped Suggs from attacking Cunningham when he battles against the fellow guard. Oddly, three of the worst games of Cunningham’s young career have come against Orlando — two of which featured the 6-foot-5 checking the 6-foot-6 Cunningham. Partly because of the defense of Suggs and somewhat because Cunningham has missed makable shots, the Detroit rookie’s numbers against Orlando are abysmal. In three games, he’s just seven of 39, and he’s missed all 15 of his 3-point shots against the Magic.
Suggs, too, has mostly struggled offensively against Detroit. But the defense he’s played on the player picked four spots ahead of him has been highly impactful.
“I talk about it every game — his intensity, his effort, I think it shows the most when he’s guarding the ball,” Wagner said of Suggs’ one-on-one defensive abilities. “Sometimes, he doesn’t come up with the steal, but it still impacts the offense of the other team. It sets the tone for our whole team.”
The Suggs/Cunningham matchup will play out for years to come, and it figures to be a dynamic one. Late Friday, Detroit head coach Dwane Casey noted that Orlando had specifically prepared to slow down his rookie point guard, and he fully expected Cunningham to use the game as a learning tool.
These are some dark days for the rebuilding Pistons and Magic, but nights like Friday night give them a peek at the future with their rookies leading the way. Wagner, Suggs, and Cunningham bring some much-needed intrigue to a matchup of two teams with the worst records.
Bragging rights will be on the line, and tensions undoubtedly will be ramped up when they play again on March 17 in Orlando. Certainly, Cunningham will be better prepared for the defense and Suggs and will want to prove himself. As for Orlando, it will be hoping that two rookies are once again better than No. 1 as the two squads look to build around their dynamic young pieces moving forward.
Senior NBA writer John Denton obtained all information for this story firsthand unless otherwise attributed.
All statistics are courtesy of ESPN.com.