Franz Wagner and the Lost Art of the Left-Handed Lay-Up

Brody Wayne sets up along the left side of the court.  Not at first, of course.  Before that, we set up along the right side of the basket, attacking the rim as most right handers do, as most basketball teams practice. 

Right-handed layups are easy.  Dribble drive, leap with your left foot, release the ball with your right hand.  Considering most people, and accordingly most basketball players from amateur to professional, are right-handed, those lay-ups aren’t problematic, like writing your name, swinging a golf club, or throwing a football, all with your dominant hand.

Now, do so with your left hand.  It’s the same, yet oddly enough exactly the opposite, and considerably more difficult.  Anyone one of us (right-handers) can make countless, consecutive lay-ups with our right hand.  Release, off the back board and in.  Repeat.

But the left.

As soon as we hit the opposite side of the court, things became a little dicier for Brody Wayne.  I’m hard on him to get it right.  Just turned 15, still growing into his frame, his love for basketball rivals only his love for every other sport he participates in.  Still finding his groove, his desire to work on his game is admirable, despite his (and every other teenager’s, thanks to Steph Curry) desire to see if they can make a shot from behind the three-point line. 

How ironic is it that someone can hit a higher percentage shot from twenty-one feet away than they can from directly under the basket with their left hand?

Just like everyone else, Brody Wayne struggles to release the ball with his left.  Heck, so do I.  It’s not an easy shot.  And it may have cost the Orlando Magic a playoff series.

Tied at two games apiece, the Orlando Magic traveled to Cleveland to try to take the series lead.  Despite dropping the first two games, Orlando came back in impressive fashion, beating Cleveland in Game Three by 39 and in Game Four by 23.

The young Magic have been bad on the road this season, signatures of a young team, but in their last two games, they appeared to have figured something out against the Cavaliers.  Making matters worse for Cleveland, their starting center Jarrett Allen would miss Game Five with bruised ribs.  Allen had presented problems for Orlando.  Without him, the Magic would have an advantage on the interior.

In a game that went back and forth with both teams trading leads, the Magic held a late advantage.  This might be the night they turn the tide in Cleveland and head home with the opportunity to close out the series.

It didn’t happen.

Down by two with the opportunity to tie the game, with five seconds left, Franz Wagner had beaten his man, defender Evan Mobley, off the dribble.  Wagner had a clear path to the basket.  The only problem is that Wagner is right-handed.  That shouldn’t matter.  The whole point of driving the left side of the lane and releasing the ball with your left hand once you’ve beaten your defender is to shield him away from the ball.  Mobley was on his heels. 

Had Wagner released the ball with his left hand, Mobley would have had to come across Wagner’s body to block the shot and likely foul him. Instead, Wagner released the ball with his right hand, closer to Mobley’s attack angle.  Mobley blocked the ball without fouling and the game was all but over.

By no means did this play decide the game.  In a forty-eight-minute contest, with nearly 170 shots taken, some that went in and others that did not, any one of these could have altered the course of the game.  But it’s the ones at the end that we remember most.  Mobley made one hell of a block and Wagner facilitated it by using the wrong hand.

Mobley’s play was instinctive, as was Wagner’s right-handed lay-up.  But left-handed lay-ups for righties are like learning a foreign language.  One needs practice to be fluent and fluid.

Hypothetically speaking, Wagner’s left-handed lay-up might not have gone in.  Or he might have gotten fouled, stepped to the line, and missed one of those free throws, still leaving the Magic behind.

Or, he might have been fouled with the ball going in, giving the Magic the opportunity to take the lead with five seconds left.  We’ll never know.

What I do know is that Franz Wagner will remember that blocked lay-up for the rest of his life, the night he didn’t go strong enough to the rim to either dunk it or use his left hand to release the ball while shielding the defender with his body.

It’s something he’s done in a lay-up line all his life.  Ambidextrousness is a honed art in basketball.  The next time you watch the Denver Nuggets, watch Nikola Jokic work around the basket and more importantly, watch how effectively he releases the ball with both hands.   There’s a reason he’s currently the NBA’s best player.

Franz Wagner appears to be a determined young man.  I’m confident the next time you see him in the lay-up line before the game, he’ll be releasing the ball from the left side with his left hand.  Jamahl Mosley will see to it as I do with young Brody Wayne.

All is not lost.  The Magic can still win their next two games to advance.  But Game Five in Cleveland sure would have been nice to have.  Instead, it’s the one they left behind.

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