Why Franz Wagner is catching fire at the perfect time for Michigan basketball

Three years ago, Moritz Wagner led Michigan basketball to an appearance in the national championship game. Months later, he was taken in the first round of the NBA draft.

His younger brother could be in position to follow a similar path.

Franz Wagner is playing the best basketball of his career right now — and the Wolverines are enjoying the benefits.

U-M’s sophomore wing scored a game-high 21 points in Saturday’s 73-57 win over Indiana, generally looking like the best player on the floor.

It was the type of efficient performance that has become customary for Wagner over the past few two weeks: He has scored at least 20 points in three of his past four games. And as Michigan (18-1 overall, 13-1 Big Ten) surges toward the postseason, Wagner is showing he has what it takes to handle the spotlight in March.

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Michigan Wolverines guard Franz Wagner celebrates a made 3-point basket in the first half against the Indiana Hoosiers on Feb. 27, 2021 in Bloomington, Ind.Michigan Wolverines guard Franz Wagner celebrates a made 3-point basket in the first half against the Indiana Hoosiers on Feb. 27, 2021 in Bloomington, Ind.

Michigan Wolverines guard Franz Wagner celebrates a made 3-point basket in the first half against the Indiana Hoosiers on Feb. 27, 2021 in Bloomington, Ind.

“Man, Franz is playing extremely well,” coach Juwan Howard said Saturday. “He’s locked in. But it’s no surprise, he was that way before the break.”

Against the Hoosiers, Wagner showed why he is considered a high-level prospect. He carried Michigan’s offense in the first half by scoring 14 points, attacking and drawing fouls, making all seven of his free throws and playing his usual tight defense. After halftime, Wagner chipped in a few more highlight plays: A block on a dunk attempt from Indiana’s Race Thompson; a nifty layup off a Eurostep on the fast break; and an and-1 that quelled a brief 5-0 run from the Hoosiers.

It was simply a continuation of Wagner’s strong play from Michigan’s win over Iowa on Thursday night. In that contest, Wagner was an dominant scorer and facilitator; he tallied 21 points (on 9-for-12 shooting) and four assists.

According to KenPom.com, Wagner is shooting 63% on 2s, 37.1% on 3s and 84.2% at the line. He is averaging 6.4 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.3 steals — including three at Indiana — and a block per game. Even more remarkable: Wagner has upped his game in Big Ten play, shooting 38.5% on 3s during conference play — 17th-best among Big Ten players — and 63.9% on 2s — third-best.

That latter mark is a testament to Wagner’s uniqueness. He is listed at 6-foot-9 (although assistant coach Phil Martelli has said he is taller) but often plays like a different-sized player. He makes 2s and blocks shots at the rate of a big man, and he uses ball screens and shoots the 3 like a guard. He can defend multiple positions and has a knack for creating turnovers that lead to run-outs and transition layups.

Wagner’s individual skills, combined with his frame, make him a safe first-round pick proejection by both ESPN and The Athletic. He is also just 19 years old as a sophomore, adding to his NBA appeal.

Of course, there were flashes of this same player last season. Wagner ended the regular season on a tear, averaging 15.8 points over the final eight games before the pandemic halted college basketball. Many of those baskets looked like the ones Wagner has scored recently: Smooth, swooping attacks to the rim in which Wagner’s size and driving ability are too difficult to counter.

But Wagner is bigger, stronger and faster now, making him a better scorer.

VIDEO: Inside Franz Wagner’s improving defense

“I think it’s harder for people to push me around when I’m driving to the basket,” Wagner said Thursday. “I get to my angles easier that I want to take to the basket. It definitely helps a lot having a couple more pounds and being a little taller, but it’s also something you gotta learn how to use, I think. The first couple games of the season see me struggle with people taking charges and things like that. I’ve done a good job of being controlled but still being in attack mode.”

Wagner has rounded out the rest of his game beyond his physical growth.

He is fouling at three-quarters the rate he did as a freshman while drawing fouls 21% more often. His turnovers are down. And, perhaps most importantly, his assist rate has tripled, as Wagner has become more of a playmaker (especially out of ball screens).

“He’s worked on it last year, first half of the season he struggled,” Howard said Thursday night. “And then we had a strong meeting, I’m speaking of the coaches, that’s who we are, we had a really good meeting. The coaches will tell you, strong emphasis of mine was we got to get Franz better in ball-screen actions. Franz has always been the type of guy who loves getting in the gym and working on his game. Never made excuses for himself. He’s accepted it, he’s got better and better with it. I’m not surprised. Someone who works on it, good things happen.”

Michigan Wolverines guard Franz Wagner shoots against the Indiana Hoosiers in the second half Feb. 27, 2021 in Bloomington, Ind.Michigan Wolverines guard Franz Wagner shoots against the Indiana Hoosiers in the second half Feb. 27, 2021 in Bloomington, Ind.

Michigan Wolverines guard Franz Wagner shoots against the Indiana Hoosiers in the second half Feb. 27, 2021 in Bloomington, Ind.

Wagner answered affirmatively when asked Saturday if he felt he was playing his best offense of the season.

And if that continues, everyone in Ann Arbor knows what March could have in store for both Wagner and his team.

“Franz, when he’s aggressive and he’s locked in,” said Isaiah Livers on Thursday, “we definitely are the best team in the country.”

Contact Orion Sang at osang@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @orion_sang. Read more on the Michigan Wolverines and sign up for our Wolverines newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan basketball’s Franz Wagner looks like another first-rounder

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