Franz Wagner hears you talking.
He hears all of it, from the lofty comparisons to the notions of a limitless potential.
“Obviously, I know the expectations,” Franz says, coming off a freshman season in which he averaged 11.6 points per game and was selected to the Big Ten All-Freshman Team.
Moe Wagner heard the talk in his day, too. The centerpiece for a Michigan team that finished as the runner-up in the 2018 NCAA Tournament, talk surrounded Moe. On the court, he seemed to revel in it, flaunting and trash-talking, soaking up the spotlight. Off it, he turned a deaf ear to pundits and critics.
So when Moe is asked about his younger brother’s ceiling, he scoffs.
“Honestly, I don’t really care,” Moe said. “And I don’t mean this in a weird way. I’ve come to the conclusion in recent years that basketball’s a lot more than trying to get somewhere in life. You should enjoy what you’re doing. I want him to understand that and do that, rather than chase something and create superficial narratives in the sense that he has to get somewhere.”
That somewhere would be the NBA. It’s a destination that Moe, a second-year pro with the Washington Wizards, has already reached and one in which Franz one day seeks to go.
Looking ahead is often the first instinct for college basketball players, consumed by the proximity of life-long pursuits. Franz, though, breaks this mold.
“None of that is gonna come true if you think about that right now,” Franz said. “If you’re worried about what’s going to happen in one year, two years, five years, whatever it is, then you’re not focused about the moment right now and that’s really what’s important.”
For Franz, the future can wait. He takes a pragmatic approach to life, a mindset most 19-year-olds lack.
Said Michigan coach Juwan Howard: “Franz, he’s locked in the moment.”
In the first months of his collegiate career, the moment seldom favored Franz.
He committed to Michigan last June, pledging his allegiance to a program still reeling from the departure of John Beilein and forging into the unknown. He broke his right (shooting) wrist two weeks before the start of the season. When he returned, he was greeted by a gauntlet — four games against ranked opponents and two Big Ten matchups. Basketball aside, the move from Germany to the United States necessitated a steep cultural adjustment for Franz.
Amid the adversity, he looked to Moe.
“I always have someone who’s four years older than me who kind of paved the way and showed me how to be successful in a basketball world,” Franz said. “Back home in Germany, I saw how he worked out, how he got better each day, how he made the jump to the pros and then to college. Even at Michigan, how he got better every year, just improving throughout his career.”
In conference play, Franz hit his stride. Tantalizing flashes became regular performances. As the calendar flipped to March, he seemed poised to excel on the national stage.
Then the world upended.
On March 12, minutes before the Wolverines’ scheduled tip-off against Rutgers in the Big Ten Tournament, the teams were ushered back into their locker rooms. There would be no game, nor would there be a remainder of the season. COVID-19 was imminent. Franz’s freshman year was over.
After spending a few days in Ann Arbor gathering his whereabouts, Franz flew to Washington, D.C. His parents, who had flown in from Germany to watch the postseason, had also detoured there. They would spend the lockdown together, hunkered down in Moe’s townhouse.
“That was really cool for everybody in the family to kind of get together during those weeks,” Franz said. “We hadn’t done that in a long time. It was good just spending time together and Moe did a good job of keeping everybody together.”
Rather than dwell in the fantasies of what could have been, the Wagners tackled the moment. In between online classes for Franz and Zoom meetings for Moe, the brothers watched Netflix and played video games. Meals became family occasions.
From a basketball standpoint, the shutdown afforded them an opportunity to train alongside one another. The Wizards shipped over a basketball hoop and Moe rented out the apartment beneath his for extra workout space. A few weeks in, they found a local high school gym where they could get shots up.
In April, Franz was able to peer into what the future may hold. He never really considered declaring for the NBA draft — speculation was “overblown,” he says — but was just trying to amass feedback on his current game. He submitted his name to the NBA Undergraduate Advisory Committee to learn how he could improve in the moment.
“For one, it motivated me to workout in the summer to try and improve my game,” Franz said. “But it also gave me a lot of confidence that I am where I want to be right now. I’m in a good spot and at least I’m on the radar. That’s really all I wanted in that moment.”
Moe went through the same process a few years back, having been everywhere Franz wants to go. He has, as Franz noted, paved the way. If it weren’t for Moe’s exploits at Michigan, odds are Franz would be playing professionally in Germany rather than collegiately in Ann Arbor.
“There’s a lot of people in younger players’ ears telling them what they think is the best way, from a lot of sides,” Franz said. “So just having him be through that before me helped me make my decision.”
It should be mentioned that, despite the inherent connection between them, Franz and Moe have experienced divergent trajectories in their Michigan careers. Moe averaged just 2.9 points per game as a freshman. It took him until the second half of his sophomore season to blossom into the dominant force fans grew to endear. He was a quintessential John Beilein project.
Franz, meanwhile, was college-ready from Day One.
“In terms of technicalities and nuances of the game, Franz is really far in his development,” Moe said. “He’s very poised and gifted in that regard.”
All of this puts Franz in a different position than Moe was when entering his sophomore year. There will be more weight on Franz’s shoulders, and there lies little leeway, if Michigan is to compete in a loaded Big Ten. Zavier Simpson is gone, meaning Franz will be asked to carry more of the play-making onus. He has a season of starting experience under his belt and following an offseason of roster turnover, he’s one of few steady faces.
“I told him to go by your gut,” Moe said of the advice he imparted on Franz entering year two. “I’ve never been a fan of when people tell you something, you’re supposed to do it and they make a decision just because people tell you. You should do what’s best for you.”
When he says this, he’s not being egotistical. It’s more so about being conscious of the divide between whose opinions don’t matter and whose do — chief among them, your own. In a sports landscape full of talking heads, it’s an important distinction to make.
With the season looming, the inevitable swirl of prattle is picking up again. Howard got the ball rolling this past Wednesday, telling reporters “we expect big things from (Franz).” More of the same is bound to follow.
Regardless of the talk, Franz’s approach remains the same.
“Trying to focus on what’s important and what I can control, that’s my mindset,” Franz said. “Whatever happens in two, three, four years, I can’t really impact that right now.”