Months ago, during Michigan’s media day, associate head coach Phil Martelli raved about freshman forward Franz Wagner.
“He’s just different,” Martelli said on Oct. 17. “I suggest, if you’re on the fence or there are tickets available, get your tickets. You’re gonna want to see this kid play.”
Fans soon learned they’d have to wait when Wagner fractured his wrist in practice just three days later. He missed the first four games of the season, which the Wolverines won, before making his much-anticipated college debut in the first game of the Battle 4 Atlantis against Iowa State. He scored six points in 23 minutes against the Cyclones.
Like any freshman, Wagner was inconsistent in the games that followed. He had to adjust to the pace and physicality of college basketball and acquaint himself with a new team and coaching staff.
Wagner backed up Martelli’s praise in games against Iowa and Oregon, scoring 18 and 21 points, respectively. Bracketing his performance against the Hawkeyes, though, he scored a combined nine points on 4-for-14 shooting in losses to Louisville and Illinois.
Wagner’s season so far can largely be characterized as up and down, boom or bust, occasionally thriving and occasionally struggling — all to be expected from a freshman.
And yet, his confidence and Michigan coach Juwan Howard’s confidence in him has steadily increased over time. Lately, Wagner’s shot attempts and minutes have climbed considerably. The former might be a direct result of the latter, but both come at a time when the Wolverines are trying to fill the void left by injured starter Isaiah Livers.
In the last three games, Wagner has scored double-digit points and played 111 of 130 minutes. More notably, in the past two contests against Purdue and Minnesota, Wagner put up a combined 29 shot attempts. While he hit just six in each and Michigan split the two games, Wagner’s willingness to shoot is a welcome sight.
“I give it to Franz pretty much everyday at practice,” senior point guard Zavier Simpson said after last Thursday’s win over the Boilermakers. “I tell him to stop passing up shots, knock em down. I don’t pass it to him just because he’s open. I pass it to him because he’s open and I believe he can make the shot.
“I told him to shoot the ball … I think it was early in the second half. We were being too unselfish. Trust yourself to make a play.”
With Livers out indefinitely, the Wolverines have needed Wagner’s scoring from the wing. Even when Livers returns — rumblings are that could be this Friday against Iowa — they’ll still need it.
Michigan’s depth has recently come into question. After a hot start to the season, junior guard Eli Brooks’ production has tailed off. In the last four games against major conference opponents — Oregon, Michigan State, Purdue and Minnesota — Brooks has shot 27.5 percent from the field and averaged just 4.3 points per game.
Brooks isn’t the only one who’s struggled. On any given night, senior center Jon Teske, the team’s leading scorer, could find himself relegated to the bench because of foul trouble. While sophomore guard David DeJulius and sophomore forward Brandon Johns Jr. have provided a spark defensively, their scoring production has been inconsistent all year.
As the Wolverines continue through Big Ten play, with or without Livers, Wagner is going to have to be a threat offensively. There’s only one way to do that though: shoot when given the opportunity.
“Yeah, I’m feeling good when I shoot it,” Wagner said following his 17-point outing against the Golden Gophers. “I’m gonna stay aggressive.”
His shooting percentage isn’t necessarily stellar, but given his skill set, those shots should eventually fall.
As Martelli, who’s been coaching for over 40 years, added on media day: “He’s a guy that you come to practice everyday and then you leave scratching your head. To be that age, to be that cerebral and to be that pure — not to put too much pressure on him but he’s a rain man. He’s a savant.”