For Franz Wagner, Saturday was a microcosm of a season at large.
Since making the leap from Europe, the highly-touted freshman wing has already been forced to overcome a fractured wrist and adjust to the college game, all while situating himself in a new country.
The injury kept him on the shelf for the first month of the Michigan men’s basketball team’s season, and even when he returned, the rust was apparent. He entered Saturday’s game against No. 10 Oregon shooting 35-percent from the field and 22-percent from beyond the arc.
In the fifth-ranked Wolverines’ 71-70 overtime loss against the Ducks, Wagner’s roller coaster of an afternoon started on a high note. He took Michigan’s first shot, canning a three to open the game’s scoring.
Wagner couldn’t build any momentum from there, though, despite ample opportunity. He caught the ball in the opposite corner two possessions later and drove baseline, only to turn down a pass to an open teammate in the near corner in favor of a reverse layup. Oregon forward CJ Walker happily sent it back.
His next three field goal attempts followed suit. Over the next nine minutes, Wagner’s two 3-pointers clanked off the back iron and his close-range try from the paint rimmed out.
With the Wolverines trailing, 22-9, Michigan coach Juwan Howard had seen enough. He subbed Wagner out with eight minutes left in the half, and that’s where he stayed until the break.
After one bucket in his first five tries, it looked like it’d be another cold shooting day for Wagner. Before Saturday, he’d shot below 50 percent from the field in five of his first six outings. Whether it was a product of adjusting to a new style of play, quality of opponent or potential lingering wrist pain, his shots seldom found bottom.
The Wolverines were forced to troubleshoot on the fly in the halftime locker room. With just 23 points on the board and only one player with multiple field goals, no solution emerged as an obvious candidate.
That didn’t stop sophomore forward Brandon Johns Jr. from seeking out Wagner to pass along a message that he’s personally grappled with before.
“I just told (Wagner) to be confident,” Johns said. “He’s just a great player. He’s so versatile, I just told him to use it. And, obviously, you can see through his game he was doing it. … He’s an energy-bringer, I love it.”
The two shared a moment. Nothing out of the ordinary. But against Oregon, it was exactly what Wagner needed.
In the second half, Wagner posted 13 points on a perfect 5-of-5 shooting — a far cry from his first-half struggles. His instantaneous turnaround from liability to focal point helped Michigan’s offense turn a 16-point deficit into a one-point lead down the stretch.
“My teammates picked me up at halftime,” Wagner said. “They told me to stay confident and be myself, and that really helped me I think be more aggressive and more confident taking the shots that I can make.”
Through it all, Wagner played within himself. Like his older brother, Moritz, who brought the Wolverines to the 2018 national title game, emotion and passion define his presence. He isn’t one to back down from the spotlight, and you’d be hard-pressed to find an instance when he doesn’t strut his confidence while jogging down the floor after sinking a shot.
On the back of such emotion, his second-half eruption carried over into overtime. He promptly drained a three from the corner after Michigan won the tip and converted on a driving layup only a minute later. Though it wasn’t enough, he scored five of the Wolverines’ seven points in the extra period.
Most apparent, however, was the emotion. And for Wagner, it boils down to exactly that.
“Everybody just has to stay confident throughout the game when stuff isn’t working,” Wagner said. “ … Teammates picking each other up then goes a long way for people staying confident and just making plays that they usually make.”
For now, whether Saturday’s halftime turnaround defines only one game or an entire season remains to be seen.