When the question was first posed to Franz Wagner, he flashed a familiar boyish grin — the constant reminder that Michigan’s starting swingman is still just 18 years old.
Have you asked your brother for advice about playing in March? If so, what has he said?
“No, not really,” Wagner said. “He just told me to enjoy it cause you’re always going to miss these times after college once you’re out.”
Ahead of Franz’s first collegiate postseason, Moe Wagner — who’s currently averaging 9.5 points and 5.2 rebounds off the bench in his second year in the NBA — hasn’t given his brother any long-winded instructions or detailed basketball philosophies. Instead, it’s much simpler.
“I’m excited for him to get the opportunity,” Moe said. “I would love to play in the NCAA Tournament again, so all I can say is to enjoy it because it’s gone in no time.
“Sometimes I don’t even give him advice. We talk about the games obviously, but there’s nothing I can tell him that he already doesn’t know. I always just tell him to enjoy it and follow his gut.”
So maybe the better question is, how does a second-year NBA player conclude that a college freshman doesn’t need any advice at all?
According to his brother and others, it’s his maturity and experience. While most of the former is derived from his innate disposition, the latter results from his unique basketball background.
Not only does Wagner have extensive experience playing internationally for the German National Team at the Under-16 and U-18 levels — most notably averaging 13 points and 4.8 rebounds in the 2019 FIBA U-18 European Championship in Greece — he also has a season of professional basketball under his belt.
While most 17-year-olds would be preparing for the SAT or embarking on college visits, Wagner was playing for German side Alba Berlin in the Basketball Bundesliga (BBL) and earned the league’s 2019 Best Young Player Award.
Alongside former college standouts Peyton Siva and Derrick Walton Jr. — a teammate of Moe’s at Michigan — and without the burden of going to school, Wagner focused solely on honing his game before joining the Wolverines.
“I think him playing with Alba has helped his confidence out,” Siva said. “Him knowing that he has played against pros taught him that he is more than capable of playing with guys in college.”
After coming over from Germany as a four-star recruit according to 247Sports and Rivals, Wagner impressed his new coaching staff immediately.
Back on Oct. 17, associate head coach Phil Martelli stated Wagner was “just different,” and insisted that if he had played high school basketball in the States, he’d have been a McDonald’s All-American. Since then, all Wagner has done is average 11.6 points, 5.6 rebounds and shoot 45.2-percent from the field en route to a Big Ten All-Freshman team selection.
“Franz is a competitor,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said Tuesday. “I told you guys that when I first arrived. He’s a guy who is highly skilled and has played at a high level. He’s not afraid of the big moments and has experience playing over in Europe. Yes, this is totally different at the college level, but as the season has gone on, he’s improved with his practice habits and is always in the gym looking for ways to improve.”
And yet, above all else, Wagner’s maturity is what resonates with those who know him best.
“His maturity surprised me the most,” Siva said. “How he handles himself and comes everyday to work. His work ethic is what’s going to set him apart.”
Added Moe: “Honestly, Franz is just a very smart kid. He impresses me and that’s like a very weird moment for every brother. All of a sudden the younger brother who used to shit his pants now all of a sudden knows stuff better than you. And in your head you have to admit that he does. That moment happened very early in my life, so I’m used to it now. But, he’s very reflective and has a very good perception of the things around him and can use it to his advantage.”
According to Moe, who says the comparisons can get tiresome, it’s in this respect that the two differ the most and has allowed Franz to be so successful, so quickly.
“People compare us naturally because we’re brothers,” he said. “But one thing that sticks out to me is that I talk a lot and sometimes I don’t think before I talk. Franz most of the time always thinks before he speaks.
“What made me pretty good was that craziness … that I was very enthusiastic about it. That’s not what makes him good. What makes him good is that he plays in a very experienced manner and is very calculated. There are different characteristics that make us good in a different type of way.”
And yet, Franz’s lack of “craziness” shouldn’t be mistaken for a lack of fire or emotion. In big games throughout this season, the younger Wagner has flexed on his opponents, chest-bumped his teammates and shouted towards the crowd, inciting his team in the process.
The environments of college basketball lend themselves to such displays, and that realization is something Wagner has come to fully embrace.
“I think it’s just fun,” Moe said. “It’s just a different feeling when you come from Europe. In college all of a sudden, everybody cares so much. Everybody goes crazy in the student section. When you play professionally, you don’t always get that feeling all the time. I think that’s something he’s experiencing and experiencing with a lot of joy too… that he can be this emotional and it’s acceptable and people like it that way.”
After overcoming a fractured wrist that held him out the first three weeks of the season and a few shooting inconsistencies that followed, Wagner has found his groove recently, scoring double-digits in the previous seven games.
As a team, meanwhile, the Wolverines find themselves limping into postseason play after a 14-point loss to Ohio State on March 1 and a 13-point loss to Maryland last Sunday. While Wagner isn’t the facilitator senior guard Zavier Simpson is, and hasn’t quite shown the consistent sharpshooting ability of junior guard Eli Brooks, he’s a key cog in the wheel on both ends of the court — and his influence is only growing.
This was especially evident against the Terrapins when early foul trouble for Wagner hampered the Wolverines’ success offensively and allowed Maryland the window it needed to pull away and never look back.
And yet, despite Michigan’s uneven regular season and some personal setbacks for Wagner in his first season in college, confidence is borne from experience and perspective. This team, and Wagner specifically, possess those attributes in droves.
“His confidence and his heart — he plays with a lot of heart and a lot of grit,” Simpson said. “We don’t see him as a freshman, we see him as a guy who’s pretty advanced and is able to help us in many ways.”
When the Wolverines step out onto the floor of Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Thursday to play Rutgers in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament, Michigan’s veterans won’t be fazed by the big stage — and the even bigger one set to succeed it — but neither will 18-year old Wagner.
“I’m not concerned about him playing well at all,” Moe said. “That’s just who he is. And if he doesn’t, he doesn’t. There’s no rush there. He’s someone who’s so young and I know he’s going to take care of the basketball thing.
“I’m proud of the way he handles all that stuff because that’s nothing to take for granted for a young kid. I feel like he’s very mature at the level and blends out the irrelevant noise and listens to the people he needs to.”
So don’t let that youthful grin fool you. Franz Wagner is ready for March and everything that comes with it.
“It’s do or die now,” Franz said. “It’s money time. Everybody’s watching. We’re trying to win a championship. That’s what excites me.”