On Dec. 23, Michigan coach Juwan Howard offered a glowing assessment of Franz Wagner’s season to date.
“Oh, it’s been great,” Howard said of the sophomore wing. “He’s having a great start because he’s one of the best two-way players in college basketball.”
At the time, you’d be forgiven for doing a double-take after reading that quote. Wagner, middling with 9.5 points per game through six contests, had failed to live up to the hype generated by a tantalizing freshman season. On the court, nothing seemed to come within the flow of the game; he would disappear for large swaths of time, jetting around on offense as if nothing but a silhouette.
Six weeks later, Howard’s take has been vindicated.
On Jan. 26, Wagner was named among 10 semifinalists for the Jerry West Award, given to the nation’s best shooting guard. On Jan. 28, he was announced as one of 15 finalists for the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year.
Wagner’s success is rooted in the efforts he made over quarantine. Shortly after COVID-19 derailed his freshman season in March, Wagner set up shop in Washington, D.C., to ride out the shutdown with his older brother, Moe, an NBA forward for the Washington Wizards. The pair found a local high school gym to use for workouts. Back at Moe’s townhouse, Moe rented out the apartment below them, which they transformed into a makeshift weight room.
Through those months, Wagner honed in on specific aspects of his game. His first goal was to get stronger.
“I felt like during the year, I had a lot of moments where if I was a little stronger, defensively and offensively, I would have been able to have a lot more advantages during the game,” Wagner told The Daily in October. “Obviously, the Big Ten is very physical, so you need that.”
Wagner padded 15 pounds — the majority of it muscle — to his once-wiry frame. Currently, he plays at 220 pounds, up from last year’s 205.
The impact is abundantly clear.
On the glass, Wagner now has the requisite strength to contend with the conference’s behemoths, averaging 7.1 rebounds per game, the second-highest total on the team. On offense, takes to the basket are more often rewarded, with his wider frame enabling him to finish through contact against stronger opponents.
“That dude, I didn’t see him all through quarantine,” senior forward Isaiah Livers recalled on Jan. 12. “He left, what, 6-foot-8, 6-foot-9. He came back, I’m like this dude is 6-foot-10.5, put on some muscle, gained some weight. Looks a little bit more cut.”
Wagner did, in fact, add height as well as muscle, benefitting from a growth spurt at age 19. Often matched up against shorter players on the perimeter, Wagner uses his length to fluster and flummox the opposition, altering shots and jumping the passing lane. That much is evident in his team-high 20 steals.
“It’s really just reading the game, reading players’ tendencies when you go through the scouting report,” Wagner said on Jan. 12. “Reading their strengths, their weaknesses and just reading what you can exploit, and what you gotta take away. And, flying around with long arms, that helps a lot.”
While his defense may garner more attention, Wagner’s offense has progressed too. His numbers may not always jump off the page, but they don’t have to — Michigan has enough weapons to get by without Wagner dominating. But he has positioned himself to contribute regularly, regardless of his scoring output.
Which brings us to his second goal from quarantine: improve his playmaking.
“My ball handling, now with (Zavier Simpson) gone, I think there’s gonna be a lot more room for people to operate with the ball and make the decisions with the ball,” Wagner told The Daily in October. “I just want to be ready for that if Coach wants that from me.”
As a freshman, Wagner’s role in the offense was largely one-dimensional. Like the rest of his teammates, he leaned heavily on the ball-dominant Simpson to create scoring opportunities for him.
This year, Wagner has excelled in a role more playmaking-oriented. He bobs up and down the court, not hesitant to initiate the offense following a rebound. His assist rate is up as well, from one to 3.7 per game.
“That’s not an easy thing to do at 6-10,” Livers said on Jan. 12. “Steal the ball, bring the ball up the court, make passes, dribble up. These little guards are jumping up to him, but he worked on his ball-handling.”
There’s still one offseason aspiration for Wagner that remains unfulfilled — improving his 3-point shooting. That, those within the program believe, will come with time.
For now, Wagner and the Wolverines are getting by just fine.
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