On Feb. 3rd, Franz Wagner came out for his media availability and settled near the back right corner of the Crisler Center media room. Michigan was coming off a win at Madison Square Garden. Wagner had just been named Big Ten Freshman of the Week.
You never know how those scrums will go; which ones will descend to meaningless platitudes and which ones will lend some insight into a person.
That day you could tell Wagner was just starting to figure it all out. How to play college basketball. How to be a college student. How to interact with the media. He opened up about some of the subtle differences between the Euro game and Big Ten basketball, how he’s evolved as a player and some of the challenges he’d faced.
“I think I’m starting — not starting,” Wagner said then, interrupting his sentence. “You can see I’m more comfortable as the season continues to go on.”
A year ago, Wagner was a 17-year-old playing professional basketball in a country over 4,000 miles away. Then, right before making a life-altering decision, the coach he’d communicated with for years picked up and left town. Within two months, the new coach secured his commitment anyway, undoubtedly with some help from big brother. Then, right before a freshman season that could’ve vaulted him to the NBA, Wagner, bearing a reputation as a deadeye shooter, broke his shooting wrist.
His return came against Iowa State in the Bahamas. Then came North Carolina. Then Gonzaga. Then at Louisville. Then two Big Ten games. Then Oregon. He shot just 41 percent from the field — for a team that, fairly or otherwise, needed him to be more than he was.
Since, Wagner has become an irreplaceable piece for this team, while the absent — though obvious — upside bubbles just below the surface. Michigan has played well, then not-so-well and now is rounding into form once again. All the while, the best version of this Michigan team — one with the talent to be the best in the conference — always required the best version of Wagner. His impending ascension always offered the Wolverines a level they could not otherwise unlock.
Well, we might be getting set to find out what that looks like.
Saturday against Purdue, Wagner scored a career-high 22 points in a 71-63 win over the Boilermakers. He’s shot 52 percent from the field and 39 percent from 3-point range on 10.5 field goal attempts per game over the last four games, averaging 13.8 points.
His length and defensive acuity have already proven irreplaceable for a team with scant wing depth. If his shooting is here to stay, we’re talking about one of the two most valuable guys on the team. A true two-way, all-Big Ten-level wing.
“Heard it earlier, for a freshman, he’s basically considered a five-star,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said after Saturday’s win over Purdue. “But he’s from Europe. From a guy who competes, played in big games, played professionally over in Europe. Not afraid of the moment, but also skilled.”
One of the adjustments Wagner said he needed to make in the transition from Germany to the Big Ten was mental. He’d come in often deferential to his teammates, used to the team-style European game. He took fewer than 10 shots in eight of his first 10 games. Slowly, he started to look for his; that process becoming less mental and more instinctual.
“Being aggressive doesn’t mean you take the next shot, but maybe looking to score, looking for your teammates on the next play, trying to do something with the ball,” he said. “That’s something that, in Europe, you play more with a team.”
In a week it will be March. In two weeks, Michigan’s regular season will be over. In three weeks, it will know its NCAA Tournament destination. Wagner is the biggest variable dictating two divergent paths for this team: one that plateaus and ultimately lacks the offensive potency to be a real contender or one that threatens for the conference tournament title, nabs a high seed and becomes a red-hot, trendy Final Four pick.
If the latter comes to fruition, Wagner will become a national name. The charismatic, energetic German freshman — who, it should be noted, will start appealing to NBA teams sooner than later. The first recruit who put faith in the Juwan Howard era. The stories practically write themselves. And, oh yeah, did you know he has a brother?
As the conversation then wound down, I asked Franz, given the fact Moe loved the pomp and circumstance of March more than anyone I’d covered, whether he had that trait, too.
“Obviously there’s something different to March Madness and college basketball in March,” he said. “… As the season starts to come to an end, that’s when most players have their fun.”
Marcovitch can be reached via email at email@example.com or on Twitter @Max_Marcovitch.