Through six games, the Michigan men’s basketball team has run its offense through freshman center Hunter Dickinson. But he can’t do it alone.
Dickinson, the Wolverines’ leading-scorer at 15.7 points per game, has repeatedly dominated competition, often looking downright overpowering on the block. The Wolverines are 6-0 in large part due to his efforts.
Yet, as Michigan runs through the gamut of the Big Ten, other players will have to complement Dickinson’s prowess for sustained success. It’s an effort that starts with sophomore forward Franz Wagner, who is shifting his approach with his offense scuffling.
“I think offensively, I wanna be more aggressive,” Wagner told reporters over Zoom on Wednesday. “That’s the main thing. That doesn’t mean I should take more shots, but that’s one thing I talked with the coaches about. I feel like I’m a bit better when I’m aggressive out there, and I’m looking to score, looking to make plays.”
Many anticipated Wagner, coming off a tantalizing final two months to his freshman season, to be Michigan’s premier offensive weapon. He would serve as the offense’s focal point, alongside senior forward Isaiah Livers.
So far, that hasn’t gone according to plan.
For Wagner, the first six games have been a story of fits and bursts. At times, he shows flashes of attacking the basket and flourishing on the open floor. In other stretches, he grows invisible. His actions look forced, not fluid.
Wagner’s usage rate stands at 17.5%, per sportsreference.com. That’s down from last year’s 19.6% and ahead of only graduate transfer guard Mike Smith and senior guard Eli Brooks, amongst rotation players. Wagner, too, is taking just 6.7 shots per game, fifth on the team and less than last year’s 9.3.
None of that is to say Wagner isn’t playing well. His defense remains a strong suit, with Michigan coach Juwan Howard noting that his defensive skills make him one of the top two-way players in college basketball. He’s still on the cusp of double-figure scoring, averaging 9.5 points per game.
Part of the statistical drop-off can be attributed to Michigan’s depth and part can be tied to the learning curve that accompanies a new role.
“Last year I got the ball in the perfect spot where I always wanted it,” Wagner said, noting the absence of last year’s floor general, Zavier Simpson. “All I really had to do was finish. I think this year’s gonna be a lot more creating my own shot a bit and creating more for others. That’s the one thing I gotta get used to on this level, and that’s part of getting better — you struggle at times and figure some things out.”
The 12-day layoff between games afforded Wagner time to do that. He spent last week in the gym and watching film, simulating game scenarios and pinpointing areas where he can attack, rather than sit back.
“I know how to make certain passes, but being in that moment and being comfortable with the ball, that’s at least for me the most important part,” Wagner said. “And then just drilling that in practices and workouts, kinda mimicking the opportunity that you’re gonna have in the game, the situation in transition, the pick and roll, stuff like that.”
Last year, Wagner struggled at times adjusting to situations thrust at him. It took him until January to hit his stride, having dealt with a broken wrist and match-ups with ranked opponents in the opening months.
This year, Howard believes that has changed.
“I tell him to be a player,” Howard said. “He’s a basketball player. So it’s never scripted, because in games, different situations, things happen. … That’s where the growth has happened. Being his second year, the game has slowed down on him. Last year, it was new: new system, new style of play, new league. This year he’s more experienced, he knows what to expect. He’s seen it before, it’s not his first rodeo.”
With a Christmas Day game against Nebraska on the horizon, Wagner will have his first chance to showcase his improvements.
“We’re gonna need Franz,” Livers said. “We’re all gonna need each other, but Franz is a big part of this run that we’re gonna make. Just having Franz locked in, having the confidence to go out there and play the way Franz plays basketball, I think the rest will take care of itself.
“He’s going to figure it out. Pretty sure this Nebraska game, everybody’s gonna see the Franz that everybody’s been looking for.”