Franz Wagner wanted the ball, but he didn’t want to shoot.
Passing up an open 3-pointer, the sophomore forward stutter-stepped his way to the elbow, snaked past a second defender and shoveled off a feed for freshman center Hunter Dickinson. Dickinson finished with a thunderous slam, stretching Michigan’s lead to 17 halfway through the second half.
That’s not a play that Wagner could make earlier in the season, let alone last year. Yet, in Michigan’s 71-64 victory over Rutgers, he collapsed the defense and fed Dickinson on loop.
Wagner’s performance of 20 points, seven rebounds and three assists is indicative of his transformation from complementary piece to playmaker. No longer is Wagner entirely reliant on teammates to set him up; he excels not only creating for himself, but for others.
“I worked on it a lot in the summer,” Wagner said of his newfound playmaking abilities. “I think ball-handling is a big part of it. I think I can read the ball-screen stuff pretty well, but I think it’s just getting more reps throughout the season and in the summer stuff. I still gotta work on a lot more, but I feel pretty comfortable.”
The Wagner-Dickinson pick-and-roll duo decimated the Scarlet Knights. As Wagner curled down the alley, a pair of defenders swarmed in an attempt to trap him in a corner. On queue, though, he used all of his 6-foot-10 frame to fit a wraparound feed to a wide open Dickinson for an easy basket — the likes of which were all the more important in a physical game where points were hard to come by.
As a freshman, Wagner recorded just 27 assists in 27 games, his role in the offense largely one dimensional. Through 16 games this season, he already has 47.
“At the beginning of the year, he wouldn’t have made those plays,” graduate guard Mike Smith said. “He’s getting more comfortable. When you get more comfortable, you get confident. When you get confident, you play your game and you have fun. You can see him out there having fun.”
Perhaps the most notable difference between the early season iteration of Wagner and the current version is his ability to contribute within the flow of the game. Throughout nonconference play, Wagner would often grow invisible on the floor, lost amid Michigan’s plethora of offensive weapons. When he did have the ball in his hand, his actions looked forced, as if he was attempting to make up for a lack of touches.
Now, Wagner’s possessions resemble Michigan’s offense. Everything is in rhythm. Tonight, he required just nine shots to amass 20 points.
“I just try to take what the defense gives me every game,” Wagner said. “I’m gonna stay aggressive, I’ve been playing aggressive I think these last couple games. I think it’s very important.”
As Wagner’s game has flourished through Big Ten competition, his perimeter shooting has lagged behind. Against Rutgers, though, Wagner flashed glimpses of turning the corner. Looking confident in his stroke, he shot 3-of-4 from beyond the arc, including a dagger that pushed the lead to 11 with just over a minute to play.
“That felt really good,” Wagner said. “I’ve been working hard on that.”
Michigan coach Juwan Howard attributed Wagner’s performance to his persistent mentality.
“Sometimes I’m gonna jump him when he’s not doing his job, and he takes it,” Howard said. “He’s also not gonna be one of those guys that pouts. He wants to get better. He wants to grow. It’s beautiful to have guys like that in your locker room that (are) all about, ‘How can I improve?’ and that’s that growth mindset that I’ve been talking about.”
As Michigan’s offense limped to a finish, going nearly seven minutes without a field goal in the second half, Wagner’s performance was just enough to push the Wolverines over the top. With games against Iowa, Illinois and Ohio State — all ranked among the top-10 offenses in the nation, per KenPom — looming, Wagner’s playmaking efforts will become all the more pivotal.
If Thursday’s outing is any indication, Wagner is up for the challenge.
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