Michigan basketball needs more offense from Franz Wagner. Here's his plan

Orion Sang, Detroit Free Press
·5 min read

By all accounts, Franz Wagner is playing well.

Michigan basketball's sophomore forward is shooting 61% on 2s. He has made 88% of his free throws. He is averaging 2.8 assists, nearly three times as many as he did last season. According to KenPom.com, Wagner has a very good offensive rating of 119.4.

There are also other aspects of Wagner's game harder to quantify — like his defense, which received extensive praise from coach Juwan Howard on Wednesday afternoon.

“He's a two way player and that’s something that no one ever discussed or talked about,” Howard said. “The conversations before he arrived on campus was always about Franz can shoot the ball, he’s long, he’s athletic. Now Franz has grown into a guy that rebounds extremely well, he’s one of our leading rebounders, he defends sometimes 1 through 5 and he does a great job of doing that and he’s so smart.

“He knows the other team’s sets because he spent time studying it. He also watches film because we teach it and we drill it in practice. He does an excellent job of retaining information and also applying it. He’s having a great start because he’s one of the best two-way players in college basketball.”

Michigan guard Franz Wagner makes a layup against Toledo guard Spencer Littleson during the first half at Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020.
Michigan guard Franz Wagner makes a layup against Toledo guard Spencer Littleson during the first half at Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020.

When asked for a self-evaluation of his performance through Michigan's first six games, Wagner mentioned defense first.

“I think I played good defense,” Wagner said. “I think you can see that I’m stronger, I’m still a little bit quicker I think than last year. I feel comfortable out there on defense. There’s just little things, mental mistakes I can take care of. But I was pleased with the way that I played on that side of the ball.”

Overall, Wagner believes he played “pretty decent" through the opening stretch of the season, which included five nonconference games and the Big Ten opener.

But there's clearly a level he has yet to reach and acknowledged himself.

“I think offensively, I wanna be more aggressive,” Wagner said. “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. I guess that’s one of the things that I worked on now during this whole break.”

Michigan guard Franz Wagner dunks during warmups before the Toledo game at Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020.
Michigan guard Franz Wagner dunks during warmups before the Toledo game at Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020.

Given his pedigree and performance as a freshman, Wagner was an easy pick to have a breakout season for the Wolverines this winter — one that would elevate him into the same conversation as other Big Ten stars and, perhaps, set him up for early entrance into the upcoming NBA draft.

And while it's safe to say Wagner has played well, he hasn't quite reached the highs many anticipated. In 27 minutes per game, he is averaging 9.5 points, seven rebounds and 2.8 assists. Wagner has been one of Michigan's best rebounders, defenders and playmakers. But he has yet to emerge as a consistent scoring threat, scoring single digits in four of six games.

His current numbers stand in contrast to the final eight games of last season, when he averaged 15.8 points and seemed poised for a big sophomore campaign.

Right now, though, Wagner has a smaller offensive role than he did as a freshman. According to KenPom.com, he is using fewer possessions and is taking a smaller percentage of Michigan's shots. As a freshman, Wagner averaged 9.3 field goal attempts per game; this season, that number is 6.7.

Part of it, Wagner says, is “just me not playing the way that I can play.” He's in a different role now than he was in last season, when Zavier Simpson orchestrated most of the open looks Wagner and his teammates got.

“Last year I got the ball in the perfect spot where I always wanted it,” Wagner said. “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 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.”

By the time Michigan plays at Nebraska on Christmas Day, 12 days will have passed since the team's last game. Wagner has been focusing on his offensive game. He wants to be more aggressive, but not to the point where it's harming the team; according to forward Isaiah Livers, Wagner has worked on his decision-making at the point of attack in response to other teams successfully drawing charges on him.

“With this span of days where he can watch film, he can see where he can attack and not to attack,” Livers said. “Right now, he’s really working on when to shoot or go score a bucket or when to pass it up.”

It's clear offensively Wagner is still in the process of becoming the player everyone thought he would be. The Wolverines believe he'll get there soon.

“Franz is a smart player,” Livers said. “He’s going to figure it out. Pretty sure this Nebraska game, everybody’s gonna see the Franz that ‘everybody’s’ been looking for. He’s been playing well, but people are going to overlook it because his shot attempts are down. But I think this game is a little bit more Franz’s game, I can say.”

Contact Orion Sang at osang@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @orion_sang. Read more on the Michigan Wolverines and sign up for our Wolverines newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan basketball: Franz Wagner's plan to surge his offense