It didn’t take Michigan basketball coach Juwan Howard long to start building relationships after he was hired in May 2019.
Those relationships didn’t stop at the American border. The first-time head coach, who hasn’t shied away from recruiting blue-chip talent so far, began regularly conversing with German prospect Franz Wagner over FaceTime. At the time, Wagner had recently visited Ann Arbor in the wake of former coach John Beilein’s abrupt departure for the NBA — a bizarre official visit that came nearly two weeks before Howard agreed to a five-year deal to coach the Wolverines.
But Howard kept at it. And ultimately, just over two weeks after accepting the Michigan job, Howard scored his first recruiting win when Wagner chose to make the leap from German club Alba Berlin to Ann Arbor. Less than a month later, Howard found himself on a plane to Greece to return the visit favor.
In Volos, Greece, Howard saw Wagner play for the first time during Germany’s FIBA U18 European Championship slate. Fifteen months later, Wagner is now the centerpiece of Howard’s program across the Atlantic. Let’s take a closer look at what may be in store for him and his fellow forwards this season.
A fractured wrist caused Wagner to miss the Wolverines’ first four games last season, but by the time March rolled around, he was the team’s best offensive player. He averaged 16.6 points on 62 percent shooting over Michigan’s last five games, raising questions about whether he was ready to declare for the NBA Draft.
“Other than strength, I don’t know what isn’t a perfect basketball player about him,” associate head coach Phil Martelli said in February after Wagner scored a team-best 22 points against Purdue. “… If he was a kid that played in Michigan last year, he would’ve been a McDonald’s All-American.”
Wagner, who turned 19 at the end of August, boasts a long 6-foot-9 frame that allows him to be effective on both ends of the floor. With a year of experience now under his belt, it shouldn’t surprise anybody if he begins the season as the Wolverines’ go-to offensive option.
Wagner has also reportedly added 15 pounds of muscle since the end of last season, which should allow him to be more physical around the rim.
For the most part, Isaiah Livers’ own personal 2019-20 season dictated Michigan’s. The junior forward emerged as one of the Big Ten’s best 3-point shooters early in the season, leading the Wolverines to wins over No. 6 North Carolina and No. 8 Gonzaga at the Battle 4 Atlantis during Thanksgiving week.
But when Livers missed time due to a series of lower-body injuries, Michigan posted a sub-.500 conference record without him. He returned for an emphatic home win over Michigan State, but the Wolverines later limped to a 1-3 finish as Livers shot a combined 14-of-47 from the field. Overall, he averaged 12.9 points on 45 percent shooting, including a team-best 40-percent clip from behind the arc.
Livers’ decision to return for his senior season after testing the NBA Draft waters during the offseason drastically elevates Michigan’s 2020-21 ceiling. If Livers can improve another dimension of his game as a senior, such as rebounding or facilitating, it could open even more doors for the Wolverines’ offense.
On April 25, it appeared the recruitment of Wake Forest transfer Chaundee Brown was approaching its end when he released a final group of suitors that included Gonzaga, Illinois, LSU and Iowa State.
A phone call from Howard, however, caused Brown to re-evaluate his options. And less than a month later, the former top-40 recruit committed to Michigan and withdrew from the NBA Draft. Brown, who is still waiting on word regarding his immediate eligibility waiver, would be a welcomed addition to the roster either this year or next depending on his waiver verdict. He has one season of eligibility remaining after averaging 12.1 points and 6.5 rebounds on 46 percent shooting during his junior season at Wake Forest.
At 6-foot-5, 225 pounds, Brown’s stature could improve the Wolverines’ physicality immediately. He hasn’t shot above 35 percent from 3-point range over the course of an entire season yet, but he’s capable of stretching the floor when necessary and he shoots free throws well. Perhaps most importantly, Brown’s 74 career ACC starts add a valuable dimension of leadership.
Brown’s versatility, success and experience in arguably the nation’s top conference should smooth his transition into the Big Ten. If he’s ruled eligible for the coming season, expect to see him in the starting lineup alongside Wagner and Livers.
Perhaps the sleeper of Howard’s first recruiting class, Terrance Williams plays more like an undersized power forward than a big guard.
As the No. 92 recruit in the 247Sports composite, Williams’ athleticism won’t necessarily dazzle anybody. But around the rim, he’s as fundamentally sound as anybody else on Michigan’s roster. He finished his high school career as Gonzaga Prep’s second all-time leading scorer with more than 2,000 career points and took home the 2019-20 Gatorade District of Columbia Player of the Year award.
While there’s no clear path to playing time for Williams, he could very well have an opportunity to earn a spot in the rotation as a freshman. If he can provide reliable production around the rim as a finisher and rebounder at 6-foot-7, that could be enough to carve out a role, especially if the NCAA denies Brown’s waiver. For now, though, Williams projects as a multi-year contributor at minimum.