After emerging as Michigan’s most reliable scorer down the stretch last season, the beginning of Franz Wagner’s sophomore season hasn’t delivered the offensive fireworks most expected.
Wagner hasn’t picked up where he left off after averaging a team-best 16.6 points on 62 percent shooting over the Wolverines’ final five games last season. He turned down NBA interest to return to Ann Arbor, but he’s yet to cement his role in Michigan’s 2020-21 offense.
The Wolverines overhauled their ball screen-dominant system to accommodate the graduation of Zavier Simpson during the offseason, forcing Wagner’s role to evolve. Wagner is no longer on the receiving end of Simpson’s drive-and-kick passes, and the arrival of 7-foot-1 freshman center Hunter Dickinson has clogged driving lanes he exploited last season.
The result? Just 9.5 points per game and only 40 shot attempts through six outings.
“It’s a different role now for me than last year, I think,” Wagner said during a Zoom call with reporters Wednesday. “Last year, I got the ball in the perfect spot where I always wanted it. All I really had to do was finish. I think this year’s going to be a lot more creating my own shot a bit and creating more for others. That’s one thing I’ve got to get used to on this level, and that’s part of getting better. You struggle at times and figure some things out.”
In the two games Wagner played more than 30 minutes, he took only five shots in each. While he’s shooting an efficient 50 percent from the field, his volume has fallen off noticeably despite ample opportunity with the ball in his hands.
Instead of creating opportunities for himself, Wagner has shown a willingness to get his teammates involved. He’s dished out multiple assists in each of the Wolverines’ first six games of the season — something he did just six times in 27 games as a freshman.
“Now, he’s utilized being in situations and making plays for himself and others, and that’s been more this year than it has been in the past of last year,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “… Franz, with how he’s grown as a player and other things that he’s added to his game, one of the things that he’s added is being a playmaker, at times he makes plays for himself and others. I just see a lot of growth this year.”
But for Wagner to reach his ceiling, he must find the ideal balance between hunting for his own shot and creating for others. That starts in his own head.
“Offensively, I want to 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.”
Wagner chalked that up to his mindset on offense. The Wolverines haven’t played a game since their Dec. 13 win over Penn State, leaving him with plenty of time to study film and work with coaches. While a 12-day hiatus might be detrimental to some players’ rhythm, it might’ve been exactly what Wagner needed.
Wagner’s individual performance could have a bigger impact on that of the entire team than anyone else on Michigan’s roster. As Michigan prepares to enter the thick of Big Ten play, it’s crucial for Wagner to find his offensive stride.
A Christmas Day game against conference doormat Nebraska offers the chance to do exactly that.
“Franz is a smart player. He’s going to figure it out,” senior forward Isaiah Livers said. “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 (of) Franz’s game, I can say.”