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In another dominant performance, Franz Wagner shows how far he’s come

Wagner scored 21 points for the second time in three days on Saturday.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Indiana Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

A year ago, Franz Wagner was heating up.

Then a freshman, Wagner emerged as perhaps Michigan’s most reliable offensive player down the stretch. He averaged a team-high 16.6 points on 62 percent shooting over the Wolverines’ last five games, raising the question of whether he may be NBA-ready.

Ultimately, he decided to return to Ann Arbor for his sophomore year. And now, with March approaching, he’s taking his game to the next level once again. In No. 3 Michigan’s 73-57 win over Indiana on Saturday, Wagner tied his season-high with 21 points for the second time in three days and added six rebounds and three steals.

In the five games since Michigan’s 23-day COVID-related pause, Wagner is averaging 17 points on 64 percent shooting, including a 50-percent clip from beyond the arc. The game has slowed down for him, and he’s dominating at both ends of the floor in a way few players in the nation can replicate.

But this time around, Wagner is more than a spot-up shooter waiting for Zavier Simpson’s kickout passes. He spent the offseason focused on his ball-handling, which has allowed him to become a high-caliber playmaker. That, coupled with his added aggressiveness, has made him one of the Big Ten’s best two-way wings. It doesn’t hurt that he grew another inch, either.

“Man, Franz is playing extremely well,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said Saturday. “He’s locked in.”

Yet, the Franz Wagner that has dominated Michigan’s last five games is a far cry from the Franz Wagner that struggled out of the gate earlier this season. After failing to reach double-figure scoring totals in four of the Wolverines’ first six games, Howard’s glowing review is a testament to how far Wagner has come this season, especially since the team’s COVID-19 pause.

Wagner’s play of late hasn’t gone unnoticed by those around him. According to senior forward Isaiah Livers, there was a point in the second half of Saturday’s game when Howard asked for his players’ input regarding which offensive set the Wolverines should run. To Livers, the answer was obvious.

“Let’s get Franz downhill, they’re obviously not stopping him,” Livers recalled telling Howard. “He gets the basket he needs, gets a free throw or creates a shot for someone else.”

That added layer of playmaking has made Wagner much more equipped to handle the role of a No. 1 offensive option this season. He has more than tripled his assist average from his freshman year, and his turnovers are down despite spending more time with the ball in his hands. Perhaps most notably, he’s proven himself as a viable ball-handler in the pick-and-roll.

But the biggest difference for Wagner has been a mental one. He’s figured out how to straddle the line between hunting his own shot and creating for others. By thriving as both an aggressive scorer and playmaker, he’s added another dimension to an already-elite Michigan offense. With Wagner at his best, the Wolverines could have a higher offensive ceiling than any other team in the country.

“I’m staying aggressive, just trying to not overdo,” Wagner said. “I think that’s what I did to start the season. Finding that balance of when to be aggressive, when to make a play for someone else, and I think it’s a lot of fun playing with a team. Nobody really cares who scores the points. You can see the results that happen when you play like that.”