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Basketball Season Review: Franz Wagner’s dominant sophomore year

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Wagner was one of the Big Ten’s most dominant two-way wings in 2020-21.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Junfu Han via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Franz Wagner’s final shot carried the weight of the Michigan Wolverines’ season. After catching an inbounds pass off a cross screen with a chance to push Michigan past UCLA in the Elite Eight, Wagner got a clean look at a game-winner.

But the high-arcing shot fell short. And with it, so did Michigan’s goal of making the Final Four.

Wagner’s dismal final game — a career-worst two points on 1-of-10 shooting — was the anomaly of an otherwise exceptional career. A projected top-15 pick, Wagner is widely expected to declare for the 2021 NBA Draft this offseason.

In two years in Ann Arbor, Wagner completely transformed both his game and body. When he first arrived on campus, he was a star in name only. Being the younger brother of former Michigan standout Moe Wagner earned him the benefit of the doubt, and after returning from a broken wrist, he quickly proved he was much more than that.

Wagner began his career as a frail spot-up shooter, but by the end of this past season, he’d solidified himself as one of the Big Ten’s best two-way wings. He grew an inch heading into the 2020-21 season and added nearly 20 pounds of muscle, allowing him to become more physical at both ends of the floor.

The result? Per-game averages of 12.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and 3.0 assists. He also chipped in more than a block and a steal per game, using his length to disrupt opposing teams’ offenses. In the end, it was good enough to earn him a second team All-Big Ten selection.

“In my opinion, if Franz lived in the U.S., he’d be the equivalent of what today’s players are rated five-star,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said at last season’s Big Ten Media Day. “He’s that good. And to be almost 6-foot-9 at a wing position, he has a high IQ. He’s tough, he’s skilled. He can put the ball on the floor, create his own shot, and he’s not afraid to dunk on you.”

One area where Wagner took a major stride forward this season was playmaking. He tripled his assists average from his freshman year, and tied a career-high with six during the NCAA Tournament.

The evolution of his game was on display each time he played out of a pick-and-roll, and he often found cutting big men for wraparound passes or finished at the rim himself. As he blossomed into a playmaker, Wagner also shot an efficient 48% from the field and 34% from beyond the arc.

“I think (Wagner) does a great job at letting the game come to him,” freshman center Hunter Dickinson said in December. “He doesn’t force a lot of stuff. (For) defenses, it’s hard guarding a 6-foot-9 wing that can put it on the floor and stuff, so that makes guards hesitant for the drive. And also the shot, he can shoot it over a lot of the people that guard him so he’s a really good mismatch out there.”

At the other end of the floor, Wagner was equally dominant. Somehow, some way, he didn’t make the All-Big Ten Defensive Team, but his conference-best +5.7 BPM speaks for itself. That’s in addition to his versatility, which often allowed him to match up with the opposing team’s best player. Wagner’s length wreaked havoc, and Michigan’s turnover rate and per-possession metrics with him on the floor reflected that.

Though it wasn’t always obvious in the box score, few two-way wings proved as dominant as Wagner during the 2020-21 season. And for that reason, there’s a good chance he’ll hear his name called in the lottery this June.