Franz Wagner, Eli Brooks already making case to fill key roles for Michigan this season

James Hawkins
The Detroit News
Michigan guard Eli Brooks (middle) averaged 2.5 points in 12.9 minutes per game last season.

Rosemont, Ill. — With leading scorers Ignas Brazdeikis, Jordan Poole and Charles Matthews all gone, Michigan is going to need several players to step up this season.

While there’s still roughly a month before the season starts and the team is only in its second week of practices, two names are already starting to rise above the rest: freshman Franz Wagner and junior Eli Brooks.

“Franz is talented. Franz is a big, huge pickup for us,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said Wednesday at Big Ten basketball media day. “In my opinion, if Franz lived in the U.S., he would be equivalent to what today’s players are rated as five-star. He’s that good. To be almost 6-foot-9 at the 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.”

Wagner spent much of last season playing with Alba Berlin, the same club older brother and former Wolverine standout Moritz Wagner also played for.

As an amateur on a roster full of pros, Wagner averaged 4.6 points in 11.9 minutes per game and shot 52.6 percent from the field and 39.6 percent from 3-point range over 35 games in the Basketball Bundesliga, the top pro club league in Germany. He also started six games, but was primarily a perimeter player off the bench on a team where most of his teammates were at least seven years older than him.

Wagner didn’t receive a ranking by 247Sports until after he committed to Michigan in July because he was an international prospect. He’s rated a four-star prospect, and the No. 43 overall recruit in the 2019 class, a ranking Howard may not agree with given Wagner’s all-around game.

“One thing that I did not mention which I should've mentioned first, he is an underrated defender,” Howard said. “We all talk about his skill-set offensively, the guy can defend and he wants to defend, that's the beauty of Franz. He's going to be a pro. I've put a lot of pressure on him. How I foresee it, I don't have all the answers, but I think he's going to be a good pro.”

Howard said Wagner’s best position will be as a wing, but added he could be used at the four in certain possessions and matchups.

While it might take some international players time to adjust to the speed and physical play stateside, junior forward Isaiah Livers said that hasn’t been a problem for Wagner.

“I like Franz's game. He came in kind of ready and he played with some pros (this past year),” Livers said. “You've got to expect younger kids that played with older pros, especially overseas, are going to be different. I asked Franz, is it going to be different from overseas and he said, 'Yeah, it's kind of different.' But he said it wasn't that different at all. College, especially in the Big Ten, is just as gritty as overseas is.”

Like Wagner, Brooks has been another early standout at practice. And Livers couldn’t help but mention Brooks when asked why he was confident in this year’s Michigan team.

“No one really knows about Eli Brooks and it's sad,” Livers said. “Everybody knew his freshman year he was this guy who overcame Zavier Simpson and took his spot, which made him (Simpson) work to become the player he is now today. People don't know behind the scenes about how good Eli Brooks is. I'm really interested for him to finally show his true colors.”

Aside from senior center Jon Teske, Simpson and Livers, Brooks is the only other returning Wolverine who played at least 10 minutes per game last season. He appeared in all 37 contents, split time between both guard spots and saw an uptick in most of his offensive numbers.

“Eli, man. Wow. That kid right there, I understand why he played his freshman year,” Howard said. “He gets it. He is a basketball mind. He picks things up so quick. You have to tell him one time and his IQ, he can apply it quickly. We all learn differently. There are some guys that are visual people. You may have to show it on film in order for them to understand.

“He’s super crafty with the basketball, getting to the paint whether he’s making a play for himself or for others. He’s competitive. Some will say he’s undersized but that’s what really makes him edgy.”

Howard said the team’s rotation and roles will be determined through practice like “The Hunger Games.” But based on the early reviews, it appears Brooks and Wagner are leading the fight to earn the starting jobs alongside Simpson, Teske and Livers.

"Eli has been playing really well for us and Franz has been playing well, too,” Teske said. “I'm looking forward to both of them getting playing time this year."

Recruiting update

Mark Williams, a four-star center from Florida’s IMG Academy, moved up his official visit to Ann Arbor to this weekend and cut down his list of finalists to three schools: Michigan, Duke and UCLA.

“Juwan Howard has played my position at the highest level. Just knowing that he’s been there and can help me get there and knows moves that he can teach me,” Williams told “He always tells me how he works with the bigs in practice and just knowing he has NBA experience makes it intriguing.”

Williams already visited UCLA and scheduled a visit to Duke at the end of the month. He’s ranked the No. 29 overall recruit for the 2020 class in the 247Sports composite.

In addition to Williams, four-star center Hunter Dickinson also cut down his list of finalists to four schools: Duke, Florida State, Michigan and Notre Dame.

Dickinson, who's rated the No. 34 overall recruit in 2020, took an official visit to Michigan last month.

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins