'A savant': Michigan's latest German import Franz Wagner touts high basketball IQ

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Michigan associate head coach Phil Martelli couldn’t help but chuckle at the question.

Given his 30-plus years of college coaching experience, would Franz Wagner fall under the category of a typical freshman?

“He's different, man,” Martelli said with a smile during the team’s media day on Thursday. “He is different. I would just suggest that if anybody is on the fence, if there are tickets available, get your tickets. You want to see this kid play.”

Freshman Franz Wagner does a layup at practice after Michigan basketball media day Thursday at Crisler Center

Martelli has gotten that chance since Wagner, 18, arrived on campus in August after spending the year playing overseas with Alba Berlin and competing with the German national team in the FIBA U18 European Championship in late July.

And since Michigan started official team practices on Sept. 24, Martelli has been left scratching his head each and every time he watches Wagner.

“To be that age, to be that cerebral, to be that pure — look there's no question about it, if he was a kid that went to (high school powerhouse) IMG Academy or Montverde, he'd have been a McDonald's All-American,” Martelli said.

“I would tell people you have to see this and it's subtle. It's like how did he know to help defend there? How did he know to go with the right hand? I don't want to put a lot of pressure on him, but he's a ‘Rain Man’ in basketball. He's a savant.”

While Wagner’s basketball IQ might not be normal for a player of his age, neither was his recruitment.

During the summer, Wagner was deciding between two options: Stay home in Germany and sign a professional deal with Alba Berlin or take the same path his older brother Moritz, an ex-Michigan standout, took to Ann Arbor.

Franz Wagner

But Wagner’s recruitment endured quite the plot twist when he was set to take an official visit to Michigan before news broke on May 13 that former coach John Beilein was leaving to take the head job with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

“It was a crazy time because it all happened on the same day,” assistant coach Saddi Washington, the lone holdover from Beilein’s staff, recalled. “(Wagner) finding out coach was leaving literally when he was about to board the plane to come over and then us finding out that morning and not knowing, 'OK, are we still having a visit? Is Franz on the plane? Are they coming? What do we do?'

“We were very intentional about whatever happens let's treat this more like a family reunion because the parents were here, Franz was here, Moe was in town for an event that weekend and let's just see what happens. Fortunately for us we were able to salvage what probably would've been a 90-10 (split) with him staying in Germany and playing professionally to him getting on plane and kind of being 50-50.”

Once Juwan Howard was hired nine days later, he had to hit the ground running while juggling matters, from hiring his staff to relocating from Miami to Ann Arbor. Yet throughout all of that, Howard noted securing Wagner’s commitment was a “high priority” on his to-do list.

And for good reason. Michigan was in dire need of perimeter scoring and 3-point shooting after Jordan Poole, Ignas Brazdeikis and Charles Matthews all left to pursue pro careers, a void that Wagner should help fill.

"Super talented guy. He has a skill level for a 6-9 wing that's pretty dynamic,” Howard said. “He's shown he's very competitive not only on offensive end, but he's a very good defensive ballplayer with his wingspan as well as his activity on the ball. He's a quick learner. He has a smooth stroke and, let me not forget, he's also athletic. We're going to be using a lot of Franz.”

For Wagner, picking the college route over the professional one came down to the same thing that lured his older brother to Ann Arbor four years ago — a new experience.

"Everything that Michigan is about,” Wagner said when asked about the biggest factor in his decision. “It's about having a good education, having the opportunity to play here in a good spot basketball-wise. Back home I maybe had the best situation basketball-wise in Europe. I had great coaches, people who really cared about my development, but I just felt that life is about more than just playing all the time. That's really why I came here.

“It's about having a good education," Franz Wagner said about playing at UM.

“The hype is great around college players and a lot bigger than pros back overseas. Learning how to handle that is a good challenge and think helps prepare you for the next level.”

It certainly did for Moritz, who helped lead the Wolverines to the national title game as a junior before becoming a first-round pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.

Yet, Franz, who was recently projected as a mid-first-round pick in a 2021 NBA mock draft by ESPN, said he isn’t focused on trying to duplicate his brother’s success and doesn’t feel any pressure following in his footsteps.

“I'm not him, I'm my own person. I'm different,” Wagner said. “I'm not going to think too much about what people are expecting and just stay in the moment and try to do good in practice and go from there.”

Comparisons between Franz and Moritz, however, are inevitable. According to senior center Jon Teske and redshirt junior center Austin Davis — who both played with Moritz for two seasons — everything Franz does reminds them of Moritz, from the way he dunks the ball to the way he complains about a call.

And the similarities don’t end there.

"I think the intensity they bring,” junior guard Eli Brooks said. “When you hear about foreign players — this is my general idea of them — I feel like they're just shooters, but he really mixes it up and that's something I really value. (Franz) is not afraid of competing. He's a big competitor just like his brother.”

Junior walk-on guard Luke Wilson said while Moritz is more outgoing and isn’t afraid to say anything compared to Franz, the two of them are always talking and communicating when they are on the floor.

“They have the same mannerisms out there,” Wilson said. “I do have to say Moe was kind of rah-rah-rah and Franz processes everything first before he starts talking.”

Of course, Franz and Moritz have their fair share of differences from a player standpoint. Moritz was a stretch five while Franz is a versatile wing who is spending time playing the two, three and four in practice.

All things considered, what stands out the most and separates the younger Wagner, according to his teammates, is his passing ability, vision and maturity that has him “ahead of the freshman curve.”

“His IQ is really impressive. That will happen when you play pro ball, but at the same time that doesn't just happen that quickly so that's something you know he's always had,” Wilson said. “You can already tell he's kind of come into his own and hasn't had that freshman shock yet because he's been playing against pros already."

But the biggest difference? That's an easy answer for Washington, who played a key role in Moritz's development and now works with Franz and the rest of the wings.

“I texted Moe after the first couple practices. I was like, 'This dude actually plays defense. I don't know what you brought in those first couple of years,’” Washington said. “From a game perspective — and I wasn't here Moe's first year — but I would say that Franz is probably a little bit ahead of him at the same age. But he’s certainly one that has some confidence in himself and I love working with him much like I did with Moe. 

“We're excited to have him and what he's going to bring to the program. We look forward to him having a great career and hopefully even a bigger career than Moe did.”


Twitter: @jamesbhawkins