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'I feel strong': Michigan's Wagner healthy, working his game back into shape

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Franz Wagner has been through this before.

The wait. The mental battle. The frustration. The bumpy road to recovery that comes with being injured and stuck on the sideline.

“I’ve had a lot of injuries. The Wagners, in our history we have a lot of injuries,” Wagner said shaking his head with a wry smile on Thursday. “I had a couple of ankle sprains. I was sidelined for more than a year when I was 12, 13 (years old). I'm familiar with the mindset going into an injury, which is very tough, I think, to stay focused, stay positive through the process.

“But I think I did a good job and did a good job keeping myself ready for the games now.”

Franz Wagner started all three games last week against Iowa State, North Carolina and Gonzaga in the Bahamas, where he shot 36.8 percent (7-for-19) from the field and 33.3 percent on 3-pointers (3-for-9).

Wagner, a freshman wing and the younger brother of former Wolverine Moritz Wagner, missed Michigan’s first four games with a non-surgical fracture in his right shooting wrist. He was cleared to return in last week’s Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas and will make his delayed Crisler Center debut in Friday’s Big Ten opener against Iowa.

Yet, Wagner is still navigating his way through the post-injury process of returning to form and getting comfortable back out on the floor.

"Physically, I feel at 100 percent to be honest. I feel strong out there, I feel good out there,” Wagner said. “The rhythm offensively is going to take a little while just to get back to where it was before I got injured. I'm not worried about that really. It's just going to take a little bit more time."

During the month-long recovery period, Wagner couldn’t catch a ball and couldn’t do much with the team for “a couple weeks” while his wrist was in a hard cast. So, he did whatever he could to stay as ready as possible.

He spent time working on his left hand  dribbling, passing, different finishes at the rim  and working with strength and conditioning coach Jon Sanderson to make sure his legs and core were staying strong.

He took mental reps during the four games he watched from the bench, imagining he was playing and “trying to look at things that I can exploit in defenses or how I can help the team in a different way.”

Then when his wrist had healed and he was cleared by the medical staff, Wagner got to work on rediscovering his shooting stroke.

“The form, you get it back really fast,” Wagner said. “It’s just repetition. You've got to get it back, make the same amount you made before. I haven't shot in like five, six weeks so it's kind of like when you get back from vacation and haven't touched a ball in a while.

“You have to start from scratch really when you have that kind of injury. Then obviously getting the shot back is a process that's not finished right now. I'm still working on that.”

Since his return, Wagner has been thrown into the fire. He started all three games against Iowa State, North Carolina and Gonzaga last week in the Bahamas, where he shot 36.8 percent (7-for-19) from the field and 33.3 percent on 3-pointers (3-for-9) while tallying 19 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and four steals in 81 minutes.

Then against No. 1 Louisville on Tuesday, Wagner had five points on 2-for-6 shooting and four rebounds in 30 minutes while spending much of the game trying to slow down star forward Jordan Nwora.

Overall, Wagner was pleased with his play in the Battle 4 Atlantis. He noted it wasn't perfect, but it was a "good experience" and fun to just be back out on the court. Against the Cardinals, Wagner admitted he "could've done better" in a couple areas, like communicating and on-the-ball defense.

Coach Juwan Howard called Wagner “an ultimate competitor” for the way he has battled bigs on the boards and hasn’t hesitated to dive for loose balls after his wrist injury. But there were still times last week Wagner would get down on himself because he wasn’t playing at the level he’s used to.

“Sometimes it's frustrating,” Wagner said. “Obviously you want to play your best every time. A couple games, stuff just wasn't working out the way I wanted it to. You've just got to learn from it and stay positive. I think I did a good job with that, to be honest, during the games.

“Sometimes stuff goes wrong and maybe you're frustrated for that for the next play, but I think during those three games  considering how long I was out and considering how much I played in those games  I think I did a good job just sticking with it.”

Because as Wagner and Howard know, getting back to the player he can be is still an ongoing process.

"Franz has been great,” Howard said. “He's been a big asset to our team and as time goes, Franz will be more and more comfortable, and he'll get his playing shape, his playing legs underneath him. It's just a matter of time. As players  and I get it — sometimes you just want it to happen overnight, but we trust. He'll be fine."

Iowa at Michigan

Tip-off: 6:30 p.m. Friday, Crisler Center, Ann Arbor

TV/radio: FS1/950

Records: No. 4 Michigan 7-1, Iowa 6-2

Outlook: Michigan has won four of the past five meetings. … Luka Garza leads the Big Ten in scoring (20 points) and Iowa leads the conference with 18.3 assists per game. The Hawkeyes are coming off a 68-54 win at Syracuse and beat then-No. 12 Texas Tech, 72-61, last week in the Las Vegas Invitational.

jhawkins@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins