'He's a savant': Freshman Franz Wagner making it look easy for surging Michigan
West Lafayette, Ind. — There was no shortage of high praise heaped upon Franz Wagner back in the fall.
A five-star talent. A future pro. A savant. And this was before the German wing had even played in a college game.
All those words surfaced once again on Saturday after Wagner tallied a career-high 22 points on 9-for-13 shooting and made three 3-pointers in Michigan’s 71-63 win over Purdue at Mackey Arena.
On a day where most players struggled with their shooting touch, Wagner made everything look easy with an efficient outing that helped propel the Wolverines (18-9, 9-7 Big Ten) to their fifth straight win.
“If he was a kid that played in Michigan last year, he would've been a McDonald's All-American,” associate head coach Phil Martelli said. “So everybody would say, ‘This is what we expect of a McDonald's All-American.' What we're seeing is — I don't know a number. Is it eight, 10, 12, 15? He's one of the best freshmen in America.”
Saturday wasn’t the first time Wagner has shown his scoring ability. He had 21 points in the overtime loss to Oregon in December. He scored 18 in both meetings against Iowa and in last month’s win at Nebraska.
But it was arguably his most complete performance yet. He scored 11 points in each half. He finished 3-for-5 from 3-point range and 6-for-8 on 2-point shots. He repeatedly got to the basket and finished at the rim. He pulled down five rebounds and dished out three assists. He defended at a high level and came away with two steals.
It was the type of showing most envisioned when Wagner committed to the Wolverines in the summer, choosing to go the college route instead of playing professionally in Germany. And according to Martelli, there’s more to come.
"He's a savant. And we haven't seen everything yet,” Martelli said. “I mean this respectfully, we're so dominant with (Zavier Simpson) making the plays. But Franz as a passer, he's really a pleasure to watch. His (shooting) stroke is starting to come. I still think the injury in October set him back with his stroke. I think he's a purer shooter than we're seeing."
Saturday marked just the fourth time this season Wagner made at least three 3-pointers in a game — “Shot was falling, finally,” he said afterward — which put him at 30.1 percent for the season. But Martelli’s hopefulness isn’t unfounded considering Wagner arrived as an perimeter threat who shot roughly 40 percent from deep last year in Germany.
Despite the inconsistent 3-point shooting, Wagner has proven he can score in other ways. He’s an effective slasher, as evidenced by his a 57.1-percent clip on 2-point attempts, which is tops among Michigan’s starting lineup.
He isn’t afraid to battle on the boards and dive on the court for loose balls. He has improved as a rebounder throughout the season and has shown impressive defensive instincts. He often causes deflections and leads the team with 28 steals despite missing the first four games with a fractured right wrist.
When it comes to areas that don’t show up in the box score, Martelli cited Wagner’s ability to shrink the floor on defense and take away passing and driving lanes.
“He just knows where to be,” Martelli said. “Other than strength, I don't know what isn’t a perfect basketball player about him.”
Even on nights when his shots aren’t falling, Wagner has often found a way to make an impact, whether it’s locking down on his matchup, getting to the free-throw line or doing the little things that often go unnoticed.
“I'm super proud of him,” junior forward Isaiah Livers said. “Coming in as a freshman playing 30-plus (minutes) on kind of an inexperienced team — not a lot of guys played last year that much. He's coming in and you don't even think he's an underclassman when he plays out there because he plays with so much emotion. It kind of reminds me of his brother (ex-Wolverine Moritz) a little bit. They both bring that flair to the game and it's really fun to watch."
Wagner will likely be a top candidate for the Big Ten Freshman of the Year, along with Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn and Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis, and has already won the conference’s weekly award twice this month as he's picked up his play.
Wagner had 16 points and eight rebounds against Indiana on Feb. 16. He posted 12 points and eight rebounds against Rutgers on Wednesday. He followed that up with Saturday's strong showing as Michigan is hitting its stride heading into March.
Still, it appears Wagner is just scratching the surface. Because once he regains his outside shooting stroke, Martelli said to expect a whole lot more.
“You should expect him to get paid twice a month,” Martelli said, with a laugh. “And not for name, image and likeness.”