After self-scouting, UM's Franz Wagner aims to be 'more aggressive' on offense

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Michigan’s lengthy break between games gave the team a chance to rest, recover and reset.

The 11-day layoff also provided the No. 19-ranked Wolverines plenty of time to focus on themselves, sharpen their skills and address areas that needed to be worked on heading into Friday’s Christmas Day matchup at Nebraska.

For sophomore wing Franz Wagner, that meant diving into the film and self-assessing each of his performances this season, particularly on the offensive end.

Through six games, Franz Wagner has a pair of 14-point outings and is averaging 9.5 points.

“I want to be more aggressive. I think that's the main thing,” Wagner said Wednesday. “That doesn't mean I should take more shots or stuff like that. That's one thing that I talked with the coaches about that I feel like we're better when I'm aggressive out there and looking to score and looking to make plays. I think that's one of the things that I worked on during this little break.”

Through six games, Wagner has a pair of 14-point outings and is averaging 9.5 points and 6.7 field-goal attempts per game, marks that both rank fifth on the team. He has been highly effective inside the arc, especially finishing around the rim, and has connected on 60.7% of his 2-pointers.

While those are solid numbers, they’re down from the 11.6 points and 9.3 shot attempts he averaged last season. And for someone who ended his freshman year on a tear and was supposed to be one of the focal points of the offense, the production hasn’t quite matched the expectation.

According to Wagner, there have been two contributing factors. The first is he admittedly hasn’t played the way he’s fully capable of. The second is he’s still adjusting to the new responsibilities and role he has with former point guard Zavier Simpson no longer around to collapse opposing defenses and generate open looks.

“I think last year I got the ball in the perfect spot, where I always wanted it from (Simpson) most of the time. All I had to do was be ready to finish,” Wagner said. “I think this year it's going to be a lot more creating my own shot a little bit and creating more for others. That's one thing that I've got to get used to on this level and that's part of getting better — that you struggle sometimes and have to figure some things out.”

More: 'It's a blessing': Wolverines revved up for rare Christmas Day matchup

With Simpson gone, Michigan coach Juwan Howard has had to tweak the offense to fit the personnel. Wagner has been tasked with being more of a playmaker and has been utilized in more situations than he was last year. As a result, his assists per game have nearly tripled and he ranks third on the team with 17 total assists (he had 27 in 27 games last season).

Finding a balance between making plays for others and hunting his own shot has been a process for Wagner. He’s put an emphasis on his ball-handling and has worked on his aggressiveness over the past week in practice by mimicking the opportunities he’ll get in a game, like maneuvering off a ball screen or leading a fast break.

“I think I see the floor pretty well and know how to make certain passes,” Wagner said. “But being in that moment and being comfortable with the ball, I think that's the most important part.”

But none of that accounts for the impact freshman center Hunter Dickinson and his back-to-the-basket game have made. With Dickinson primarily operating on the block and Howard’s penchant for feeding the post more often, that’s another difference Wagner has had to adapt to.

Franz Wagner's 6.7 shot attempts per game ranks fifth on the team.

During Michigan’s 6-0 start, Dickinson has been a dominant force down low as the team’s most consistent scorer. He has also emerged as the go-to option on many nights, like in the Dec. 13 win over Penn State. In that game, Dickinson finished with a team-high 14 shot attempts in 28 minutes while Wagner put up five shots in 36 minutes.

"Obviously we're trying to play through Hunter because he's been playing so well,” Wagner said. “It works so why would we stop, right?

“I think one adjustment is you have to move a little more off the ball if you're a perimeter player. If the ball is more inside, set more screens, cut a little more and you've got to be ready to shoot.”

Still, senior forward Isaiah Livers said the Wolverines are harder to guard and are a much more dangerous team when Wagner is assertive on offense. He noted there have been times this season when Wagner has passed the ball when he didn’t need to and had a driving lane.

As a team, Livers said the Wolverines can help Wagner get more involved offensively by looking for him in transition. But the key for Wagner, Livers added, is finding his own areas where he can get more shots up.

“I think with this span of days he can watch film and see where he can attack and where not to attack,” Livers said. “People have drawn a couple charges on him, and I think right now he's really working on when to shoot, when to go score, when to go get a bucket, or when to pass it up.

“Franz is a smart player and he's going to figure it out. I'm pretty sure this Nebraska game everybody is going to see the Franz that everybody has been looking for. He has been playing well, but people are going to overlook it because his shot attempts are down.”

Not to mention his 3-point numbers. Wagner is shooting just 25% from 3-point range (3-for-12), but Howard noted he’s handled the rough stretch “like a champ” because he’s been through it before and hasn’t let it affect other parts of his game.

Wagner works on his outside shot every day and believes it’s only a matter of time before the 3-pointers start to fall. Even though he isn’t shooting at a clip he expected to, Wagner said he’s more focused on making the right decisions on offense and being solid on defense, an area he and Howard have been pleased with.

“He’s a two-way player and that's something that no one ever talks about with Franz,” Howard said. “The conversations before he arrived on campus was always about Franz is a talent, he can shoot the ball, he's long, he's athletic. Now Franz has grown into a guy that rebounds extremely well. He defends sometimes one through five and he does a great job of doing that.”

While much of the chatter and concern might center around Wagner’s offense, Howard isn’t worried about it. Instead, he continues to point to everything else Wagner does that doesn’t get discussed enough.

“You're going to see a lot of games where he may have explosive numbers offensively and some where he may not,” Howard said. “But what does not show up in the box score is what he does defensively for us, how he has affected the game and winning. As a coach, when I see that on film, I don't always look at the stat sheet and the stat sheet doesn't always tell the story of what he does. When I go back and watch the film, I'm like, 'Wow. That was big. That was a winning play for us.'

“I've seen a lot of growth in him this year and he’s having a great start of the year for us. He's going to get better and better.”

No. 19 Michigan at Nebraska

Tip-off: 6 p.m. Friday, Pinnacle Bank Arena, Lincoln, Neb.

TV/radio: BTN/950

Records: Michigan 6-0, 1-0 Big Ten; Nebraska 4-4, 0-1

Outlook: Michigan has won four straight in the series and 14 of the last 15 meetings, with a 5-1 mark in Lincoln over that span. … This is the second time the Wolverines will be playing on Christmas Day. … Nebraska is 4-2 at home, with losses to Nevada and Georgia Tech, and is coming off a 14-point loss at Wisconsin. Junior guard Teddy Allen (17.5 points) leads a Cornhuskers team that features nine transfers.

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins