Franz Wagner headlines Michigan's quartet of NBA Draft hopefuls
While the NBA Draft has its share of unpredictability, one thing is certain — Michigan coach Juwan Howard will have his first player selected in this year’s event.
How many Wolverines will hear their name called on Thursday night, though, remains to be seen.
Chaundee Brown, Isaiah Livers, Mike Smith and Franz Wagner have all declared for the draft, but only Wagner is essentially a lock to be picked — possibly somewhere in the top 10 — due to his all-around skill set.
“I think every team needs big wings that can move, that can shoot, make decisions with the ball and play defense,” Wagner said on a pre-draft media Zoom call this week. “I think those are all things I’m good at and things that are important for my game. I think the game is becoming more positionless and will fit in very well with my versatility.
“I know how to read the game and play within a system. I think that will help me fit in with whatever team I’m going to play at. I also think I have a lot of room to grow. I think that combination of maturity in my game, being able to fit in right away and being able to improve a lot more is what makes me unique in this draft.”
It’s also a big reason why several prominent two-round mock drafts project Wagner, 19, to be taken in the top 10. ESPN has him going No. 7 to the Golden State Warriors. The Athletic and Bleacher Report both have him slotted at No. 9 to the Sacramento Kings. Sports Illustrated has him pegged at No. 10 to the Memphis Grizzlies.
“Wagner is interesting,” ESPN basketball analyst Jay Bilas said. “He's been rising up sort of in the minds of some as a prospect because he's got positional size and he's a long-armed, athletic wing that can guard a lot of different people and guard them successfully.
“It's not just his assignment. He's a really good off-ball defender. He'll get steals and blocks and deflections and all that stuff, but he's an excellent team defender. You watch him on film, and he's in the right spots all the time. He plays the ball very effectively.”
Wagner led the Wolverines with 35 steals last season and was second with 29 blocks. On top of that, he averaged 12.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and three assists per game, all marks that ranked second or third on the team.
Bilas called Wagner a good offensive player who is evolving into a “really good” offensive player and lauded his ability to cut and move without the ball. However, Bilas noted Wagner needs to be better than the 34.4% he shot from 3-point range last year.
“He's got good shooting form, but his numbers don't equate to that form in my view,” Bilas said. “I think he should be better, and I think he can be better. … I think he can become a better corner shooter, a better floor spacer, but that's something he's going to have to continue to work on.”
Unlike Wagner, Livers’ mock draft projections have a much wider range, from mid-to-late second round to undrafted. The Athletic has him going No. 47 to the Toronto Raptors. ESPN has him being taken at No. 50 by the Philadelphia 76ers. Bleacher Report has him being picked at No. 52 by the Detroit Pistons. Sports Illustrated has him going unselected.
While there may be concerns with his injury history — he missed 10 games his junior year with hip, groin and ankle injuries and had his senior year cut short due to a stress fracture in his right foot — Bilas said Livers, 23, carries value as an offensive asset.
“I see him as kind of a sharp-shooting forward. He's always struck me as an elite offensive player that he shoots over 40% from 3, and that puts him in a high category among shot makers,” Bilas said. “I think he's a pretty good defender that's worked hard at it to get better. It wasn't a strength of his early on in his career, but he's gotten better and gotten tougher. But I think he's more of an offensive talent.”
When it comes to Brown, he projects to be a prototypical 3-and-D player who could potentially be selected late in the second round or be a candidate for a two-way deal. He’s ranked No. 60 and No. 63, respectively, among draft prospects by ESPN and Sports Illustrated and had the opportunity to boost his stock in pre-draft workouts with several teams, including the L.A. Lakers, Indiana Pacers, Atlanta Hawks, New York Knicks, Phoenix Suns and Pistons.
When it comes to Smith, the undersized point guard isn’t listed in top-100 big boards by major outlets and could get to audition with a team in the Summer League. Regardless, he’ll give Michigan a fourth shot to add to its recent stretch of draft picks and start a new streak under Howard.
“I think there’s something to be said when it’s the second year for Juwan and we had a really good year this past year,” said Wagner, who is one of 20 NBA Draft green room invitees. “I think you have to give him a lot of credit. I don’t remember seeing this anywhere else before to keep a program going in two years the way he did. It’s really impressive and it’s definitely cool to be a part of it.”