The NBA User's Guide To Franz Wagner
The younger Wagner brother is a projected lottery pick. Can the disruptive wing defender shoot well enough to earn a lucrative second contract?
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After utilizing his go-go-gadget arms to great effect at Michigan, Franz Wagner is a near-lock to be selected in the top 15 picks of Thursday night’s NBA Draft.
In addition to covering Michigan and Big Ten basketball at a detailed level, I’m also an NBA junkie. I consume the work of Zach Lowe, John Hollinger, Chris Herring, and many others. I get League Pass most seasons.1 I listen to Dunc’d On Prime (a very worthwhile subscription, I’ll add), Sam Vecenie’s Game Theory, and the Dunker Spot. I watch everything Ben Taylor releases on YouTube.
While feeding my insatiable hunger for hoops, I’ve gained a greater understanding of how the players I watched in college translate to the NBA—and why they do or don’t work out. I also have a better handle of just how much I don’t know (a whole lot) and how inexact a science scouting can be even at the highest level (very).
So, I’m not going to compare Wagner to the other players in this draft class; I’ve watched one player far more than the others, and there are other writers far more qualified to rank them. What I feel comfortable doing, however, is breaking down Wagner’s game into three categories:
Strengths: the aspects of his game that will continue to be positives in the NBA.
Limitations: the aspects that are unlikely to change for one reason or another and put a cap on his upside.
Swing Skills: the parts of his game that could go one way or another depending on his development and ultimately determine his level of success.
Let’s dig in.
Defensive disruption. While this wasn’t at all the expectation, not to mention a huge departure from his older brother Moe, Franz Wagner’s calling card at Michigan was his defense. He was robbed of Big Ten defensive player of the year last season.
Wagner posted excellent block and steal rates without committing many fouls. He moves his feet, knows where to be, and has great timing with his plays on the ball—a combination of high basketball IQ and good hands.
Even when he’s not coming up with turnovers and blocks, he’s often blowing up actions, forcing resets with deflections, and inducing ugly misses with great closeouts. The box score doesn’t encapsulate what he provides.
Wagner should be a plus off-ball defender starting early in his career. Despite some athletic limitations, he’ll also continue improving as an on-ball defender. I’m not worried unless he’s matched up on a quicker player with enough length that Wagner can’t rely on his excellent recovery skills and knack for blocking shots from behind.
Defensive rebounding. Even as a scrawny freshman, Wagner finished 16th in the Big Ten in defensive rebounding rate, per KenPom. He snatches out-of-area boards but doesn’t just rely on his length; he also seeks out box-outs and executes them effectively. He’ll be a plus rebounder for his position, especially since he continues to add muscle to his lanky frame.
Passing. After mostly playing off the ball as a freshman, Wagner blossomed as a passer in his sophomore season, nearly tripling his assist rate while cutting his turnover rate.
Much like on defense, Wagner plays offense with a keen awareness of his teammates. A low turnover rate often means a player is taking the easy read; not so with Wagner, whose assists (or should-be assists) often thread between multiple defenders.
He’s particularly adept at finding cutters, which tend to be the highest-value passes available, and he has a good feel for when to throw a frozen rope and when to go to the bounce pass. He won’t be a primary playmaker but he can be useful to an NBA offense as a secondary creator and role player who can do more than simply shoot or rotate the ball around the perimeter.
Explosive athleticism. Wagner has a defined ceiling in large part because he’s a relatively average athlete by NBA standards. He’s not going to be a top offensive option because he lacks a quick first step to get by defenders and the vertical explosiveness to score with high efficiency at the rim.
Many of Wagner’s drives ended in difficult running layups from the edge of the paint because he’d snaked his way to the hoop and had to use his length to produce a shot. While he’s good at that shot, it’s going to be tougher to get off clean against NBA defenses, and he doesn’t have the vertical to turn those attempts into looks at the basket that won’t get impacted by rim protectors.
I’m also a little worried about his lateral agility as an on-ball defender against NBA-level perimeter players. While I don’t believe he’s going to be a negative as a defender, he may have to avoid certain matchups, at least as the primary defender—I believe he can function in a switching scheme on the right team.
Shot creation. Building off the above, Wagner doesn’t have a huge array of moves off the bounce to make up for his average first step. A lot of his shots at the hoop at Michigan came against unsettled defenses early in the clock or working screens from called sets to gain separation.
Wagner’s low shot release limits his capability to create for himself; defenders don’t need to play him too tight because he prefers to go to the hoop and they can recover to get a strong contest if he pulls up. Also, while some of this may be Juwan Howard’s system, he hasn’t shown that he can consistently knock down jumpers after off-ball movement
Others: Moves aside, never going to have the tightest handle as a dribbler. Probably can only fill out so much more.
Spot-up shooting. If you watched Michigan, you knew this was coming. Despite shooting 84% from the free throw line, he connected on only 33% on his three-pointers in his two college seasons. A lot of those were open spot-up attempts. His outside shooting was easily the most disappointing part of his time in Ann Arbor.
There are multiple factors at play. Wagner’s low release point and relatively flat arc on his shot don’t leave much room for error. There’s room for improvement if he can tweak his mechanics without losing confidence, though he’s never gonna have that ideal Duncan Robinson form.
Wagner also appeared to lack confidence in his shot when he had time to think. He’d frequently hesitate or throw out a half-hearted pump fake instead of taking an open jumper, then either drive into traffic or take the same shot out of rhythm with a defender closing.
He looked more comfortable shooting pull-up jumpers than open spot-ups. That has to change if he’s going to carve out a major role at the NBA level. I believe he has a decent chance to work his three-pointer into the 36-38% range that’d make him very playable as a 3-and-D wing; I also thought he’d shoot better in college.
Pick-and-roll creation. While Wagner is an average scorer out of the high ballscreen, he’s really good at finding the roll man, using his length to create passing angles even when two defenders converged.
This is where Wagner’s funky in-between game could come in handy. He hit a very respectable 12-of-26 on runners last season, according to Synergy, and that doesn’t include a lot of his edge-of-the-paint half-hooks. While he’s not going to be a team’s primary creator, he’ll be a solid late-clock option if he keeps honing his floater, particularly if paired with a strong finisher at center.
Positional versatility. I expect Wagner to mostly be a 3/4 in the NBA; that best fits his size/skill combination. That said, I can see the potential for a coach to get weird down the road and test him out as a small-ball center—Jae Crowder played this role for the Suns in the Finals at 6’6, 235 pounds.
Wagner has rim protection ability beyond coming over as a weakside help defender. He’ll meet big men at the summit.
If Wagner can pull this off for even a few minutes a game against certain lineups, it changes his outlook entirely—an average three-point shooter who can attack closeouts goes from a passable wing to a scheme-bending big on offense.
Others: Learning additional crafty ways to draw contact.
Wagner isn’t going to be a superstar or even an All-Star in all but the most optimistic, outlier outcomes. He has a safe floor, however, and that’s going to prevent him from falling very far in the draft and keep him on an NBA roster for a long time. He’s got too much length, defensive ability, and awareness to not be a rotation player; so many of his skills are ideal for a role player.
Spot-up shooting will determine if Wagner can be a starter on a good team or will be limited to coming off the bench unless he’s on a bad one. The NBA, for good reason, drafts for upside, and that may cause him to slide into the back half of the lottery. When this class is evaluated in five or ten years, however, I believe Wagner will rank higher among his peers than his draft slot would indicate. There will be busts and he’s unlikely to be one of them.
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