Franz Wagner won’t be a star. But he will be better than many players with more potential projected to go ahead of him in the lottery. The Michigan sophomore stuffed the stat sheet last season, averaging 12.5 points on 47.7 percent shooting, 6.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.3 steals, and 1.0 blocks per game. There aren’t many 6-foot-9 players who can do as many things as Wagner can on both ends of the floor. He checks every box that NBA teams are looking for in a role player.
Franz is a much different player than his older brother Moe, a stretch big man who led the Wolverines to a Final Four. Moe was a first-round pick by the Lakers in 2018 and is now on his fourth team in three seasons because he doesn’t have the athleticism to create his own shot or defend at a high level. Franz, despite playing a smaller role in college and receiving less fanfare, will have an easier transition to the NBA because he has the speed and quickness to defend on the perimeter.
At 6-foot-9 and 225 pounds, he has the block rate of a big man (3.2 percent) and the steal rate of a guard (2.3 percent). He played both forward positions for Michigan, where he was a linchpin of the no. 4 defense in the country. Wagner can protect the rim, switch screens and defend in isolations, cover up smaller players on the perimeter, and chase them around screens:
His ability to spread the floor on offense is what separates him from many players with his size and speed. Wagner is a streaky shooter, but he’s enough of a threat that defenses can’t leave him open. While he needs to continue developing his jumper, his shooting numbers from last season are better overall than those of the other big wings in his draft range:
Big Wing Shooting
|Jonathan Kuminga||G League Ignite||5||24.6||3.7||62.5|
|Scottie Barnes||Florida State||1.7||27.5||2.8||62.1|
Outside shooting is the most important skill for those kinds of players. Wings who can’t shoot are one of the most common lottery busts, from Stanley Johnson to Josh Jackson and Jarrett Culver. There’s no offensive role that makes sense for them in the NBA. They can’t threaten the defense off the ball, and their poor jumpers make them easier to guard with the ball in their hands.
That’s the concern with Jonathan Kuminga, Scottie Barnes, and Jalen Johnson. They have a better chance of developing into a primary option than Wagner because they are more dynamic off the dribble. It just won’t matter if they don’t become better shooters first. Their ugly free throw numbers are a massive red flag. None of the three has shown much touch. A few mechanical tweaks may not be enough. They may need to rebuild their jumpers from the ground up.
The problem goes beyond how good they can be individually. There’s only room for one player who can’t space the floor in an NBA lineup. That spot is usually reserved for a center who can anchor the defense. It’s too easy to pack the paint against a team with non-shooters on the perimeter. That’s what happened to the Orlando Magic, who have the no. 5 and no. 8 overall picks in this year’s draft, during their last rebuild in the 2010s. Their offense was stuck in the mud because they had too many prospects needing to improve as shooters. Putting them together made the situation much worse than if they had been on their own.
The team that drafts Wagner won’t have that issue. He improves every lineup that he’s in. It’s not just his shooting. He uses the threat of his shot to attack closeouts, find the open man, and move the ball. He’s a smart player who averaged more than two times as many assists (3.0 per game) as turnovers (1.3) last season. His feel for the game jumps off the screen:
There aren’t any holes in his game, either. Wagner can do a little bit of everything, from scoring to shooting, passing, rebounding, and defending.
The biggest knock on him is that he didn’t hunt for his own shot more in college. He was content to be a cog in a balanced offense with two other NBA prospects in the frontcourt (senior Isaiah Livers and freshman Hunter Dickinson) and three solid NCAA guards (seniors Eli Brooks, Mike Smith, and Chaundee Brown). Catch him on the wrong night and he was easy to miss. Wagner never never scored more than 21 points and had 11 games in just single digits.
That won’t be an issue at the next level. He won’t need to take over games on offense. Even the NBA’s worst teams have multiple players who can create their own shot and dominate the ball. Playing with more talent around him will allow Wagner to go from “unassertive” to “unselfish.”
His versatility will be even more valuable when he’s facing NBA-caliber wings each night. It’s easy to look great against players who are much smaller and less athletic than you. That’s the kind of competition that players like Wagner mostly face at the NCAA level. Players like him are few and far between. The rare matchups between them can be telling about their NBA future.
Wagner faced off against Barnes in Michigan’s 76-58 win over Florida State in the Sweet 16. Barnes was the best player he faced all season and vice versa. Yet Wagner clearly won the matchup.
Barnes was a non-factor on offense, with eight points on 4-of-11 shooting and three assists on three turnovers. His lack of a competent jumper meant that he didn’t have a Plan B against a defender like Wagner whom he couldn’t bully inside:
Wagner had 13 points on 4-of-9 shooting and five assists on zero turnovers. It’s not that he looked like a future star. But he made the right plays when Barnes was on him, driving past him and creating shots for his teammates. He’s a good enough shooter that Barnes had to respect him in the triple-threat position:
One game never tells the whole story on a prospect. Maybe Barnes had an off night. It’s just concerning that it happened against the best player he faced all season. Wagner had plenty of poor scoring nights last season, too. But it’s easier for him to impact the game when his shot isn’t falling.
He’s a fairly complete player with more upside than it might seem. Despite being a sophomore, the 19-year-old is actually younger than star freshmen like Barnes, Evan Mobley, and Jalen Suggs. Wagner had an extra season in college to develop while having more room to grow than most players with his experience. He has been “playing up” his whole life because he had an older brother with NBA talent. That’s one reason why he has a more well-rounded game than many of his peers. He’s never been able to rely purely on his physical tools.
There’s a big drop-off in this year’s draft after the consensus top-four picks. Wagner would fit on every team picking after that range. His ability to succeed in multiple roles would give rebuilding teams like the Magic (no. 5) and the Thunder (no. 6) more options with their other first-round picks. He would be an instant contributor for a contender like the Warriors (no. 7) that isn’t looking for a project. And his best fit of all might be teams like the Kings (no. 9) and Pelicans (no. 10) that need to round out young cores around multiple stars.
Wagner can accelerate the rebuild around De’Aaron Fox and Tyrese Haliburton, or Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram. He can help them as a defender, spot-up shooter, or secondary playmaker without taking the ball out of their hands. Few prospects in the lottery fit that mold.
The playoff success this year from the Hawks and Suns shows how valuable players like Wagner can be. Each features waves of 3-and-D wings who can defend multiple positions and spread the floor on offense. Those are essential pieces for a young team. It doesn’t matter how good their stars are. Devin Booker was seen as an empty-stats All-Star before Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, and Cam Johnson showed up. Now he’s scoring 40 points in NBA Finals games. It was the same for Trae Young before the rise of De’Andre Hunter and Kevin Huerter.
The best-case version of Wagner is someone who can play 35 minutes of good defense at both forward positions while knocking down 3s and moving the ball. Players like that are worth their weight in gold in the NBA. Wagner doesn’t have to be a star to have a star-like impact.