After Gordon Herbert concludes his ode to Franz Wagner, comparing him to Larry Bird and LeBron James, ennobling his character and his game, he says: “He’s so good, sometimes I forget how young he is.”
You have to know the national basketball coach to understand the significance of his words. Herbert is a communicative minimalist. He wrote a total of seven words, from the initial contact to the agreement to arrange a telephone interview. Hymns of praise and superlatives, and generally public torrents of words, are far from him. And yet: He goes into raptures about Franz Wagner, the greatest German basketball hope since Dirk Nowitzki. It is an honor to coach him, the man has the complete package. And again the reference: “He acts much older than he is.”
For all we know, the Orlando Magic winger is 21 years old. Born in Berlin, matured at college in Michigan, steeled in the NBA. Now, with only 13 international matches, he is already considered the face and leading player of the German national basketball team. Together with captain Dennis Schröder, he will lead the team to a medal at the World Cup in Japan, Indonesia and the Philippines from the end of August.
Franz Wagner: Precocious, highly gifted, well educated
The fact that, despite all the responsibility, hardly anyone cares about the youngster shows how little 21-year-old there is in this 21-year-old. Wagner’s playing style, his demeanor, his choice of words – everything is terribly adult. Who is this precocious person who so confidently shoulders the future of German basketball?
“First of all, Franz is a really well-behaved boy,” says Marius Huth. “I’ve only had a few who were so easy to work with.” Huth sits in a gray telephone box in the Alba Berlin office and talks about Franz Wagner with a daydreaming expression, just like Schalke fans talk about the good old days. Here, at Alba, he trained Wagner, from the U11 to the U14. “He listened extremely well and absorbed everything like a sponge,” he says. “Some people have to explain things 35 times. Franz understood it the first time.”
Anyone who listens to Huth and Herbert, the youth and national coach, quickly realizes that Wagner’s story is not just about a highly gifted early starter, but also about a straightforward guy. Because despite puberty, culture shock, star status, million-dollar salary and what not, Herbert and Huth describe almost exactly the same Franz.
Franz and Moritz Wagner: top talents in the NBA
And also the same Moritz. “Franz was always quite calm, completely different from his brother,” says Huth. Herbert: “Moritz usually does the chatting.” Franz got into basketball through his more extroverted brother, who was four years older than him. Huth, who coached both Wagners, still remembers how the younger one would watch the older one play. How he shot baskets at halftime. And how he eventually started working for Alba himself. Since then he has been racing through the basketball landscape in the fast lane.
Bundesliga debut at 16. Best U21 player at 17. College top performer at 18. Fifth best NBA newcomer at 20. European Championship bronze at 21. Now he is facing his first World Cup, and the national coach trusts him to be there (despite… all the Americans!) to be one of the five best individual players. It would suit Wagner, who habitually exceeds expectations; including that of Huth, who had already seen more dominant teenagers.
“I knew he was talented. But he was even better than I thought,” says DBB coach Herbert about Wagner’s performance at the home European Championships in 2022. That tournament was – as felt like every previous test – according to the kettle principle went wrong: Wagner was up to speed in no time. Eight points at the start against France, 18 against Bosnia and then 32 against Lithuania. To put things into perspective: Only two other Germans scored 30 points or more at a European Championship – Dennis Schröder and Dirk Nowitzki. And they were already seasoned professionals at the time.
Franz Wagner’s strongest: game intelligence
How do you manage to be so far ahead of your age? “We’re talking about a highly intelligent young man here,” says Huth and tells a story that has stuck with him; about a ball with a motion sensor and a teenage Franz who got it as a Christmas present. “Then he stood there, in the open space on Knaackstrasse, with his cell phone and loudspeaker, and let the analysis software tell him whether his trajectory was too high or too flat.”
Here too, the former and current trainers agree. Game intelligence – in technical jargon: basketball IQ – is Wagner’s outstanding strength, says Herbert, before reaching for the really big shelf: – “Wayne Gretzky, Tom Brady, Larry Bird, LeBron James – for people like that the game runs like it’s in slow motion. They read it faster than anyone else and see things before they happen.” You can hardly train this ability, you just have it or you don’t. “Franz has it.”
Basketball IQ is, so to speak, the cheat code among the core competencies because it has a positive effect on all areas of the game: on offense and defense, on actions with and without the ball, on transition play as well as set play. Because Wagner distributes this intellect over 2.08 meters and an increasingly athletic body, he brings an extremely versatile playing system to the floor. “He can score, throw, defend and rebound. He can create for himself and for others,” says Herbert. “Franz can influence a match in many different ways.”
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What is noticeable about Wagner’s game is less the individual strengths than the absence of real weaknesses. He is the antithesis of the expert idiot. And there’s more. “With Franz, everything seems smart and planned,” says Huth. “But he was always driven by a lot of desire and passion.”
The next anecdote: Once, when he was 13, Franz injured himself. A crack in the knee. He couldn’t play basketball for around a year and a half. At first he wasn’t even allowed to walk. “Still, he was always at training!” Huth then gave him exercises that he could do while sitting. “I always thought: Now you’ve found something, now he’ll be busy for an hour.” But nothing there, less than ten minutes later he was finished and was already asking about the next exercises.
Nowitzki’s coach: Wagner has superstar potential
Let’s summarize: A guy who can’t do almost anything and is actually very good at many things. He often looks like an experienced man over 30 in the body of a 21-year-old. And who also has the necessary mentality, intelligence and genetics for further improvement. Somehow it sounds too good, but it is difficult to find evidence or critics who contradict this view – even without German lenses or Wagner references. Rick Carlisle, Nowitzki’s champion coach from 2011 and current head coach of the Indiana Pacers, certified Wagner’s “superstar potential” in mid-February. Shortly before, the German had given his team 29 points.
Wagner is already on the verge of becoming an All-Star: he put up 18.6 points, 4 rebounds and 3.5 assists in his second NBA season. For comparison: Dirk Nowitzki scored 17.5 points in his second year – and Wagner, unlike Würzburg, is not even the mainstay in Orlando’s offense. He has the rare ability to dominate games without dominating the ball. They’re licking their fingers for guys like that in the NBA.
Franz Wagner: From rookie contract to superstar
Wagner is currently stuck in his rookie contract, which is worth 22 million for four years. His first specially negotiated contract could be in the three-digit million range if he actually develops into the superstar that Carlisle and Herbert see in him. This would require, among other things, around ten points on average – a huge step. The question is: Does someone who has come so far so early still have so much room for improvement? Is there really still so much potential lying dormant that we’ll only see Prime Wagner in five to ten years? Or doesn’t someone who was early at every stage of their career reach their plateau faster than the others?
Of course, Wagner can still improve, in distance throwing and dribbling. But it’s always about nuances. The giant leaps that a Nowitzki made in his 20s are not to be expected from Wagner. And some skills, such as the throwing of Steph Curry or the understanding of the game of LeBron James, simply cannot be acquired by even the most enthusiastic smart guy.
In the NBA, Wagner operates in an absurdly talented environment with an extreme level of performance. He is currently considered to be exceptionally good there – for his age. What the verdict is once you can remove youth from the equation will determine Wagner’s place in basketball history. For now, with a view to the World Cup, you should stick to what you’re used to. And until now it has always been true: the bigger the stage, the stronger the Wagner.
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