What Franz Wagner’s bad EuroBasket game says about what’s next

Franz Wagner struggled to get going as Germany's offense bogged down against Slovenia. (Photo by Alexander Scheuber/Getty Images)
Franz Wagner struggled to get going as Germany's offense bogged down against Slovenia. (Photo by Alexander Scheuber/Getty Images) /

There is a clear difference between a player like Franz Wagner and a player like Luka Doncic.

Maybe that statement and the answer that comes with it is too obvious.

Doncic is one of the best players in the world. Comparing anyone to him — even a really solid 21-year-old second-year player — is an impossibly high standard.

Doncic has already won a EuroBasket title and is a front-runner to win MVP this coming year. Nobody is expecting that from Wagner this year.

Still, there is something instructive in watching them play head to head in the kind of pressure environment present in Cologne on Tuesday as the group phase of EuroBasket draws to a close.

Doncic is a true superstar, running the point for his team even with veteran Goran Dragic playing alongside him. He dominated the play and demanded all of Germany’s defensive attention.

Doncic, accordingly, scored 36 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in Slovenia’s win over Germany. He hunted out mismatches as Germany switched on screens to keep him out of the paint and he just feasted with whatever matchup he had — sometimes settling for threes out of sheer boredom.

Luka Doncic was the true superstar on the floor as Franz Wagner hit his first roadblock of EuroBasket. The Orlando Magic’s budding young forward still has work to do to keep himself involved.

Wagner, on the other hand, was not the primary creator. He largely stood in the corner as Germany struggled to get its offense going. He tried to force some shots, but the opportunities were few as Germany’s offense bogged down.

The few times he did create, Slovenia’s ball pressure slowed him down and his instinct to pass and keep the ball moving sent the ball out of his hands.

Wagner played his worst game of his run with the national team, scoring just eight points on 2-for-7 shooting. He had a few nice passes early on in brief moments of clarity where he touched the ball but saw some teammates miss those shots. He was largely uninvolved throughout the game.

Germany struggled to get into their offense to get Wagner the ball and keep him involved. But Wagner was also not pushing to demand the ball. He played the good teammate and let captain Dennis Schroder and veterans like Daniel Theis carry the creation load.

It just never came and Germany was climbing uphill the whole game, ultimately falling 88-80 for their first loss in group play. Germany has already clinched its way into the knockout round but will now need a win over Hungary to secure favorable seeding for this weekend’s round of 16.

Perhaps that made easing off the throttle going up against a superstar like Doncic and a team in Slovenia that needed a win to avoid sweating through a game against France in their group play finale to advance and defend their EuroBasket title.

Still, this kind of game showed some of Wagner’s limitations and where he still has a long way to go.

Wagner is not a main creator and scorer. Or at least in this setting, he has not gained full trust to create in the way a superstar does.

Germany always leaned on Dennis Schroder, sharpshooter Maodo Lo and Andreas Obst to create. Slovenia did a good job forcing those guys to isolate and keeping them out of the lane with constant switching.

It was hard for Germany to get Wagner the ball in spots where he can attack or against scrambling defenses.

Then again, Germany did not really make it a point to get him the ball there. Slovenia did well to deny him the ball and gum up his pin-downs and UCLA cuts, but Germany went away from their best player in the tournament thus far.

Take the opening play of the second half.

Germany got the ball to Wagner at the top of the key and had him attack. He was able to set up a pick and roll, get in the lane and get the ball moving in a way Germany struggled throughout the first half. It did not end up with Wagner taking a shot, but it got a teammate a 3-pointer and kept Germany in the game.

Germany needed more of that.

Those kinds of plays were there. But as the game got later and Wagner was less involved, he started forcing his shots and forcing his opportunities. Never excessively, that is not in Wagner’s DNA, but it was clear he understood this was not a game he was shooting a ton and that seemed to make every shot more important.

That was certainly the case with his final two shots.

With Germany trailing by five points and less than two minutes to play, Wagner got a clean look for three that he missed. Germany got the rebound and found Wagner able to get downhill and finally get something going to the basket. But he missed his layup and Germany’s chances to steal the win fell by the wayside.

Both were solid looks — two of his best looks in the game — but he was unable to convert.

That does not mean there were not some really strong moments. And Wagner can still clearly contribute and make things happen. And Wagner has to continue to find a way to contribute even without scoring.

His biggest growth beyond his confidence on offense — he took some adventurous threes early on and one of his two makes was a great side-step, step-back three along the corner — is his defensive aptitude.

Wagner was Germany’s best defender on Doncic throughout the game. He was able to get down and defend him effectively, using his physicality to slow him down and keep him on the perimeter while challenging shots in the paint.

He had a nice block on Doncic in the first half and followed that up by stealing the ball from him and drawing a foul in the shock. Germany not giving Wagner the full responsibility to defend Doncic was a clear tactical error in the outcome of this game.

This kind of a game should not derail Wagner at all, in the end. It does not erase his 32-point effort from Sunday.

But it shows his limitations and where he still needs to grow. He needs to become more assertive and find ways to be involved at all points of the game. He can make an impact with just his touching of the basketball and he has to be aggressive in pursuing touches as much as he is looking for shots.

Some of that falls on Germany. And certainly, Germany will look to get him the ball much more frequently in Wednesday’s game against Hungary.

That game, despite its importance to the tournament, will not be as headlining as this game was against Doncic and Slovenia.

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