Do you know what’s one of the best parts about sports? Letting your expectations soar. Sure, most of us inevitably set ourselves up for disastrous failures, but we all share that ability to talk ourselves into just about anything during the offseason. Like Kevin Garnett so graciously put it, “ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE,” even when it probably isn’t. So, as most of you (like clockwork) forget the many nuances that drove you nuts about the 2016-17 Iowa basketball season, I wanted to provide you with the moments and flashes you need to hang on to when it comes time to build up the 2017-18 season in your mind. Because whether it’s now or in November, we’re all going to come to the same conclusion anyway: This is THE year Iowa finally wins... a game in the Big Ten Tournament.
Ahmad Wagner, Junior, F
2016-17 Stats: 4.8 points (51.2 FG%), 3.4 rebounds, 1.4 assists, .4 blocks, and .8 steals in 16 minutes per game.
Best Game of the Season: It was a back-to-backer against #25 Maryland (12 points, six rebounds, two assists and one steal) and at Illinois (12 points, five rebounds, three assists, one block and one steal) which were also both losses. Womp. Womp.
Next Best Game of the Season: Remember the first game of the season when Wagner looked like he was more than just a fantasy tight end that could easily make the switch over to the Stew and LeNore Hansen Football Performance Center by doing things like this?:
I remember seeing that block happen live and immediately jumping to EXTREME conclusions about where the ceiling could be for the then sophomore forward. I was probably a little irrational and needed to splash some water on my face, but those things happen, especially after you watch a 6’7” steam engine power-swat some poor Kennesaw State Owl’s layup attempt.
Wagner finished that game with 12 points, five rebounds, four assists, four blocks and two steals. In the second half, it was as though the coaching staff told him at half time that he could take any one of the Kennesaw State bigs off the dribble and out shine whatever physicality they may have at the rim.
He took to it to heart...
Actually, before I link that video, lets formally start this bad boy, shall we?
That’s What I Like, That’s What I Like
Now, where was I? Ah, yes, Wagner not only (probably) taking the advice of the coaching staff, but showing a piece of his game that we never saw during his freshman year. If any of you thought that Wagner had the ability to successfully (though not pretty) take opponents off the dribble coming into this season (and don’t tell me you saw/read that he was capable of doing it in the Prime Time League), you sir/madam, are a liar:
It was probably more shock than anything else. Ahmad Wagner can finish LIKE THAT?
Ahmad Wagner has a jab step LIKE THAT?
If there is anything about Wagner’s all around game that might drive Iowa fans crazy, it’s that his offensive output is like some sort of Kings Island wooden rollercoaster ride from hell (up and down without any warning and way to shaky).
But it shouldn’t be that way... and maybe it doesn’t have to be.
Some of you might be thinking to yourself that the clips above are only from the Kennesaw State game, which competition wise, was poor. But I promise you, there were snippets of this type of offensive potential sprinkled against all sorts of competition. Take a look at this move against Illinois with the clock winding down in the first half:
Maybe I’m projecting, but it almost seems like when Wagner just plays within himself and doesn’t think through the offense (where should I be now, who should I screen for next, should I be on the block or out near the wing on the weak side), we see the type of athletic offensive forward that could and should be able to drive right around opposing Big Ten plodders and get easy looks at the rack.
Or overpower the smaller, weaker ones:
Now for Wagner to compete in what is soon to be an up and coming log jam at the four and five positions, he’s going to have to work on his offense skills. He desperately needs to develop an efficient back to the basket move almost as much as he needs to find the touch on his jumpers and free throws.
With a fine tune up, Wagner’s ceiling could potentially be as high as I thought it was in that Kennesaw State game.
Of course, none of this speaks to the real reason Wagner will continue to see minutes for the next two years: he brings the juice, the energy, the fundamentals, the defense and the rebounding that every successful college basketball team needs.
Let’s start with one of the biggest things that popped out to me when I rewatched his film: Wagner should teach kids how to box out properly and then grab a rebound like you were shot out of a cannon:
When Wagner is on defense, he’s already so cognizant of where he is on the floor compared to what the offense is doing. He’s very rarely out of help side position and he’s continuously in the right place when his teammates get beat of the dribble. Now, when the shot goes up, more times than not, you’ll see Wagner identify his responsibility, throw his elbow into his stomach and launch his hips into him.
And as soon as that ball careens off into his direction, he attacks it.
On the offensive end? He has the same mentality, just without the position. If his man doesn’t throw a body on him, he attacks them, the rim, the ball, everything:
No wonder Wagner grabbed 13% of Iowa’s misses this season.
Bottom line: Wagner should continue to find minutes if only because of his activity level. His hands are all over the place, he’s a load for more defenders whether he is posting up or driving to the lane, and while he may not ever have that “verticality” to truly protect the rim on the defensive end, he’s always going to be in the right place at the right time and ready to box the opposition out of every play.
Can he become an All-Big Ten forward? Probably not. But one of the beauties of where this team is headed is that he doesn’t have to be. He just needs to continue to hold these young kids responsible for doing the little things he will eventually make a full career out of (and probably become one of my personal Top-5 All-Time Grittiest Hawkeyes I’ve seen play).
At the end of the day, that’ll be just another under-appreciated commodity that Ahmad Wagner offers Fran McCaffery and this Iowa team.