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The Iowa forward talks about how he believes he can help the team the most this year

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WATERLOO, Ia. — Instead of trying to beat them, join them.

That’s been Iowa forward Ahmad Wagner’s approach to his two new basketball teammates this summer. Yes, Luka Garza and Jack Nunge may be gunning for Wagner’s minutes in a jam-packed Hawkeye frontcourt. But Wagner sees a way everyone can win — if he re-fashions his game as more of a playmaking wing.

That’s right. Wagner, a hulking junior who stands 6-foot-7, 235 pounds, is intent on becoming a finesse player after two years of banging and bruising. And he said after leading his team to a Prime Time League victory Thursday at the Sportsplex that he’s eager to see how he can help the 6-11 freshmen Garza and Nunge get better at the same time.

“I always pick up Jack and Luka on my teams in open gym just to see how they operate, see what they like in pick-and-rolls, just find a rhythm with them,” Wagner said.

“I’m trying to be a playmaker. It’s not just about scoring. I know my defense is good. I’m working on handling the ball, creating shots for myself, creating shots for others and just trying to get everybody involved.”

Wagner scored 32 points with 10 rebounds in Thursday’s PTL win. The eye-opening stat may have been this, though: six assists for a player who had 46 of them in 34 games as a sophomore.

“Passing has been a big thing of mine,” said Wagner, whose summer workouts now begin with some solitary ball-handling drills. “Trying to find people for 3s, lobs, doing whatever I can to locate my game to the perimeter now because we’ve got a lot more big guys. So I’m going to have to work on my playmaking more.”

Wagner started 18 games last season, averaging 4.8 points and 3.4 rebounds. His forte was his relentless energy, almost always expended within five feet of the basket. He missed his only two 3-point shots and, although he ranked fourth on the team with 82 free-throw attempts, he was last in percentage of free throws made at 46.3.

None of this screams “perimeter player.”

But Wagner is undaunted.

“I like it a lot on the wing. I’m quick. I can defend the wing position,” he said after making 2-of-4 3-pointers Thursday. “If my ball-handling gets tight enough and my shot gets well enough, I don’t see why I can’t play that the whole year.”

Wagner remains Iowa’s strongest player. The proof is in the weight room, where he said sophomores Tyler Cook and Cordell Pemsl have been working to close the gap on him.

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Northern Iowa and University of Iowa basketball players are getting together to play in the Prime Time League. Here are some of the more intriguing players and matchups to watch for. Tyler Davis/The Register

Wagner called Garza and Nunge “tenacious rebounders,” but not quite up to his par yet. He good-naturedly makes sure the rookies recognize that, too.

“I do what I do. They know. They know they’re still the young guys,” Wagner said. “I’ve got to shove them around a little bit and show them the ropes.”

That makes Wagner’s role an interesting case study for a Hawkeye team that includes eight forwards 6-7 or taller. All of them are trying to show coach Fran McCaffery they are indispensable.

“Coach has told us that, every forward that we have can play,” Wagner said. “There’s going to be minutes out there. Whether I’m in the post or on the wing, I’m trying to show coach that I can play wherever he needs me to play.

“I’m going to bring energy. I’m going to still do that.”

Wagner wants to protect the 16 minutes per game he averaged last season. He learned two years ago how precious playing time is.

“If I took a break, if I got a little injury and I sat out, I got pushed deeper down,” he said.

“You’ve got to be ready at all times because anybody can jump ahead of you on the depth chart, and that’s not what you want.”

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