Iowa forward Ahmad Wagner looks to expand his game with Nicholas Baer sidelined by injury

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Ahmad Wagner is having to re-evaluate everything he does on the basketball court.

The muscular 6-foot-7 Iowa junior has been a post player for most of his career. He’s been shoving people around in the lane, setting picks, grabbing rebounds, passing to the perimeter.

Wagner is the team’s starting small forward as the 2017-18 season begins with an 8 p.m. Friday home game against Chicago State.

Ahmad Wagner has been a hard-nosed Iowa Hawkeyes role player for two season. Now he wants to become a playmaker as the team's starting small forward.

The Hawkeyes have been adding height in Fran McCaffery’s eighth year as coach. Wagner has been trying to add versatility.

“I’m trying to be more of a playmaker,” Wagner said Thursday. “Coach had a conversation with me. He said, ‘You’re still thinking like a 4. You’ve got to start thinking like a 3.’”

That will be even more imperative for Wagner in the early going this season as Iowa adjusts to life without sixth man Nicholas Baer. Baer is a quintessential wing player and generally gets 25 minutes a game at that position. But he’s out for 3-4 weeks with a broken pinky.

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“I’m going to have to do more,” Wagner acknowledged. “Nicholas comes in and he makes plays immediately. With me being in the starting lineup, I’m going to have to do that.”

Wagner started 18 games last season, averaging 4.8 points and 3.4 rebounds. His primary value was as a hard-nosed defender.

That’s still how he views himself. But Wagner believes he can be a better passer on the perimeter, getting past defenders off the dribble and finding open teammates like guard Jordan Bohannon and forward Tyler Cook. He did finish fifth on last year’s team with 46 assists.

“He's shooting it better, he's driving the ball better,” McCaffery said of Wagner.

“We'll need that. If you want to play the 3 spot, you have to do that a little bit more than you do as a driving 4.”

Wagner said he’d like to pattern his game on Golden State Warriors star Draymond Green. He can be a small forward in a bigger lineup or a power forward in a smaller lineup, all the while showing the versatility to guard any position.

“We run,” Wagner said of the Hawkeyes, who were 19-15 last year. “The 4 and 5 take the ball out and run the middle of the floor … 2s and 3s, they run the wings, get to the corners, space the floor, shoot, drive. I’ve got to think more run to the wing, use my dribbling ability, my drive-and-kick ability.”

Baer’s absence opens the door for 6-11 freshman Jack Nunge as well. He figures to be the primary backup on the wing, although McCaffery said senior Dom Uhl and sophomore Maishe Dailey also could see time there.

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Nunge’s effectiveness will depend on his ability to defend quicker guards on the perimeter. He was never asked to do that at Castle High School in Newburgh, Indiana.

“You’ve just got to keep them in front and get a hand up,” Nunge said.

But being on the wing, at his size, gives Nunge a distinct advantage on the offensive end. He can shoot over defenders with ease, as he showed while making 10 of 15 shots in Iowa’s two exhibition wins, including 4 of 7 from the 3-point arc.

Nunge is also working on driving around defenders, assuming they’ll start overplaying him on the perimeter.

“If I’m going to shoot, they’re going to start contesting more,” Nunge said. “Giving the shot fake, the second move, the first move — just getting to the rim and finishing over guys, I think that’s probably huge.”

McCaffery has been pleased with what he’s seen from Nunge.

“He moves his feet really well and he takes advantage of his length,” McCaffery said. “He can guard smaller people. He gives you a lot of flexibility.”

How much flexibility Iowa can get from Wagner and Nunge will be one of the biggest story lines of the opening three weeks of the season. When Baer returns, the Hawkeyes could go three-deep at the 3, and that would put a lot of pressure on opponents.