INDIANAPOLIS — Moritz Wagner hadn’t planned on going viral last weekend at the Big Ten Tournament.
It was the first half of Michigan’s Big Ten Tournament semifinal against Minnesota, and senior point guard Derrick Walton Jr. had just pulled up for a jumper.
The ball swished through the net, giving the Wolverines an early 14-point lead, and the camera panned to Wagner on the bench laughing maniacally.
A self-assured player who isn’t afraid to show his emotions on the court (occasionally to the exasperation of the officials), Wagner didn’t shy away from the attention that came with his antics.
“I’m afraid that will never change, that I do stuff on the court and then afterwards, I see it on film, and I’m like, ‘Why did I do that? What was I thinking?’” Wagner said. “But I kinda think that’s funny, too, and it belongs to me. It definitely will probably never leave.
“It’s pretty funny, right? It looks ridiculous. I mean, I’ll laugh at it, I’m a goofy kid, (so) I don’t care, but I don’t remember doing it like that. But it’s funny. I’ll take it.”
Wagner may never be able to control his emotions on the court, and there have been plenty of moments when his temperament can be described as “frustrated” instead of “exuberant”. But that hasn’t prevented him from blossoming into one of the Big Ten’s best forwards, a player with a quintessential stretch-five skillset that has NBA scouts talking up his potential.
It is a testament to his development that Wagner may be his team’s X-factor — the player that pushes them just over the edge in a game that, according to Ken Pomeroy, is essentially a coin flip.
This wasn’t always the case. Wagner spent his freshman year as a bit player for much of the season before finding a role late in the year. The potential was there, but there was still a lot of room for improvement on both ends of the court — especially defense, where Wagner looked lost for much of his freshman year.
Wagner stayed in Ann Arbor over the summer, working with strength and conditioning coach Jon Sanderson to become a more physical presence.
The results came quickly. According to assistant coach Saadi Washington, Wagner (along with frontcourt mate DJ Wilson) realized he could bump and grind after wins over Marquette and SMU at the 2K Classic.
That was just the second weekend of the season. The question of whether Wagner could continue to improve on both ends of the court — from becoming a more consistent offensive threat and playing better defense — wouldn’t be answered until later in the season.
On offense, he struggled at first when teams started to switch on every high-ball screen.
“At first, I was frustrated a lot because they switched and I didn’t get the open looks that I usually get,” Wagner said. “But then at some point coach (Beilein) talked to me about that too — it’s actually like a compliment. It’s a luxury to have, and that’s how I see it. It brings a lot of advantages, and we’ll take it either way.”
His defensive performances initially left much to be desired as well — for much of the early part of the season, Beilein would praise Wagner’s contributions on offense while also stressing the need for better defense from the big man.
The incrementation on that side of the floor came slowly, but nevertheless, it was there. Wagner has reduced the number of times he lost his defensive assignment, improved his hedging on high ball screens, and he is also no longer a clear liability when defending in the post.
Which leads us to now: on the eve of the biggest game of the season, Wagner is the potential pivot point. Oklahoma State head coach Brad Underwood and forward Mitchell Solomon have admitted that the Cowboys have little experience dealing with a big man like Wagner.
His performance in the high-ball screen game — as yet another team actively seeks to shut it down — could be the difference in a game between two explosive offenses. The same can be said for his defense: Oklahoma State runs a lot of ball screen action with star point guard Jawun Evans, and Wagner’s competency defending those types of situations will surely be tested.
“It is huge, just because (Evans is) a tremendous player and you can’t guard him with one guy, especially on the ball screen,” Wagner said. “So you’ve got to be ready for different coverages, and you’ve got to be ready too that your coverages won’t always work because he’s a really fast and really good player.”
Added Washington: “He just has to be confident in what he does and just be a playmaker. This is the time of the year when players have got to make plays, and Moe is definitely one of those guys.”