Team 102

2017-18 Player Preview: Moritz Wagner

Michigan’s top returning player can compete with the Big Ten’s best.

Previously: Zavier Simpson

Derrick Walton, Jr. isn’t walking through the Crisler Center doors. Neither is Zak Irvin. That makes Moritz Wagner, equal parts playful and fiery, Michigan’s best bet for alpha dog this season.

At 6’11” with a deft shooting touch—he was 45-for-114 (40 percent) from three last year—and ability to handle the ball, Wagner is a tough guard for many opposing big men. Michigan will need more performances like what he did against Louisville in the NCAA Tournament (26 points) and Purdue at home (24) and less of what he provided against Ohio State and Northwestern (a combined 13 points and eight fouls).

Balance is a key word for Wagner. That means generating energy without getting, as John Beilein has said, “emotionally drunk.” It means learning to use his body on defense without picking up two quick fouls. It means shooting open threes but not forgetting about driving to the hoop.

Wagner showed flashes of this as a freshman two seasons ago. He had some nice games early in the year, rode the bench for much of the Big Ten season, and re-emerged in the postseason with important contributions in the conference tournament against Indiana and in the NCAA Tournament play-in game against Tulsa.

Expectations were modest heading into last year. It’s hard to believe now, but it was unclear who would start between Wagner and Mark Donnal. Beilein didn’t know if Wagner could defend or rebound well enough to make his offensive skills worthwhile. While there were plenty of silly fouls and defensive slips, Wagner had a breakout season. He earned All-Big Ten honorable mention and will likely be on the preseason First Team this year.

In the aforementioned game against Purdue, Wagner scored 22 in the first half because the Boilermakers’ big men didn’t want to drift to the three-point line to guard him and couldn’t stay in front of him when he drove. Louisville defenders were long and athletic and yet Wagner took it to them, putting his head down and getting to the rim time and again when Michigan needed a basket.

It was that game, perhaps more than any, that made Wagner a first-round pick in certain mock drafts. He tested the waters by attending the NBA Draft Combine but, unlike his frontcourt teammate DJ Wilson, decided to return to school for his junior year. No returning Wolverine had more points, rebounds, steals, or blocks than Wagner last season.

Improving his game would include becoming a better passer. Wagner won’t be asked to facilitate regularly for others, but he can’t have blinders on when driving to the hoop. It’s easier said than done, especially for someone his size, but Beilein will certainly emphasize it (In fact, he has been since last year’s exhibition game). Wagner will also have to adapt to playing with a new point guard after developing an effective pick-and-roll chemistry with Walton.

Like many players, Wagner got a lot stronger between his freshman and sophomore seasons. He’ll likely be even more physically ready this year—he’s listed at 245 pounds—which should improve his defense and, as Beilein stresses, his ability to play through contact.

Wagner is often the player asking Crisler’s fans to make noise, and they have no problem fulfilling the request. He’s the most outwardly passionate player on the Michigan roster and should have some must-see matchups with fellow Big Ten bigs this season.

Quotable: John Beilein on what he’s been telling Wagner heading into this season: “‘How did you get to this point, Moe? You didn’t get to this point by thinking about the NBA. You thought about your individual growth. So now that you’re on their radar, don’t stop what you’re doing.'”

Best-case scenario: Wagner has the talent to challenge for Big Ten Player of the Year and be the leader, statistically and vocally, for a very competitive Michigan team.

Bottom line: Surely one of Wagner’s goals this year will be improved defense and rebounding without committing foolish fouls, and more consistent play. Taking the next step means limiting the disappearing acts (He played just 8 minutes in the second half of Michigan’s Sweet 16 loss) and playing better on the road (70 eFG% at home vs. 55 eFG% on the road). He has the skills and the attitude to have a very special season, but how will he react to his name being at the top of the scouting report in 2017-18?

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