When Beilein was hired about a decade ago, he had the reputation of being able to attract European recruits – after the Robin Benzing situation fell through early on in his tenure, that reputation sort of faded. I guess those connections never really went away, because Beilein recently pursued another German big man and this time, Moritz Wagner cleared all the hurdles on the path to becoming a Wolverine. Even though he’d actually seen the floor in an exhibition against the then-defending champion San Antonio Spurs, Wagner spent most of his time with the Alba Berlin B team, playing against more age-appropriate opponents. Predicting how well he’d adjust to the increased level of athleticism and physicality in college basketball was a fool’s errand, but it was clear from watching his film that Wagner had an unusual combination of size, handle, and fluidity and that he could potentially grow into an impact player at the college level in time.
Even though a player with his profile (essentially a wing transitioning to being a post player, a la DJ Wilson) would typically redshirt, Wagner did not; whether it was because he’s a Euro prospect – who are far likelier to leave college early than their American counterparts – or because the coaching staff thought he could contribute valuable minutes, I’m not sure, but either way, Wagner saw the floor last year. In the fifth game of the season, Moritz dominated a weak Charlotte team to the tune of 19 points on just 9 shot equivalents in 16 minutes(!) of playing time. He followed that up with 41 combined minutes in Michigan’s next two games (both against high-major opponents) and at the time, it seemed as if he was quickly becoming the Wolverines’ best option at the five.
It didn’t work out that way. Even before Mark Donnal emerged as a feasible starter with starter minutes, Wagner’s minutes evaporated: on the floor, he was turnover-prone (a casualty of his playmaking instincts, but an issue nonetheless), couldn’t avoid getting himself into foul trouble (7.3 fouls per 40 minutes on the year) and particularly struggled with defending and rebounding. A quote from a Brendan Quinn piece after his early-season breakout is instructive: "I've never been a natural rebounder, I guess. I think it (takes) a lot of experience to know when to watch the ball, how to box out your opponent and how to be in the right place. I think it comes with time." Once Big Ten play rolled around, Wagner became an afterthought in Beilein’s rotation, only totaling 55 minutes over 18 games.
[Hit the JUMP for more on Moritz]
Fortunately for Wagner (and for Michigan), his season didn’t end there. In the post-season, he came off the bench to make a big impact in the Indiana and Tulsa games, both must-win affairs that came down to the final possessions. In the Indiana game, he outplayed the Hoosiers’ star freshman big Thomas Bryant head-to-head and was kept on the floor during crunch time – before the Kam Chatman game winner, Wagner set the screen that freed up Derrick Walton. The 16 minutes he played were the most he’d gotten since a December cupcake game, and he made the most of them. Unsurprisingly, the game the following day against Purdue was more of a struggle, as their size, strength, and physicality seemed to bother Moritz.
It was the Tulsa game in the First Four where Wagner really shined. Against an undersized Golden Hurricane frontcourt, he put together a very solid stat line: only four points (but no missed shots), eight rebounds (three offensive) and four blocks, to go along with a steal and an assist. Moritz had shown that he understood the defensive principle of verticality, but hadn’t demonstrated that he could be an impactful rim-protector – and he was just that against Tulsa. Adding in his screening ability and the extra possessions generated by offensive rebounding, he has considerable on-court value – even without scoring. Against Notre Dame, he scored six points in eight minutes, but totaled four fouls, including a crucial charge call on a would-be and-one that gave him his fourth. It was clear that he was a better option than Donnal in that game, but foul trouble prevented him from staying on the floor and Michigan’s season ended.
The flashes he showed near the end of the year were enough to give Michigan fans a healthy dose of optimism heading into next year. For example, Ace considered Moritz’s late-season breakout to be one of the season’s biggest bright spots:
Weezy, Freed. Save a few anomalous performances by Mark Donnal, the center position was a major sore spot this season, but there's renewed hope for next year after the late-season breakout of Moe Wagner.
Over the last four games of the season, Wagner went 9/9 from the field—including a three-pointer—with six offensive rebounds and four blocks in only 55 minutes. He was far and away Michigan's best pick-and-roll big, catching opponents square with his screens—he freed up Derrick Walton on the last play of the Indiana BTT game, forcing the help that opened up Kam Chatman in the corner—and showing great instincts for when to slip to the basket; it helped that he was a more reliable catcher and finisher than Donnal or Ricky Doyle, too. Despite being a skinny freshman, he showed he can hold up in the post on defense and potentially be a sorely needed rim protector.
Wagner's potential is tantalizing. At 6'10", he's got the frame to easily add 15-25 pounds and return next season in the 240-250 range. He dunks when Michigan's other big men go for layups. He has the athleticism and length to alter shots, run the floor, and even beat big men off the dribble. He made 71%(!) of his two-pointers as a freshman. If he can stay on the floor—a big question given his 7.3 fouls/40 minutes mark—he could turn the center spot from a negative into a positive in just one season.
Moritz’s potential is pretty evident while watching him play, and if there’s a possible “x-factor” for next year, it’s the German big man who’s kind of still learning how to be a big man. Hopefully his first full offseason in the United States will provide him with more experience, because his skills and playmaking ability were readily apparent even when he was struggling with some of the more rudimentary parts of playing center in the Big Ten. Beilein’s only truly dynamic big man thus far at Michigan was Mitch McGary, but it’s really, really hard not to get excited about the possibility of Moritz becoming a similarly impactful player in time – of course, he won’t be able to replicate McGary’s ability to gobble up rebounds, but he’s already made a few threes and offers a different type of skill-set than Mitch did.
With lingering questions about Michigan’s ceiling as a team with Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin leading the way, a breakout sophomore campaign from Wagner could be the solution – Michigan’s big man play has oscillated between terrible and adequate over the last two seasons and the big German has the ability to inject some life into the center position for Michigan.