Season Review: Moritz Wagner

Submitted by Alex Cook on May 18th, 2016 at 3:09 PM

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PREVIOUSLY: Zak Irvin, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, Duncan Robinson, Mark Donnal, The Departed, Derrick Walton, Context in the Beilein Era

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.

Comments

Evil Empire

May 18th, 2016 at 8:12 PM ^

I believe this was a Michigan game years ago, probably when Amaker was coach.  I can't remember which big man it was (Courtney Sims?), but after seeing a big miss a few bunnies, the color commentator said "dunk the ball, son."  I shouted that at Jordan Morgan many a time, but Donnal and to a lesser extent Doyle suffered from the same malady.

Lanknows

May 19th, 2016 at 12:38 PM ^

Wagner is a 6'10ish freshman transitioning from Europe who showed flashes of excellence. There's a lot of reason to think he can improve dramatically and quickly. If Wagner is playing up to his potential, Michigan may contend for a conference championship.

Wilson is a junior who couldn't earn minutes (again) and is moving positions because Michigan needs a 4 and because his path to playing at the 5 is blocked by younger players and a mediocre-on-a-good-day undersized senior. If Wilson is playable at the 4 that is a major step forward, but he's not going to dramatically change this team's fortunes even in the best reasonable case scenario.

 

Lanknows

May 19th, 2016 at 12:34 PM ^

He is dramatically overrated by Michigan fans.  I see the upside too but he is so very far from reaching it.  I watched the Tulsa game and the others and saw some tantalizing things, but I also watched him get worked repeatedly.

Beilein played him more than 20 minutes twice all year, despite Michigan's other Centers playing like crap. I know there are a lot of Beilein bashers out there but the guy isn't a fool.

If he doesn't return to Europe after the season he may have a shot of being Michigan's best player, but Irvin and Walton aren't within reach in the immediate future even if he takes a massive leap forward.

Lanknows

May 18th, 2016 at 4:19 PM ^

Nice write-up.  Wagner looks like he has more offensive potential than any Beilein big not named McGary.  What he did as a skinny true freshman was tantelizing.

The other end remains a serious issue, especially as the team gets (hopefully) more defense-oriented with the new coaching staff.

Wagner's shot-blocking percentage was below Donnal's and on-par with Jordan Morgan (who was notoriously poor at blocking shots.) His 13% defensive rebound rate is deplorable - for context, Jon Horford was at nearly double that and Morgan was consistently around 19%. Wagner needs to get to around 16-18% if he wants to play starter-level minutes (or Michigan needs to find a PF who can take on that role.) Offensive rebounding wasn't quite as obviously a problem, but still below 10% - a low bar that Horford and Morgan met as underclassmen. I'm not sure he "showed he could hold up in the post" at all.  Somebody needs to be ready to play against frontlines like Swanigen-Haas and Wagner was not. He averaged 6 minutes in 3 games against the Boilermakers.

I think it's obvious that either Teske or Davis will be in the center rotation from Day 1 (along with Donnal and Wagner). Michigan needs centers who can rebound and defend like centers and Wagner and Donnal don't appear to be that.  I do agree that Wagners physical potential and youth work in his favor - he could improve dramatically.  But even if he does, he has a long way to go to be an even adequate post defender.

I do agree though that Wagner is probably the biggest X-factor on the team. If he can play like what he did against Tulsa for a full season Michigan will challenge for the Big Ten title. 

Lanknows

May 18th, 2016 at 6:53 PM ^

Comparing their freshman seasons it's abundantly clear that McGary was leaps and bounds better. See the difference in PER of 26 for McGary vs Wagner's 14.  Almost any stat you look at shows McGary with a significant advantage.

Most glaring difference is that Wagner showed zero potential to ever come close to McGary's rebounding.  McGary was the better shot-blocker, passer, interior scorer, and defender (His steal rate was far better anyway).  About the only argument I see for Wagner is that he looked like a better outside shooter from range. Even there his 2/12 on 3s wasn't exactly great while McGary worked from the elbow quite successfully and showed a consistent mid-range J.

Maybe we can argue that McGary had already come close to his peak and that Wagner is on his way to becoming something like a college version of Kevin Garnett, but that's pretty dang fanciful. McGary improved from fresh to soph year and probably would have continued to had he stuck around longer at Michigan.  Wagner should too - but he has a looooooong way to go just to catch up to the freshman version of McGary.

Lanknows

May 18th, 2016 at 7:56 PM ^

Age, physical development, and coming from abroad are all factors that would indicate Wagner has more room to grow. Still, the gap is so huge that I'm not sure Wagner gets to McGary's level even if everything clicks perfectly.  McGary has a built-in physical advantage - special athleticism for a guy his size. As is the case for most NBA players. 

To drive my point home - nobody is really buzzing about Wagner's NBA potential. That's something that gets at potential, even controlling for prep school and age differential. McGary was an NBA prospect before he hit campus.  Wagner needs to demonstrate a high level of skill to get there.

Put another way: the best case scenario for Wagner may still be somewhere beneath McGary's freshman year -- in the same way that Trey Burke's sophomore year is probably above the best case scenario for any incoming guards Michigan recruits.

I'm not trying to bag on Wagner here, it's just that McGary is on another level. It's more appropriate to compare Mo to Morgan, Horford, Udoh, Smotrycz, Sims, Donnal, Teske, etc.  while McGary can be compared to Webber, Howard, Vaught, Taylor, and Traylor.  That's not to say Wagner can't/won't make it to the NBA but the guys that do generally stand out immediately.

OkemosBlue

May 19th, 2016 at 6:50 AM ^

        Exactly how do you control for age and a lack of high level experience & coaching for a 19 year old?   I don't think you can.   All you have to do is to look at all the top big men recruits who didn't make it in the NBA or who had mediocre careers (of all those you listed, only Webber had a great NBA career and Howard a solid one), and the list of comparables is way too dissimilar in body and typ of talent  to be of much use. And you haven't even seen Teske play in college yet.

Lanknows

May 19th, 2016 at 12:28 PM ^

They try to project what a range of people (5-year college players vs 1 year out of high school vs europe) and range of ages (19 to 24) are going to perform like 2 to10 years from now.  They are pretty dang good at it, as career production correlates very strongly to draft position  (though when you get outside of the lottery this correlation gets weaker quickly.)

Wagners lack of NBA buzz speaks to his overall potential.

Vaught was very good in the NBA for many years (16-10 machine) until getting injured. Howard was an all-star who earned a max contract, so calling his career 'solid' understates it. Webber is a hall-of-famer.  McGary is (obviously) not as proven but as an NBA player with (yes) a similar body type and requisite freakish athletism-size combo that's who his peer group is.

I'll put Teske into that group of NBA talents when he shows he belongs there.  As a scholarship basketball player at Michigan I'll compare him to other scholarship basketball players at Michigan until he at least offers a hint that he belongs in that heigher echelon.

Lanknows

May 19th, 2016 at 12:17 PM ^

The same comments apply.  The gap was enormous, as indicated by stats like ORtg and OBPM. Like I said, potential is in the eye of the beholder, but McGary had far better offensive numbers as a freshman.  The passing, post skills, offensive rebounding, finishing, physical presence (screens, rolls), and transition game were far better. Other than attempting more 3s, there's not much evidence that "Mo has a much better offensive skil set". Also, effort is talent, and McGary got after it in a way that Wagner hasn't indicated he can match - on both ends.

So again - Wagner may have more room for improvement but he has a long way to go just to reach even freshman-level McGary.

You're entitled to your opinion and I'm entitled to point out why it's not grounded in any reality or backed by any evidence.

 

champswest

May 19th, 2016 at 5:48 PM ^

insisting on comparing stats from their freshmen years when we are talking potential. Mitch was 2 years older than Mo as a freshman. Let's check out Mo when  he is 20 years old.

Maybe you should compare Mo's freshman stats to Mitch as a HS junior to compensate for the age difference. Then you could also adjust for the much metter talent that Mitch was surrounded with at Michigan than Mo was.

Lanknows

May 19th, 2016 at 7:56 PM ^

Is that Mitch's freshman stats are really really good. It's not that the freshman to freshman comparison is in McGary's favor it's how massive the gap is. McGary's numbers aren't easy to acheive for anybody, regardless of age or teamates.

Mitch was already getting NBA buzz in high school when he was 18. The potential was evident and schools like Kansas and Duke were recruiting him because of it. His matchups against Nerlens Noel were well scouted and got national attention. Maybe we can argue that Wagner has the excuse of being in Europe for the lack of attention but that doesn't go anymore now that he's been here a year. NBA scouts have seen him (when scouting Caris Levert) and the buzz (i.e., the way that objective experts see his potential playing out) is non-existant.

Wagner could get there, in theory. So could Austin Davis.  So could Xavier Simpson if hits an unexpected 1 foot growth spurt. Anything is possible.But some things are unrealistic. What if I told you Jordan Poole has the potential to be Steph Curry?

And since we are talking about potential for Michigan the age/eligibility issue is neutralized. I think we can agree that Wagner won't be at McGary-level next season so, in some best-case scenario, where Wagner is putting up numbers like McGary did his freshman year, he still only has 1 more year to exceed them (at Michigan). While McGary had 2 more years to play at Michigan and continued to improve each year.  In other words, even if Wagner has better long-term NBA offensive potential (a highly dubious argument), he doesn't have a higher offensive ceiling at Michigan.

 

Yinka Double Dare

May 19th, 2016 at 12:23 PM ^

 Against Notre Dame, he scored six points in eight minutes, but totaled four fouls, including a crucial horsecrap charge call on a would-be and-one that gave him his fourth. 

 

FTFY