When the Los Angeles Lakers selected Moritz Wagner, a junior out of Michigan with the No. 25 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, I had to smile a little. I had profiled one draft candidate after another, including players like Kevin Huerter, Mitchell Robinson, Donte DiVincenzo, and others, thinking that one of these prospects would wind up being Lakers. Wagner was one of the few that I didn’t.
And I should have seen it coming, because he’s the most “Lakers” draft pick ever.
They have made a habit out of surprising us with their picks with players like Larry Nance Jr., Josh Hart, and Kyle Kuzma, finding talents who were ready to contribute but fell because other franchises equate youth with potential rather than valuing the experience that a lengthier college stay can bring.
Most mock drafts had Wagner projected to go at least 10 picks later than where he was selected. He’s a modern big that can shoot a bit from behind the arc and is better-than-expected at taking opponents off the dribble when they close out. Wagner is also surprisingly fast, comparing favorably to a number of guards at the draft combine in the lane agility drill, shuttle run, and 3/4 court sprint.
However, Wagner’s wingspan isn’t impressive and it hurts his ability to both finish in traffic and protect the paint, and his vertical is good but not exceptional enough yet to mitigate the problem. He can get pushed around a bit on the block because like most rookies, he hasn’t quite filled out his frame yet. That won’t fly in the NBA, particularly if the Lakers plan to use him as a replacement for Brook Lopez at center.
No, in terms of measurables, Wagner just doesn’t scream first round pick.
But there’s a reason why advanced stats and measurables only count for so much. There are intangibles that go a long way towards making a player successful — or not.
On Saturday night at the Las Vegas Summer League, Wagner, while playing center, picked up his mark at half court then made the read and picked off a poorly timed pass. Few bigs can make that play.
He exploded down the floor on the break with ill intentions, then cocked the ball back with his right hand and slammed it home, lingering for an extra beat or two after to stare down those of us on press row at the Thomas and Mack Center just because we happened to be in his line of sight.
It was jarringly violent and aggressive, bringing the heavily pro-Lakers crowd to a frenzy. Wagner joined in the frenzied exuberance, waving his arms and encouraging the crowd to rise to their feet as though it was the NBA Finals and not a Summer League game.
The bottom line is that wingspan, defensive metrics, offensive efficiency, all of these things matter but there is no way to quantify just how much of a competitive madman a player is.
Off the floor, Wagner is personable and friendly, answering questions with an enthusiasm that leaves little doubt that he’s having the time of his life with the Lakers.
But on the court, when the game tips off, he’s as mad as a hatter.
It may not come across on television, but barely a second goes by that Wagner isn’t talking. He calls out actions on the defensive end like a quarterback, screaming instructions to teammates on what’s coming. Second-year guard Josh Hart commented that Wagner still “misses some calls and coverages,” but that doesn’t stop him from barking them out early and often.
Wagner flings barbs at opponents freely and is in the habit of shouting “Give me that!” whenever he grabs a rebound over someone and if his reactions are to be believed, he doesn’t seem to think any call against him is a good one.
He’s the kind of player that you hate to play against but love when he’s on your team because he gets under the skin of his opponents so easily with his endless effort and verbal barrage.
Wagner also endears himself by crashing all over the floor with little regard to his own health, Summer League be damned. A game is a game and he does whatever it takes to win, even if that means diving to the floor like the world depends on it.
He defends aggressively, picking up fouls like Thanos collects Infinity Stones.
At some point, Wagner will have to reign in his physicality if he wants to keep from fouling out, but in Summer League the foul limit is increased from six to 10 so summer head coach Miles Simon lets him hack away. Better to learn the refs’ boundaries now than when the games really count.
Lakers head coach Luke Walton is already well aware of Wagner’s eccentricities. Against the Chicago Bulls on Sunday night, Wagner was fouled on the break but crashed towards the basket anyway and finished with a dunk. His momentum carried him toward a row of Lakers coaches who were sitting on the baseline, including Walton and Brian Shaw. Without breaking stride, Wagner high-fived his coaches and with a grin on his face and asked, “That doesn’t count, right?”
Summer League is serious business; a first — and sometimes only — opportunity for players to make a real impression on NBA coaches, but Wagner can’t help but crack every now and then and show just how much fun he’s having hurling himself all over the court.
After the game, which was the team’s second consecutive win in Las Vegas and featured 14 big rebounds from Wagner, he again addressed the coaching staff, boasting “2-0 baby, we’re going to go all the way!”
There were other players on the board at 25 that ranked higher, but it’s hard to watch Wagner play and not be swept up in the madness the Lakers found.
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