March 15, 2017
By Kurt Svoboda
"Moe's a problem," said Derrick Walton Jr. of University of Michigan teammate and big man Moritz Wagner following a victory over Purdue in late February. "That's all I can say, he's a problem. He's got so many skills, I don't think you can put him in a box on what he's capable doing."
That comment, from the Big Ten Men's Basketball Tournament MVP point guard, about how difficult Wagner is for opponents was flush with confidence and admiration for the 6-foot-11 forward from Berlin, Germany. Comments similar to Walton's have become the norm following Michigan's championship run with Wagner having officially "arrived" in the minds of Michigan's faithful.
A rising star both for his style of play and execution, Wagner enters the 2017 NCAA Tournament averaging 12.0 points per game on 56 percent shooting, including an eye-opening 41 percent mark from three-point range, to go along with 4.2 rebounds in just 24 minutes per game.
That production and the process are what head coach John Beilein forecasted when recruiting Wagner in 2013. Beilein, well-known in basketball circles for his ability to maximize potential and churn out NBA-ready athletes, saw a raw offensive talent with tremendous shooting potential and a love for the game that would help develop him into an all-around star.
Michigan's all-time winningest coach saw someone with the potential to stretch defenses on the wing, punish overzealous close-outs by taking defenders off the dribble like a guard, and fight for loose balls around the rim like a center.
When spotted by Beilein, Wagner demonstrated some of these traits -- good hands, a deft high-arching shot and a developed touch around the rim. Beilein immediately saw a fit for his system -- and one that could eventually become the centerpiece of a professional organization. The rest of Wagner's growth could be imagined through hard work under Beilein's mentorship -- footwork, defensive anticipation and shot-blocking ability. The Michigan staff understood that the complete evolution would take time with a wide gap between his offensive prowess and defensive understanding of the game.
Wagner credits Beilein, his teammates and the rest of the Wolverines' staff with his rapid development over the past two seasons.
"Technically, I've been trying to get my shot off a little quicker, but that's about it," Wagner told Steve Kornacki in an MGoBlue.com feature last month. "I worked with Coach Beilein a lot last summer and then it was just reps. At some point, it comes down to confidence and having the trust of your coaching staff and teammates. That helps me a lot."
The fact that he is only averaging 24.0 minutes a game is attributed to foul troubles where Wagner leads the team -- by far -- with 95 calls against. Yet again, however, Beilein sees nothing but potential, and his vision is tangible when noting that Wagner still ranks second on the team with 37 steals -- just three behind Walton, Michigan's tenacious defender.
"Defensively, I think I'm still in-progress," said Wagner following an early season win over Texas. "There's a lot to improve. But I've been working on it, we've been working on it very intensely."
"He's (still) learning when to leave his feet and when he shouldn't, and to be a bigger presence at the rim," confirmed Beilein.
Wagner's teammates are witnessing his rapid development first-hand, culminating in the Wolverines' return to a championship position atop the ever-competitive Big Ten Conference. Wagner is still raw, still developing his defense and still growing into what is now a 6-foot-11, 240-pound frame.
"He's a gnat on defense and he's a problem on offense," said Walton. "I'm just happy he's on our side."
Wagner, the biggest problem for Michigan's opponents, is the Wolverines' biggest gain -- another one developed by Beilein and company.