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Wagner growing into key role with Wolverines

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — There were times last year Moritz Wagner was a little lost in translation.

A lanky big man from Berlin, Wagner struggled to stay on the court as a true freshman as he learned Michigan’s intricate and complex system, dealt with foul trouble and grappled with a language barrier.

But amid the sporadic playing time, Wagner flashed his potential.

He dazzled with 19 points against Charlotte in nonconference play and didn’t a miss shot over the final four games, scoring 12 total points on 4-for-4 shooting against Indiana and Purdue in the Big Ten tournament and 10 points on 5-for-5 shooting versus Tulsa and Notre Dame in the NCAA Tournament.

After learning from his mistakes and putting in time in the weight room and gym during the offseason, Wagner unseated redshirt junior Mark Donnal for the starting center role and has emerged as one of Michigan’s most vital players.

Through 11 games, Wagner is just one of three Wolverines averaging double digits in scoring — along with seniors Zak Irvin (14.2 points) and Derrick Walton Jr. (11.5 points) — with 11.2 points and 3.5 rebounds in 18.9 minutes.

It’s a major leap up from the 8.6 minutes, 2.9 points and 1.6 rebounds Wagner averaged over 30 appearances last year.

“I think he sees the game differently,” Michigan coach John Beilein said Friday. “He’s certainly stronger and jumps a little bit better, but he’s really confident right now that he can do a couple of things — that he can shoot from the outside but also can attack off the dribble.

“We see his game evolving every day. It’s a challenge sometimes because I still think we do have language issues at different times. You’d never notice that here but in the huddles and the quick talk that we’re doing and the lessons learned, he does miss some things, but he’s getting better at it.”

With the exception of minutes played and rebounds, Wagner has already topped his production in every offensive and defensive category. On top of that, he’s seen an increase in every shooting area and is in the midst of the best stretch of his young career.

Wagner has scored in double figures the past six games and shot 72.9 percent (35-for-48) from the field during the span, including a career-high 20 points against Kennesaw State, 15 points and the winning shot with 16 seconds left against Texas, and 18 points against Central Arkansas.

“I think last year I said there are moments you’re going to say, ‘Wow, he really can be special’ and then there are other moments he just looks extremely ordinary,” Beilein said. “I think we’re seeing more of the first part and not the latter.”

For the season, Wagner is shooting 66.7 percent (46-for-69) from the field — tied for fourth in the Big Ten — 73.3 percent (33-for-45) on 2-point field goals, and a team-high 54.2 percent (13-for-24) from 3-point range, which also ranks fifth in the Big Ten.

His efficiency and offensive production gives Michigan an element that has been missing the past couple seasons.

“We relied on the guards like Caris (LeVert), Derrick and Zak to do a lot of the scoring and if we can add another facet to the scoring aspect of the game, like Moe, then I think it just helps us out,” redshirt sophomore forward D.J. Wilson said.

“His offensive skill set was always there. It was just a matter of getting to the right places on defense and he’s definitely grown throughout the year in that area.”

Wagner showcased that in dramatic fashion against Texas, when he slid over to cut off Longhorns guard Eric Davis Jr. and blocked his shot in the lane with three seconds left to preserve the win.

Yet Wagner is far from a finished product. He still makes mistakes, has run-ins with foul trouble and misses defensive assignments. And he’ll face a whole new set of challenges once physical Big Ten play begins.

But if one thing is certain, Wagner is just scratching the surface.

“He’s growing and growing every single day,” redshirt junior forward Duncan Robinson said. “I think you’ll see a completely different player than you are right now later in the year.

“I think this is the tip of the iceberg.”

jhawkins@detroitnews.com

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Maryland Eastern Shore at Michigan

Tip-off: 3 p.m. Saturday, Crisler Center, Ann Arbor

TV/radio: BTN/WWJ 950, WTKA 1050

Outlook: Michigan (8-3) has won three straight at home and scored at least 82 points in three of its past four games. … Eastern Shore (1-9) is 0-8 on the road and is led by junior G Ryan Andino (14 points) and senior F Bakari Copeland (13.7 points). ... This is the first meeting between the teams.