Experts: Michigan's Wagner, Wilson not ready for NBA

James Hawkins
The Detroit News
Michigan forwards D.J. Wilson and Moritz Wagner haven't yet announced if they will enter the NBA Draft.

With the college basketball season officially over, programs are beginning to look ahead to next year.

For Michigan, one swirling question remains: Will Moritz Wagner and D.J. Wilson return for their junior seasons?

The frontcourt tandem garnered NBA buzz and popped up on draft boards during Michigan’s postseason run, helping the Wolverines win the Big Ten tournament title and reach the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament.

While neither Wagner, a 6-foot-11 center, nor Wilson, a 6-10 forward, have announced whether they will declare for the NBA Draft, ESPN basketball analyst Tim McCormick doesn’t think either big man is ready for the next level yet.

“Come back to school and have a year where you’re All-Big Ten,” said McCormick, who played at Michigan from 1980-84 and went on to have an eight-year career in the NBA. “You get a lot of All-American recognition, you’re learning how to play nine out of 10 games at a high level rather than five out of 10. Come back and learn how to lead a team. That’s one of the problems in the NBA nowadays is you have rosters of guys that have never been the dominate player in their program.

“They’ve never given themselves a chance to really learn how to be the strongest, the most confident and the biggest producer on the court, so that’s what I could see from D.J. and Moe.”

ESPN’s Chad Ford recently projected Wagner as the No. 25 overall pick in June’s draft. Ford’s top 100 draft prospects list also has Wagner at No. 24 as a mid-first-round pick and Wilson at No. 30 as a late first-round pick. has neither player projected to be selected in its most recent 2017 mock draft, but has Wilson projected as the No. 18 pick in the 2018 draft.

“The truth is that when you enter the draft, you want to be a hot commodity,” said McCormick, who was the 12th overall pick in the 1984 draft. “You want to be a lottery pick, you want to be somebody that they’re investing millions of dollars in rather than that guy that is going to be an afterthought at the end of the first round or second round and you’re going to be on the end of the bench.

“You’re going to get sent down to the D-League and then brought back up and sent down to the D-League and if in a couple years you develop, then they’re happy about that. I just feel like with this draft in particular, if you look at the top 15 picks are all either freshmen or freshmen-age imports from other countries. This is not a draft that you want to come in and think that you’re going to be a high pick. It’s an aberration at this many freshmen.”

Moritz Wagner

Wagner averaged 12.1 points, 4.2 rebounds and a steal in 23.9 minutes this past season. He also shot 56 percent from the field — tops among Michigan’s starting lineup — and 39.5 percent from 3-point range, but led the Wolverines by a wide margin with 102 personal fouls and played 247 fewer minutes than Wilson.

In the postseason, Wagner had a couple standout moments, pouring in 14 first-half points against Minnesota in the Big Ten tournament semifinals and 26 points against Louisville in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. But in Michigan’s five other postseason games, Wagner never cracked double digits and averaged 6.2 points.

“(Wagner) is not as athletic (as Wilson) but I think he has the potential to have more size. I could see him as more of a center but he’s got to add strength,” McCormick said. “He has a high skill set, very smart player. He has an emotional component to his game that makes him really appealing but if you’re inconsistent at the college level, what happens when you play 100 games including exhibitions and playoffs? It’s a whole different story and that added strength and maturity would really help him a great deal.”

According to a Western Conference NBA scout, Wagner has shown he’s comfortable facing up at his size but was really bothered by Oregon’s athleticism in the Sweet 16 matchup. The scout added while Wagner projects to play the four or five, he isn’t physical enough at this point to play a five in the NBA.

“(The five) is his best position going into it based on what I’ve seen and there’s no question that he should be coming back and continue to improve his consistency and improve his strength so that he can continue to battle with those guys that he’s going to have to play against,” the scout said. “I didn’t see the ability to play against some of the new-school fours in the NBA.

“If he has to go out and guard (Warriors forward) Draymond (Green) then he’s in trouble, a lot of guys are. So you’re picturing him as a five going into it and a guy who can stretch the floor but becoming more consistent at doing that and becoming more consistent at rebounding and staying out of foul trouble.”

D.J. Wilson

Like Wagner, Wilson had his share of shining moments in his first season as a full-time starter. Wilson averaged 11 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.5 blocks and 1.3 assists in 30.4 minutes and shot 53.8 percent from the field (37.3 percent on 3-pointers).

Wilson elevated his play in the postseason and scored in double figures in six of Michigan’s final seven games, highlighted by his 26-point outburst against Purdue in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals. He also recorded 19 points against Oklahoma State and 17 points against Louisville in the NCAA Tournament, and made several clutch free throws in the final seconds to seal both wins.

“I watched the first week of (Michigan’s) practice in person and I immediately thought D.J. had improved more than any other player on the team. I saw NBA athleticism out of him,” McCormick said. “I thought that he had gained so much confidence and added strength. He was a really good shooter when he arrived but his athleticism separates him from players his size. He’s very athletic, he runs with sprinter speed for a big guy, but the thing that really surprised me how quick he is laterally which allows him to be a very good pick-and-roll defender.”

McCormick added while Wilson understands his role on the team and is a cerebral player, he’s an unfinished product that still has much more growth ahead.

According to the NBA scout, Wilson is similar to Wagner because he hasn’t figured out “how to play physical without getting caught” and loses his aggressiveness when he picks up early fouls. The scout added while Wilson’s shooting range causes problems for big men who are slow to rotate in the Big Ten, he still has to prove he’s a four in the NBA who can put the ball on the floor and not just stand out on the perimeter and shoot.

“(Wilson) intrigues you with his size, he intrigues you with his length, he intrigues you that he can shoot the ball but same thing (as Wagner), he’s got to improve his rebounding, he’s got to improve his defense and his consistency,” the scout said. “I think his motor and getting involved and being in a scrappy environment a little bit more is going to prove some of his naysayers differently.

“I would think if you put him in a one-on-one game with (Michigan State’s) Miles Bridges, Miles Bridges is going to beat his butt every time. I think most NBA guys think you can teach shooting but you can’t teach playing hard, you can’t teach toughness and those would be the two questions I think about him at this stage.”

The NCAA allows underclassmen to declare for the draft, test the waters if invited to the NBA Combine and then retain their eligibility if they decide to return to college, so long as they don’t hire an agent.

This year, underclassmen have until April 23 to enter the draft. Under the new rules implemented last year, players are allowed to enter the draft multiple times and participate in the Combine and one NBA team tryout per year.

The underclassmen who enter their name have until 10 days after the Combine, which will take place May 9-14 in Chicago, to remove it from draft consideration and maintain their college eligibility.

The NBA scout said Wilson and Wagner have an opportunity to get drafted much higher if they return to Michigan. However, McCormick added it wouldn’t be a bad idea for the two to put their name in the draft, gather information and test themselves at the Combine.

“Every year we see so many players with the same talent level and same upside as D.J. and Moe. They chase their dreams and that’s great, but they’re not ready,” McCormick said. “In the NBA it’s a man’s game and if you’re not ready, you’re going to sit on the bench and you may never get your chance. Every year there’s somebody that takes that chance and it pays off and it could be somebody like D.J. and Moe, but every year you see a lot more guys that they don’t make it, they fade into obscurity and you say, ‘Gosh, what ever happened to so and so?’

“I’m a big believer in when you walk into the NBA be a top-20 pick because that way the teams are making a big investment, they want you to play and you’re going to get an opportunity. After that, you’re hoping for an injury, you’re going to the D-League. I’ll also be the first to say I’m all in favor of a guy taking a shot. It’s a lot of money and if your family needs it and you’re desperate to chase your dream then go for it, but you have to know that there are some risks.”