Michigan’s Moritz Wagner says he won't wilt as heat rises

James X Hawkins
The Detroit News
Moritz Wagner

New York — Heading into the 2016-17 season, Michigan center Moritz Wagner was flying under the radar in the Big Ten.

In fact, there’s a good chance he wasn’t even on many teams’ radar.

But this season everything has changed, and so have the expectations.

Wagner is coming off a sophomore campaign in which he started all 38 games and averaged 12.1 points and 4.2 rebounds in 23.9 minutes, which earned him All-Big Ten honorable mention honors one year after he served a reserve role and averaged just 8.6 minutes per game.

And it’ll be hard for Wagner to sneak up on any unsuspecting foes after he was named to the 10-player preseason All-Big Ten team on Thursday.

“It’s crazy. It feels so long ago to be honest with you,” Wagner said at the Big Ten media day at Madison Square Garden. “It’s cool, too, but like, I don’t really care about that stuff (preseason accolades) because I just want to hoop and the rest comes with it.

“Now unfortunately, coaches know me so they have something on me. It was a lot of fun surprising people (last season) because it wasn’t a surprise for me or my teammates. Now it’s another season and you got to look ahead and don’t worry about the past.”

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Following Michigan’s postseason run that ended in the Sweet 16, Wagner flirted with going to the NBA, an opportunity for which he was grateful and from which he received plenty of constructive feedback.

But while he tested the NBA draft waters, Wagner found himself struggling to sleep as he mulled the difficult decision. Eventually he “didn’t feel a need to leave right now" and felt that Michigan has all the resources he needs to improve as a player. 

For a team that has to replace 52.9 percent of its scoring after losing three of its top four scorers — Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin to graduation and D.J. Wilson to the NBA — Wagner’s return was much-welcomed news.

And as one of just three returning Wolverines who played significant minutes last season along with seniors Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson, Wagner isn’t shy about shouldering more responsibility and taking on heightened ambitions.

“For me personally, at least, I put the most pressure on myself,” Wagner said. “I don’t care about what others tell me, what you guys (media) say or awards and all that stuff. The highest pressure always comes from myself and that’s been that way my entire career so I won’t change that. I’m under a lot of pressure anyway.”

According to Michigan coach John Beilein, the next step for Wagner is improving his assist/turnover numbers (20-54 ratio last season), and having a mindset that he can be a rebounder and use his instincts to figure out where the ball is going instead of just reacting.

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That’s one major reason Wagner played with Germany at the FIBA U-20 European Championship over the summer in an attempt to work on his deficiencies. So far, it’s starting to show off in practice.

“He’s just more and more aggressive offensively and also I think he’s improved at passing, creating for others knowing that he’s going to get a lot more attention this year,” Robinson said. “I think he’s growing in that regard and also just emotional maturity. I think he’s grown up a little bit this past year. Having that game experience that he got last year will really bode well for him and us.”

But aside from improving as a rebounder and defender, Wagner said the most important thing he’s striving for is consistency in all phases, including his emotions. Too many times last season he would ride an emotional roller coaster throughout a game and it would affect his play for better and worse. And according to Beilein, Wagner is at his best when he's playing on an even keel. 

“He’s consistent right now, if he’s shooting well, he can be a consistent player,” Beilein said. “If he’s not, other parts of his game drop off and he can’t do that. What he’s got to do right now is just say I got to help this team if I don’t even make a shot today. Do not just be a shooter who plays big man. Be a big man who can also shoot. Be a complete player who can shoot.”

Wagner provided flashes of his torrid shooting late last season on the big stage during his tongue-wagging first half against Minnesota in the Big Ten tournament and his 26-point outburst against Louisville in the NCAA Tournament. But he finished with just one double-double last season and recorded at least six rebounds 11 times.

And this season Wagner is aiming for more rather than reminiscing and resting on his laurels.

“It was great to experience (last season) but I want to be there again so I’m not going to stay there in the past too long,” Wagner said. “I had six months for that and it’s not the time to do that right now.”

Instead, it's time to stand out.