Detroit — Leave it to one of their leading scorers from the last two seasons to provide some sage advice on how the Michigan basketball team can go on another deep March run.
“They’ve got to score the basketball, I think that’s their biggest issue,” Moritz Wagner said Friday before his Lakers played the Pistons. “As boring as it sounds, I think that’s the biggest problem, is the problems to score. If they figure that out, I think their defense is so consistent, so good, that they can’t really be beat.”
Although his Lakers quickly have fallen away from Western Conference playoff contention, the 6-foot-11 rookie center from Berlin, Germany also has been taking his own advice lately. On March 6, Wagner scored 11 points in a loss against Denver before following it up three nights later with a career-high 22 points in a loss to Boston on the league’s featured Saturday night national broadcast last week.
“He’s grown a lot and he’s done a nice job of just being who he is and bringing positive energy every day,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said. “He doesn’t play all the time, but now that he’s getting a chance and his opportunities are coming more often, he’s doing a nice job of taking advantage of those opportunities.”
Wagner was the 25th pick in the draft after leading Michigan to the NCAA Championship game as a junior. He missed the first 14 games of the season while recovering from a knee contusion he suffered during summer league.
“I think I got healthy first of all, that was my biggest challenge,” Wagner said. “It’s a (snaps fingers) league, not like in college where you can take your time and think about your next step. You’ve got to go.”
After scoring three points and grabbing three rebounds in Friday’s 111-97 loss and scoring six more points in a loss on Sunday, Wagner was averaging four points and 1.6 rebounds in 8.5 minutes per game over 31 games.
Those numbers actually compare favorably to his freshman output in Ann Arbor for coach John Beilein, though Wagner would become an emotional leader for the Wolverines in short order.
While a similar in uptick in production is possible for the Lakers, there’s not much need for leadership as that falls on his iconic teammate LeBron James, who missed Friday’s game in Detroit as the Lakers are managing the load for his injured groin.
“It’s pretty dope to be part of history in basketball, to be part of this team and kind of experience it in that way,” Wagner said. “It’s exciting. It’s obviously a lot of attention (playing for the Lakers), but you’ve got to focus on the real world, and that’s us in the locker room, and we play basketball together, so it’s basically nothing different.
“You just hoop, you just try to build a team together and that’s what we’re doing.”
Wagner has played in a season-high eight straight games and averaged 19.6 minutes in the last five games, as the Lakers look to next season.
“For young players, a lot of getting better is the experience of what the NBA is about, and the size and the strength and the defensive rotations — things like that,” Walton said. “So the more experience he can get, the better it will be for his development.”
Wagner said he has kept his head down and not worried about minutes this season, focusing on the same tenets that made him successful in Ann Arbor.
“Honestly, simple things,” Wagner said. "I think when you play hard, the game is going to reward you. I didn’t try anything else special, I just did my thing. But the game gives back to you.”
Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.