Indianapolis — They could not be more different, which is funny, because they could not be more alike. They share basketball styles and a campus apartment, a couple of near-seven-foot kids growing rapidly into their bodies and their games.
D.J. Wilson is the laidback Californian with the high-topped hair and the unusual low-cut shorts. “Cali swag” he calls it in his deep, low voice.
Moritz Wagner is the energetic German with the perpetual smile, all teeth and wide eyes. Like Wilson, he’s a big guy with little-guy shooting skills, the type of rangy, versatile player that John Beilein courts. Wilson, a 6-10 redshirt sophomore, and Wagner, a 6-11 sophomore, are rising almost simultaneously, and raising Michigan’s hopes with them.
Both can shoot from 3-point range — Wagner at 40.7 percent, Wilson 36.5 — and have ratcheted their defense and rebounding. Wilson, in particular, was a force in the Big Ten tournament, averaging 15.2 points per game and shooting 60.5 percent from the field.
Wilson and Wagner are an uncommon pair, and when they’re playing well, the Wolverines present uncommon problems for opponents. Wilson was redshirted his first year and barely played last season. But he has performed so well lately, he has started to pop up on NBA draft lists as a fringe first-rounder, something he says he’s not thinking about.
As you might imagine, the Wolverines have other things on their minds, such as their NCAA Tournament opener against Oklahoma State this afternoon. Wilson says he’s not surprised by his seemingly sudden development, and isn’t shocked by the Wolverines’ roll.
“This is something I’ve always expected, something I knew I was capable of,” Wilson said. “I think we’re just a real confident bunch right now. We believe in one another, and that’s at an all-time high. We believe we can play with anybody, beat anybody, whoever they put in front of us.”
He said, he said
The Wolverines are playing with a cohesion that was missing early. Some of that was adjusting to new assistant coach Billy Donlon’s defense. Some of it was adjusting to each other in expanding roles.
Neither Wilson nor Wagner had started a game before this season, and because they’re slender-framed, both are better-suited to play forward. At times, Wilson takes over defensive duties at center and has become more aggressive at the rim.
In that sense, Wilson is similar to Wagner, capable of playing all over the floor. In another sense, not so much. For instance, Wilson’s hair, which someone found so fascinating, they created its own Twitter account. And also, the shorts, which are several inches shorter than the baggy ones made famous by Michigan’s Fab Five. He hears from people about the look and doesn’t really have a deep explanation.
“I don’t know, it’s comfortable to me,” Wilson said. “I’m just chill. Moe’s never chill, always hyper.”
Across the locker room, Wagner laughed when asked about “Cali swag.” And his German-accented response was delivered perfectly.
“Aww, he acts like he’s the quiet one, but as soon as he gets to know you, he’s a goofy kid just like me,” Wagner said. “Sometimes I ask him, what are (the hair and shorts) all about? And he has that mystery where you don’t even try because it’s D.J. and he’s his own self. I don’t know, can I wear my T-shirt as shorts and say it’s Berlin swag? It’s cool, it’s funny.”
Players say they were further bonded by the plane accident last week, but they’ve always been loose and free-spirited, not limited to one role. Four players — Derrick Walton Jr., Zak Irvin, Wagner, Wilson — have led the team in scoring at least five games. Six players have led in rebounding and assists.
But Michigan didn’t really find its form until its big guys cranked up their defense and grew up quickly.
“Moe is still 19, and some kids in high school are 19,” Beilein said. “The future’s so bright. And D.J. grew so fast, his body’s all over the place. So he needed time just for everything to slow down.
“When they both have played well, we’ve been really good.”
Wilson struggled during a growth spurt in high school and had to wear a back brace. When he injured a knee early as a freshman, he realized how much stronger he needed to get.
Now Michigan is a Tournament darling and Wilson is on the draft-profile list compiled by ESPN’s Chad Ford. Wilson still can look gangly and tentative at times, certainly not ready for the NBA, but his athleticism and shooting are tantalizing.
“The (NBA mention) kind of caught me by surprise,” Wilson said. “But that’s really not my main focus and I haven’t really thought about it. I guess my game’s unique for my size and skill set, so maybe it’s not a surprise.”
There’s no downside to having upside, unless you’re Beilein constantly having to restock your roster. Developing players is what makes Beilein such a respected coach. Finding and utilizing players with interchangeable abilities is what his program does best.
Wilson and Wagner may have been told as kids to stay down low and give up the ball to the little guys. Now they complement each other by defying convention.
“Me and D.J. have always been proud of the way we played, and didn’t care what others said,” Wagner said. “Coach B likes us the way we play, and uses us the way we want to play. We feel comfortable and we both found a great niche. It’s hard to prepare for us because it’s so unique, right?”
That’s the idea.
What makes them different makes them alike. And what makes them alike makes them compatible, the whole swag issue notwithstanding.
No. 7 Michigan vs. No. 10 Oklahoma State
Tip-off: 12:15 today, Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis
Records: Michigan 24-11, Oklahoma State 20-12
Michigan's Moritz Wagner on the team's mentality going into the tournament.