Niyo: Germany’s Wagner hungry to fit in at UM

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — It can be hard to digest it all. Ask any freshman in major-college athletics and they’ll tell you that.

The transition isn’t easy, lifting weights and handling a course load, trying to stand out even as you’re trying to fit in. But for Moritz Wagner, the 18-year-old German basketball recruit who’s still finding his way — on and off the court in Ann Arbor — the internal struggle was even more basic.

“Yeah, I had some stomach trouble the first weeks,” the 6-foot-10 forward from Berlin said Thursday at Michigan’s media day, speaking with reporters for the first time since he arrived in late June.

Wagner smiled and patted his midsection, politely sparing everyone the details. But yes, he said, it took him a few weeks to get used to an All-American diet. Not so much the food — Germans aren’t shy when it comes to meat and potatoes, after all — “but the portions are way bigger,” Wagner said.

And since he’s trying to bulk up — Wagner has added 18 pounds (from 210 to 228) in a few months — there was really no getting around that, whether it was at the team training table or on his own sampling the local campus fare. He is happy to report, though, that things have settled down now that he’s settling in.

“I love Chipotle,” Wagner said, laughing. “We don’t have that in Germany. I live for Chipotle.”

And it’s that sort of enthusiastic appetite — and attitude — that has quickly endeared Wagner, or “Mo Weezy,” as senior guard Spike Albrecht calls him, to his new team.

“It’s this youthful exuberance, and it has an innocence to it that’s pretty funny,” said assistant Bacari Alexander, who jokes that “Mo feels that the streets are paved with gold, and milk and honey are flowing.”

The English is, too, by the way. Wagner insists he had some trouble with that initially. (“Some complicated sentence structures I have trouble to understand,” he said.) But he speaks the language comfortably now, and his accent sounds a lot better than coach John Beilein’s impersonation did Thursday. (Beilein said he’s half-German, but admits his fluency is limited to “German beer.”)

Under the radar

Wagner, who took last year off to focus on basketball after graduating from high school at 16, says he’s enjoying a return to his studies — sociology and political science, in particular — though the 2-hour lectures are a bit long for his liking.

And he’s absolutely loving his introduction to college basketball. For Wagner, who began playing the game at age 8, this is a childhood dream that became a reality last winter after he turned heads while playing for ALBA Berlin in Germany’s under-19 junior pro league. He averaged 16.5 points and 5.1 rebounds for a team that reached the league semifinals.

Beilein was tipped off by a European scout, liked what he saw of Wagner on video, and then traveled to Germany to see him play in person last winter. He’s a skilled big man with tremendous length, a good shooting stroke and an atypical motor. And while he’s still a project, alternating between “awkward” and, as Beilein says, “Oh, my goodness, did he just do that at 6-feet-101/2?” — don’t fit him for a redshirt year just yet.

“Mo’s exceptional,” Beilein said. “I know I’ve said that in the past with some guys, and once you got past the addition and the subtraction, they sort of stopped. I don’t see any stopping Mo’s learning curve right now. …

“I don’t know when it’s all gonna come around. But we just love coaching that kid so much. And his teammates love him.”

Fan from afar

Wagner isn’t the first German player Beilein has coached. One of his first recruits at West Virginia in the early 2000s was Johannes Herber, who was a four-year starter at guard for him before heading back to Germany to play for the same ALBA Berlin club Wagner suited up for at the junior level.

Ultimately, that was the choice Wagner faced, staying home to play as a pro, or heading to the U.S. where he also drew interest from other schools: Auburn, Providence, UNLV, Virginia and Arizona.

“People told me they want me to stay, which is natural,” Wagner said. “And to be totally honest, it’s easy to say now I made the right decision. But I wasn’t convinced when I left home.”

Michigan was the team he’d grown to love from abroad, however, cheering for the Wolverines in the NCAA Tournament runs in 2013 and ’14. Or, as Wagner put it Thursday, “I was a big fan of the Nik Stauskas era.”

A big fan of Beilein, too, particularly his team’s style of play.

“It’s obviously a very complex offense — Coach Beilein isn’t the best offensive coach in the country for no reason,” Wagner said.

“So it isn’t easy to pick up everything in one day. … But so far I’m feeling great.”

And as for how that offense suits his game, well, Wagner had to pause for a moment when he was asked that Thursday.

“Suit? Suit, you mean, like, how it fits?” he asked, before quickly figuring it out himself.

“I feel pretty comfortable,” he said, smiling. “It fits perfectly, from my perspective.”