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Niyo: UM's German import gets Moe better in blue

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Moritz Wagner

Ann Arbor — It was early, but Michigan’s Moe Wagner already was feeling it. He’d just convinced Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ, the Badgers’ star center, to take a seat in the middle of the court, courtesy of a wicked crossover move at the top of the key. Yet just as the Crisler Center crowd reacted, so did Wagner, the excitable, 19-year-old sophomore forward from Germany.

“I kind of want to prove myself,” he said. “But when the crowd makes the ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ and it looks nice, you get caught up in it.”

So rather than take advantage of a prone defender by driving to the hoop, Wagner did what came naturally to a precocious talent who’d just met his German idol, the Dallas Mavericks’ Dirk Nowitzki, after a Pistons game the night before. Wagner tried to bury a 3-pointer, only to see his shot rim out.

“I kind of regret that I took that shot,” said Wagner, who’d go on to score a team-high 21 points in Michigan’ 64-58 victory. “But we won the game, so it’s a pain that I can accept, you know?”

He laughed, and then offered another sheepish mea culpa, the kind that keeps his coach, John Beilein, coming back for more and more as his career begins to blossom.

“I’ve always been a very emotional guy,” Wagner said, still explaining an easy bucket that got away. “And this year I’ve made a huge step in terms of how to use my emotions in a positive way and get rid of my emotional play in a negative way. It can be a huge advantage or a huge disadvantage. I think I’ve made a big step this year, but I’m still learning.”

These are the kinds of growing pains the Wolverines will happily endure, though, as Wagner’s emergence as one of the Big Ten’s bright young stars comes just in time for a Michigan team making a late push for the NCAA Tournament.

Marksmanship

Wagner leads the Big Ten in true shooting percentage and ranks seventh in player efficiency rating. And in Michigan’s last five games — including big wins over Michigan State and Wisconsin in Ann Arbor, where the Wolverines will face No. 14 Purdue Saturday — he’s averaging nearly 15 points and more than six rebounds per contest. Wagner’s defense is still a considerable work in progress, but even the offensive rebounding numbers — 15 the last eight games — have made his coach take note.

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“That’s really good for him, for a guy that I swear in his first month on campus didn’t get a rebound in practice one time,” Beilein joked. “This evolvement of his is fun to watch.”

Fun to listen to as well, whether it’s the crowd reacting to Wagner’s play or some of his own exhortations to the bench and to the fans, the fiery outbursts that senior captain Derrick Walton admits “are exactly what we need sometimes.”

Michigan State’s Tom Izzo called Wagner “a pain in the butt,” among other things, a couple weeks ago. Beilein calls him both a “baby-faced assassin” and “a wonderful blessing.” But whatever you want to call him, Wagner certainly is starting to make a name for himself.

A year ago, he hardly had a chance as a seldom-used freshman who was just learning the college game as well as the English language. Wagner played 10 minutes or more only once in conference play last winter before finally breaking through in a handful of postseason games in March.

“I remember last year against Wisconsin, I didn’t touch the floor,” Wagner said, referencing a Feb. 28 loss to the Badgers a year ago. “So, obviously, it’s a lot different feeling. But like I said, it’s been a long process, and everything that happened, it happened for a reason. It was supposed to be like that.

“Me and Coach (Beilein) worked a lot together last season and over the offseason, and I think that helped him trust in me and helps me trust in him as well. Because I know a little bit more what he was doing the last year and he knows what I’m doing now. Even though it might be crazy sometimes.”

Crazy isn’t all bad, though. And Beilein, who has the Wolverines in position again to land an NCAA berth at 18-10 overall and 8-7 in the Big Ten, insists he doesn’t want to unplug Wagner, really. He’s just doing some rewiring is all.

So when the 3-pointers aren’t falling, the message isn’t to stop shooting them. It’s to start shooting them correctly again. Earlier this month, Beilein showed Wagner film of his exaggerated jump-shot arc — ballooning to 53 degrees, about 7-8 degrees too steep — and they quickly got it corrected.

“That’s what Coach B does,” Wagner said. “He’s a fantastic coach in terms of shooting. That’s his baby, I would say.”

Easy does it

In some ways, Wagner is Beilein’s baby, I’d say, an intriguing prospect who probably is the most talented player on Michigan’s roster as well as its most likely future pro.

“But it’s still baby steps,” the coach added. “Moe’s got so much energy, so much desire, sometimes it gets in the way.”

Less so with each day, however. Wagner still needs to be reminded occasionally that a reach-in foul 25 feet from the basket is not what the coaching staff needs from him. And they have to remind him the nifty, behind-the-back dribble to his left — a rare, refined skill for a 6-foot-11 forward — isn’t always necessary. Physical play is an area where Wagner still needs some seasoning in the Big Ten, too.

“But we’re on the way,” he says.

And as he goes, so go the Wolverines, who are 11-4 when Wagner plays 25-plus minutes and 11-3 when he scores a dozen or more points this season. Saturday's tilt against Big Ten-leading Purdue — led by All-America candidate Caleb Swanigan — figures to be the biggest challenge yet in that regard.

Wagner readily admits he’s “still trying to figure all this out,” but what he has discovered this winter is what we’re all starting to see now.

“It’s learning by doing,” Wagner said.

And as his coach will tell you with a grin, “He’s a pretty good student.”

Purdue at Michigan

Tip-off: 4 Saturday, Crisler Center, Ann Arbor

TV/radio: ESPN2/950

Records: No. 14 Purdue 23-5 (12-3 Big Ten); Michigan 18-10 (8-7)

Outlook: Michigan will honor its five seniors in a pregame ceremony prior to its home finale and the ChadTough Foundation with specialty T-shirts. The Wolverines have won five of their last six at Crisler Center. ... Purdue has won six straight and is led by sophomore F Caleb Swanigan (18.6 points, 12.9 rebounds), who leads the nation with 23 double-doubles. ... The Boilermakers rank first in Big Ten play in scoring offense (78.2 points) and third in scoring defense (68.7 points).

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

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