El Segundo — As Moe Wagner walked across the Los Angeles Lakers practice court for the first time as a member of the team, the bright lights from above flickered off of his shining watch, an eye-catching effect that simulated the way most of the post-draft attention around the team has focused on him.
Wagner is ready for that scrutiny. As he comfortably held court with the media during his introductory press conference, Wagner answered queries with a confidence that belied the amount of questions there still are about his value at the NBA level.
He doesn’t seem to mind the attention, though, because he’s been looking to get people to notice for his game for quite some time. It’s why he went to Michigan, a path that ultimately led to him becoming the Lakers’ 2018 first round pick.
“My goal was to play in the NBA,” Wagner said. “I was kind of under the radar in Europe, so I had to find a way to get on the radar and Michigan was a great opportunity for me.”
Wagner’s choice in attending Michigan over playing professionally overseas put him on the radars of Magic Johnson (Michigan State alum) and Rob Pelinka (Michigan alum), because both saw plenty of Wagner playing either for or against their alma mater in Big 10 conference play.
Pelinka and Johnson were further impressed by the way Wagner not only confidently gave them scouting reports on their own players at the NBA Draft Combine, but also outlined how he would fit in on the Lakers’ roster. After two years in a row of impressing them during combine interviews and strong performances in a pair of predraft workouts for the team, Johnson and Pelinka were sold.
“The constant theme around Moe was just the spirit and energy he played with. He would raise the level of the whole team,” Pelinka said. “When he came in to do his three-on-three workout, both times the level of competition raised just because of his energy.”
But while Wagner playing with infectious hustle and energy is inarguable, there are still several questions about his game, although none of them center around what he can bring on offense, where he produced like a superstar in his final collegiate season.
The German big man ranked in the 95th percentile on overall in offense in the NCAA last season, according to Synergy, which also notes that Wagner was in the 95th percentile on spot-ups.
Again, that’s 95th percentile overall. Not just among big men. Among everyone in the NCAA.
Wagner had that success in a variety of ways, although given the way the game is going most of the attention has gone to his perimeter shooting (Wagner knocked down an outstanding 39.4 percent of his 3-pointers last season).
“We struggled from the 3-point line, we struggled from the free throw line, but today is a big upgrade,” Johnson said.
Wagner also was adept at leveraging his shooting to get to the basket, an effective weapon, even if he looks a bit like a lanky. out-of-control giraffe while doing it.
I'm just going to put this here. How many 5s are making this move? pic.twitter.com/DK6UoyPkx8— Cranjis McBasketball (@T1m_NBA) June 23, 2018
But gone overlooked in all the (deserved) praise for his shooting is Wagner’s overall skill as a screener for pick and rolls, pick and pops and slipping screens. Those situations accounted for 25 percent of his total offense at the NCAA level, according to Synergy, a number that doesn’t even factor in the screens he set where his guard “used” the possession with a shot, pass to another player or turnover.
On those screening possessions, Wagner was actually strongest when he slipped the pick rather than popped, scoring 1.56 points per play, which ranked in the 90th percentile in the NCAA, according to Synergy.
The point is, Wagner can do just about anything the Lakers ask their centers to do on offense, even ranking first among major conference players in shots considered “clutch” last season by scoring 1.7 points per possession.
The questions for Wagner lie on the other end, where he’ll suddenly be getting relentlessly targeted on defense by the best players and coaches in the world, a group hungry to take advantage of a rookie who by all accounts wasn’t the best in switching situations at the college level.
The Lakers’ defensive success was primarily predicated on switching last season, which means they’ll either have to adjust a bit for Wagner, or watch opposing point guards seek him out like a great white shark looking for chum.
To his credit, Wagner knows that switching is seen as a weakness for him, and he’s doing his best to address those concerns.
“We didn’t do it a lot at Michigan, but that’s something I’ve been working on the last couple of months because I know that’s the way the league is evolving and a lot more teams are doing that, Wagner said. “You’ve got to be able to do that if you want to survive in this league.”
It’s safe to say when Wagner was watching March Madness games on television while growing up in Germany and dreaming of that spotlight catapulting him into the NBA one that he wanted to do a lot more than just “survive.” Only time will tell if defensive concerns will prove as easy to address as questions during his first appearance as a Laker.
The media spotlight for a rookie during the summer is also nothing compared to what it will be like during the season, on the basketball court for the Lakers, where Wagner will be either “just” suiting up for one of the most visible professional sports teams in human history or dealing with the even bigger spotlight that will exist should the Lakers’ superteam dreams come to fruition.
In the latter scenario all the attention will hardly be on Wagner all of the time, as proven by the majority of his introduction being hijacked by questions about free agency, but the way Wagner seemed unfazed by the thunder being stolen from his debut showed as much as anything why he’s ready for whatever scrutiny does come his way.
“Being on the floor and on a team with such great players is an amazing thing for me,” Wagner said. “Regardless of who it is, I think everyone in this building is striving for excellence and I’m excited to join them.”
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.