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Moe Wagner will need to be incredible on offense to offset his defensive deficiencies with the Lakers

New Lakers draft pick Moe Wagner is a stud offensively, but his defense will need to make major strides if he wants to stay on the floor when games matter.

Loyola v Michigan Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Regardless of the uncertainty surrounding next year’s roster, the Los Angeles Lakers came into the 2018 NBA draft with two major needs that also happen to align with the style of play Luke Walton professes to prefer: shooting and defense.

Despite taking the 15th-most threes of any team in the league last season, the Lakers shot the long ball at the second-least accurate rate in the NBA (34.7 percent). And although a shocking year-over-year defensive turnaround saw the team sporting the league’s 12th-best defensive rating by the season’s end, the Lakers still have issues defensively and are almost certainly going to have to crack the top 10 in defensive rating going forward to have a chance at serious contention whether superstars come this summer or not.

Keeping that in mind, teams are largely thrilled to snag players who can fill just one need with the No. 25 pick. With their selection of Moe Wagner, it’s clear the Lakers fully embraced this point of view. Because for all his limitations, there’s one thing we know for sure about the 6’10” center from Germany: Moe Wagner can shoot the basketball.

So, despite what seems to be a Maginka overvaluation (both The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor and ESPN’s Jonathan Givony had Wagner 38th on their boards coming into the draft; SI ranked him 43rd) this is a pick that checks out for the Lakers because of Wagner’s offensive prowess from behind the arc.

Wagner is at his best in spot-up, catch-and-shoot situations — 21.2 percent of his shooting possessions ended in such plays, per Synergy, the second-highest of any play type. With the time and space to get into a balanced shooting position before the ball arrives, Wagner turns into an assassin with a jump shot. At Michigan, he knocked down a fantastic 38.5 percent of his overall threes.

Wagner has improvements he can make in every area of his game. If he’s going to stick as a long-term NBA player, though, it will be because of his ability to stretch the floor on the offensive end.

Texas A&M v Michigan Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Remember how much more effective the Lakers’ offense was last season when Brook Lopez was feeling it from beyond the arc? Wagner should have a similar effect as soon as he steps on an NBA floor. Opposing centers will not be able to hang out by the basket in key rim-protecting position to leave Wagner as he drifts out beyond the paint. He will open up driving, passing, and cutting lanes for whoever this team’s primary playmakers will be come October, making life easier for everyone within the ecosystem of Walton’s offense.

Wagner works out of the pick-and-roll often (25 percent of his shooting possessions, per Synergy), but he pops out to the three point line on the majority of these possessions (of the 128 possessions he screened for a ball handler, he popped 78 times).

Though not as dominant as his catch-and-shoot game, Wagner is effective in these situations, scoring 1.102 points per possession out of the pick-and-roll — the equivalent of the 66th percentile among college players, per Synergy.

Wagner is good at creating space in these popping situations, and outside of a few instances where he struggled to keep his balance while backpedaling off a pick to collect a pass, he looks comfortable getting his shot off against defenders scrambling to close out.

Wagner displayed some offensive creativity at Michigan, too. After a couple consecutive possessions of popping out for a semi-contested three, he’ll leverage his shooting ability by pump-faking his defender to create a better shot for him or his team.

Once he does that, Wagner is really good at sneakily slipping by unsuspecting defenders as he slides up to set a ball screen, and is an amazing finisher around the rim when he receives the kind of on-the-money dimes he will get from NBA-level point guards; he finished in the 88th percentile as a finisher around the rim on non-post ups at 1.377 points per possession, according to Synergy. That’s an elite number for someone who will never be someone taken seriously as a pick-and-roll lob threat in the same way as a player like DeAndre Jordan.

Wagner will struggle in NBA offensive situations outside of his catch-and-shoot and pick-and-roll opportunities. He can’t be trusted in the post, where he ended just 15 percent of his shooting possessions last season, per Synergy.

In college, Wagner exacerbated the worst qualities of the already inherently inefficient post possession, scoring just .753 points per possession on such plays (38th percentile, according to Synergy). Wagner can and should work to improve this aspect of his game this offseason; however, if the Lakers want to win games next year, it would behoove Walton to cut the post out almost entirely from Wagner’s game.

Wagner’s passing skills and vision are fine, but not transcendent enough to justify putting him down on the block Ben Simmons-style to free up wheeling and dealing shooters out on the perimeter. That will limit his effectiveness as an offensive rebounder, but Wagner is a player who necessitates exactly that type of tradeoff in many areas of his game.

Chief among those tradeoffs is Wagner’s value as a defender. It’s pretty simple right now for Wagner: If he does not improve on the defensive end, the ink spilled here analyzing the rest of his game will be rendered moot. He has heavy feet defensively, and beyond any tangible defensive measurement he just looks in pain out there when his team doesn’t have the ball.

Possessions where Wagner is forced to switch out onto the ball handling guard are painful to watch, and an outcome Michigan clearly was trying to avoid on many possessions last year. On such possessions, Wagner would lumber out to the perimeter, awkwardly show high in an effort to prevent the guard from penetrating, and scramble back to the paint to match up again to match up again with his original man.

Smart teams — like Villanova in the National Championship game — absolutely torched the Wagner on these plays, picking on him possession after possession. That trend will not slow down as Wagner enters the NBA next year. If Wagner is on the court, elite NBA guards will go at him relentlessly until he proves himself up to the task.

There are reasons to be skeptical he’ll be able to show that ability anytime soon, and unless there’s dramatic improvement by the time October rolls around, Wagner will end up on the wrong side of more than a few CP3 between-the-legs of Ivica Zubac moments.

Wagner’s defense doesn’t get much better in the post, either. Despite his 6’11”, 240 lbs frame, Wagner loses post position easily, even when defending smaller post players. Loyola Chicago’s Cameron Krutwig, a 6’9” center, repeatedly toasted Wagner in the post in the national semifinal last year with simple pump-fakes and pivots (Wagner gave up .966 points per possession last year guarding in the post, good for just the 27th percentile in college basketball).

Wagner will not see any Cameron Krutwigs next year. He will be facing Anthony Davis and Joel Embiid and DeAndre Ayton, and he will be playing the five defensively. He will get eaten alive if he stays at this pace. Realistically, while improvement is likely, this is still going to take time.

Because of this, ultimately Wagner’s early NBA success will be almost entirely incumbent upon his ability to knock down threes. Historically, college free throw percentage has proven to be a stronger indicator of future NBA success than three point percentage — a tool that proved clairvoyant in predicting the trials and tribulations of Lonzo Ball’s jumper last year.

This is a bit troubling for Wagner, whose free throw percentage dropped over three points from his sophomore (72.6 percent) to junior (69.4 percent) years. That’s not close to the end-all be-all statistic in this analysis, but it’s something worth keeping in mind as Wagner progresses throughout his career — elite three point shooters generally shoot it better from the charity stripe. Any slippage in shooting percentage or difficulties adjusting to the NBA three are going to prove costly to Wagner in his quest to secure playing time during his rookie season.

Wagner is simply too much of a risk defensively. He will have to be an elite shooter and space-creator to justify playing time this season, and even so he will be targeted by the cold-blooded sharks of the Western Conference eager to expose the rookie. If he’s even average offensively, he won’t be able to play.

That might sound depressing. But that tangible, on-court tradeoff is simply the norm around this stage in the draft. It is the reason why two-way players are so valuable, and why so few are available this late. It is why teams value and don’t throw away high first rounders recklessly, and why nailing a late pick (see Green, Draymond) can be the difference between a good team and a dynasty.

Wagner may well end up being a good pick, but his margin for error is really slim right now. If he can either improve defensively or prove so valuable offensively as to offset his liabilities, Wagner has a real chance to carve a niche out as a Channing Frye-esque stretch five. If his shooting tails off at any point, though, or his defense is at the worst-case scenario level it really appears to be at this stage, Wagner simply will not see the floor.

All players must work incredibly hard to get to and remain at the NBA level, and there’s good reason to trust the Lakers’ scouting department and track record in making this pick, but doing the things Wagner must do to stick on this team are going require hard, hard work. We’ll see if he’s up to the challenge.

Editor’s Note: Silver Screen and Roll is thrilled to welcome our newest writer, Nicky Shapiro, who will be doing one deep dive per week into the Lakers from an analytical perspective. Give him a welcome in the comments and follow him on Twitter @notnickyshapiro.

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