Editor’s Note: The Silver Screen and Roll staff is counting down the most interesting Lakers heading into the season (The 15 guaranteed contracts plus the two guys on two-way contracts). We continue today with No. 9, Moe Wagner, and will be counting down to the Laker we think is most interesting with a new piece each weekday until we hit No. 1.
“No, they hate me everywhere. I obviously sense that. No, I know that. They hate me. That’s fine. I kind of embrace that role. And I’ve got to be honest—I would hate myself, too.”
If the quote above did not indicate it already, Moe Wagner is a polarizing player, with an even more polarizing playing style.
Composed of a physical exterior that conjures up a preppy reincarnation of Billy Hoyle from “White Men Can’t Jump” and a swagger that seems to peak when he’s getting under his opponent’s skins, the 21-year-old whose social media handle is also reference to Ron Weasley may be destined to be your new favorite player to hate — that is if you are anyone but a Lakers’ fan.
Drafted 25th overall by the purple and gold in the most recent NBA draft, Wagner continued the team’s trend of conceptual “reaches” by the scouting department in that he was a player most mock drafts didn’t have pegged nearly as high (Wagner was projected as a second-rounder in ESPN’s final mock draft before picks became official), following in the footsteps of rookie surprises like Larry Nance Jr. and Kyle Kuzma.
And while they have hit more often in recent history on their picks than they have missed, Wagner’s selection still left a segment of fans and analysts puzzled.
With players who had individual ties to the team during the pre-draft process like Mitchell Robinson and De’Anthony Melton still on the board, the team instead called the name of the often animated forward/center from the University of Michigan on draft night.
Wagner was a player the team had been “tracking for a couple of years” according to the Lakers’ director of scouting, Jesse Buss, due in most part to his prototypical modern front court skill-set.
Standing at 6’11” (in shoes) Wagner showed an adeptness at spacing the floor and finishing in transition, as well as an exhausting motor he showcased nighty in his three years as a Wolverine.
The level of intensity Wagner played with in college quickly became his calling card. Through a seeming joy for diving on the floor for 50/50 balls, exuberantly celebrating and-1 calls, losing his defender with his patented behind the back dribble, and often getting tied up with his opposition only to walk off with a sneer after getting separated by the officials, helped Wagner quickly garner disdain from opposing fan-bases.
And although his aforementioned blue collar approach should catapult him up the Lakers fan favorite rankings next season, there are still general questions regarding his defense, how much he will play with the parent team and how well his pre-existing skills can translate at the next level.
That being said, the German born big still makes for one of the more compelling players on the roster heading into the season due to the potentially exciting fit he has on this team if everything goes right.
This past summer, the Lakers took what many would consider a somewhat unconventional approach in filling out their center depth after the departures of Brook Lopez, Thomas Bryant and Julius Randle.
By filling those voids with the likes of JaVale McGee, returning third year big Ivica Zubac, and the newly drafted Wagner, the team seems to have decided to address the center spot through a combined effort.
The other solution to the center dilemma has continued to gravitate around whether or not LeBron James will be willing and able to slide down and play the five on occasion. Early indications are this indeed may be the team’s plan, specifically in closing lineups and in possible playoff circumstances, but it is important to remember that James has only played an estimated one percent of his career minutes at center to date.
Between those two options is where Wagner could fit in the grand scheme of things if his shooting and other skills can translate immediately.
Primarily, unlike McGee and Zubac, Wagner represents the sole non-James center option that can realistically space the floor with any expected regularity.
As a junior, Wagner averaged 1.26 points per spot up attempt (95th percentile) 1.17 points per catch and shoot opportunity in the half court (76th percentile) and ranked in the 85th percentile in his attempts that were considered “guarded” per Synergy.
Although his numbers did not translate immediately at Summer League (22 percent from three) Wagner did flash some of the pick and pop ability he excelled in at college, which could prove to be a vital skill next to James and company next season.
With so many teams moving away from traditional plodding big men in favor of perimeter oriented lineups, shooting is where Wagner could find his niche on the Lakers.
Wagner is nimble on his feet and has shown a knack of attacking close outs, a skill that will become even more essential if his shooting becomes adequate enough to leverage when his defender aggressively runs at him.
In one of his more impressive flashes at Summer League, Wagner gave a glimpse of what this could look like, and the overall eye-popping skills he could bring to the center spot:
Wagner showed composure to evade Harry Giles’ close out attempt, hesitated before putting the ball on the floor to collapse the defense before making the perfect kick out to Svi Mykhailiuk for the open three.
Simply put, there are not many 6’11” centers who have the skill, or the gall to pull that sequence off.
Functionally, Wagner does not provide the explosive vertical spacing McGee does, or the solid bulk Zubac offers in the paint, but what he does do is exactly what the Lakers do well: Run.
Wagner was in the 100th percentile in transition offense in the NCAA last season. While not the most explosive athlete, or the lightest of foot, Wagner is fantastic in filling the lanes and leaking out, both of which are skills that could make him a prime target in the Lakers’ transition orientated offense as either the trailer, finisher, or as the clip above exemplified, leading the break himself.
Wagner is also not afraid to get dirty. His ability to either cause a turnover or simply win a 50/50 ball easily could jumpstart a fast break opportunity, like in this sequence from the team’s Summer League contest against the Sixers:
Wagner switches onto Zhaire Smith’s drive before poking the ball free, and is the only player willing to dive on the floor (in an exhibition game) to cause the turnover, leading to the easy run out for his team.
In a group with James and other veterans, having a young player willing to do the dirty work and create easy scoring chances could be a path to playing time, and might be a critical part of Wagner’s ultimate role on the team.
Nearly every championship caliber team has had at least one player who is willing to sacrifice their body for a loose ball, to mix it up with the opposition, and simply be loathed by every other fan base for doing so.
Wagner may not be the most impactful or franchise altering of the Lakers’ recent string of draft picks, but if nothing else he seems content to do all of those little things while grinning from ear to ear, which could make him a valuable and fascinating part of the team’s future despite his relative lack of pedigree.
The countdown so far:
9. Moe Wagner
10. Michael Beasley
11. Svi Mykhailiuk
12. JaVale McGee
13. Isaac Bonga
14. Lance Stephenson
15. Luol Deng
16. Alex Caruso
17. Travis Wear