LOS ANGELES — Before the Lakers took on the Boston Celtics, they got even more bad news on the injury front. Fresh off the heels of Lonzo Ball receiving a medical evaluation that makes it seem highly unlikely he’ll return this season and Brandon Ingram also being ruled out for the rest of the campaign, the hits just kept coming, as Kyle Kuzma was still feeling too much pain to suit up on Saturday night.
When informed of this update, Luke Walton went to rookie Moe Wagner and asked him if he’d be ready to start. Wagner didn’t feel the need to answer the question.
“He knew the answer, so I didn’t have to reply. I’ve been ready all year,” Wagner said, and then he went out and showed it, dropping a season and career-high 22 points on 53.8 percent shooting, serving as one of the Lakers’ few bright spots in their 120-107 loss to the Celtics.
“They were great,” said Lakers star LeBron James of Wagner and teammate Jonathan Williams, who impressed with 18 points of his own. “Their energy and effort is something we’ve been lacking.
“They’re young guys that just play. Yeah, they’re going to make mistakes obviously,” James continued. “But they play through it and they play hard, and that’s fun. I’m happy for them.”
Less happy was Wagner, who seemed to be struggling to try and find positives in his performance given the end result on the scoreboard.
“It’s not fun to lose. As a basketball player, as a competitor, you always want to win. So that kind of hurts if you fight that hard all game and you kind of have to leave again with a loss,” Wagner said when asked for the positives about his first career start. “Obviously it sounds pretty sweet, the way you said it. I’m pretty proud and happy it worked out that way, but the thing that sticks out is the loss.”
That competitive fire is also evident in the fierceness with which Wagner plays, from the glee he takes in trying to irritate opponents by getting physical with them or trying to draw charges, to his enthusiasm in nearly running onto the court to celebrate after teammates make a good play — even if the game isn’t stopped currently.
“I love the way he competes. He’s a rookie so he’s gonna make mistakes, but they’re always mistakes of trying to do the right thing and trying to win. As a coach, those are easier to live with,” Walton said.
On the season those mistakes have shown, as the Lakers have been 8.7 points per 100 possessions better when Wagner sits than they are when he plays. While part of that is just the relatively small sample size of him having only played 221 minutes this year, but part of it are flaws in his game, flaws Wagner is aware he needs to address.
“I think the biggest thing is to slow down a little bit. I keep turning the ball over. The league is a lot faster than college and a lot faster than what I’m used to. It’s a lot more single-hitters, one-play actions,” Wagner said. “I’m not used to that yet. So that’s something I’ll continue to work on.”
Still, Wagner has made progress, and while plus-minus is a flawed stat, it’s still worth noting that he was one of only four Lakers — along with James (+11), Williams (0) and Alex Caruso (+5) — to not have a negative plus-minus against Boston, finishing with a +3. He credits the improvements he’s made to getting stronger.
“I think compared to when I first got here with my injury and all that to where I’m out now, I feel a lot more comfortable out there competing with all these guys. It’s a very fast league, a very strong league, so to be able to stop my own man out there is something I’m proud of and that I work on every day,” Wagner said.
However, Wagner’s need to slow down was on display early on in the game, as Walton thought Wagner was a little over-excited to begin his first NBA start, an idea Wagner jokingly disagreed with after the game.
“I don’t know what he’s talking about,” Wagner deadpanned before cracking a smile. “Like I said, I’ve got to work on calming down a little bit, especially in the beginning of the game. Just find your rhythm and let the game come to you a little bit rather than forcing it. And then things will work out fine.”
And despite the loss and Wagner’s self-acknowledged need to improve in a few areas, things are already working out pretty well for the rookie. He’s clearly well-liked by his teammates, who took joy in messing with Wagner about the previously unthinkable crowd of reporters surrounding his locker, with Alex Caruso jokingly offering to serve as a translator for Wagner — who is German but speaks perfectly fluent English — and Josh Hart breaking up a question about Wagner to ask if anyone nearby farted, which led to the possibly the greatest postgame quote anyone will ever transcribe.
“Somebody farted. Nah, he played well,” Hart said of Wagner, before adding that he hoped it wasn’t the rookie big man, and then expanding on his thought’s on Wagner’s game.
“He’s a good player,” Hart continued. “He brings good energy, good decision making. He can knock down shots. He did well today and I’m looking forward to him continuing to step up.”
Wagner is looking forward to that opportunity as well, even if he wishes his emergence was leading to better results, with his every answer an opportunity to watch him essentially argue with himself throughout his sentences as he tried to be grateful for his chance while also struggling to hide his disdain for losing.
“I can talk about the opportunity but it sucks to lose. I want to figure out a way to get a dub regardless of what the circumstances are,” Wagner said. “I just want to win, so I can’t get over that... But yeah, it’s a great opportunity.”
An opportunity Wagner is showing he’s ready for, so his coach won’t have to ask him the next time.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. All stats per NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.