Moe Wagner has spent most of his rookie season with the Los Angeles Lakers watching from the bench and collecting DNP-CD’s.
That may be par for the course for most players who were selected where he was in the draft, but the successes of Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance, Jr., Ivica Zubac, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart and Thomas Bryant made it easy to hope that the Lakers would unearth a gem once more. A bone bruise that Wagner suffered in July took longer to heal than initially expected (surprise!) and put him well behind schedule, with only a recent emergence in playing time after the Lakers’ playoff hopes have evaporated.
Wagner’s done well with the opportunity, and his skill set provides some insight as to what the Lakers may have looked like if they approached the center position less recklessly than they did last summer. His presence as a credible threat from the perimeter opens up the middle of the floor for LeBron James, who has fewer bodies to contend with in the paint when Wagner’s in the game.
Still, Wagner’s enthusiasm isn’t enough to overcome how physically overmatched he often is on the defensive end, where he simply doesn’t have the strength to hold his ground against NBA bigs at this point. He gets rocked back on his heels (or worse) when attempting to defend in the post, and the inevitable shoulder bumps from driving perimeter players can send him flying, just as they did in college.
Wagner will have to fix that literal and figurative weakness, but he does have a path to a role in this league as a small-ball 5 in switch-everything lineups. He’s shown flashes as a perimeter defender in this capacity, and would be wise to spend the offseason getting into the best shape of his life — with an emphasis on quickness and agility. Wagner is never going to be a dependable rim protector, but he has a future if he can stick with guards and wings on the perimeter.
Hopefully Luke Walton increases Wagner’s minutes over this final stretch, because that’s one of the few places where the Lakers can still get some value out of this lost season.