One of the few positive developments for the otherwise (mostly) meaningless close to a disappointing season for the Los Angeles Lakers has been rookie big man Moe Wagner getting a chance to show what he can do.
And while Wagner’s play hasn’t been beyond reproach over the eight games since he started playing at the start to start March — he’s shooting 38.5 percent from the field and 25 percent from three, and the Lakers have been nearly 11 full points per 100 possessions better when he sits than when he plays — at least the front office (and Lakers fans) are getting an extended look at the team’s most recent first-round pick.
Brendan Quinn of The Athletic caught up with Wagner for an extended — and worthwhile — profile on the Michigan product’s first season, and within it, Wagner sounded like exactly the type of competitor he comes across as with his mannerisms on the court. Even if Wagner hasn’t played up to his own standards yet, or contributed to the type of winning he wants to, he still has high expectations for himself and he’s heavily motivated to meet them:
Wagner lives alone. His apartment is near the beach, not far from LAX. It was hard in the beginning. Leaving Michigan after his junior season, he thought he deserved to be drafted higher than No. 25 in the first round, where the Lakers picked him. Upon getting to L.A., he wanted to not only prove the Lakers right, but to prove every other team wrong. “I wanted to show that to everyone.” He had a vision for his rookie season.
“I was ready to go out there and just say, I don’t care how much money you make, and I don’t care how long you’ve been here — I can do this, too, and I will show it to you, and I’m not going to be scared away,” Wagner says.
Wagner’s production may not have met those lofty goals yet, but he does seem to be playing with more verve and chutzpah than earlier in the season, and he told Quinn that’s no accident:
“I feel like I’ve got my swagger back,” Wagner says, sitting in the lobby. “I’m confident. I talk my shit, all that stuff, you know? That’s just part of the whole thing for me. I’ve got to have fun when I play basketball. That’s when I’m at my best. I still don’t really feel like I’ve proven what I can do.
“I just want to stay myself. It’s not hard. Obviously, in L.A., when you have a little money, it can get adventurous out there and it’s very — how do I say this? You can get in trouble. You can distract yourself pretty easily. But for me, my priorities have always just been basketball. I wouldn’t say that I’m obsessed, but, really, obsessed is a good word for the certain dream or goal in my mind that I want to achieve.”
That’s a good mindset for Wagner to have, because the Lakers really need him to reach the top-end of his potential, although not as much as it seemed when he was drafted.
Despite Wagner being surprised that he went towards the end of the first round in the 2018 NBA Draft, he was actually picked higher than a lot of mock drafts had him. While that doesn’t always mean anything, and the Lakers have shown a propensity to draft guys much higher than their mock draft position and have them pan out anyway (see: Kyle Kuzma, Larry Nance, Jr.), it still — at the time — seemed to indicate that the Lakers needed Wagner to hit, because by adding LeBron James they appeared to be entering the stage in their team-building where they might trade first-rounders for players that could help them win now.
Now that the Lakers are once again lottery bound and seem set to get at least a decent pick in this year’s (allegedly underwhelming beyond Zion Williamson) draft, Wagner panning out quickly is less of a desperate need, but would still be a helpful addition to the team given his theoretical skillset when he maxes out his full potential.
As a big man who can space the floor as a (slightly undersized) center, Wagner’s archetype is the exactly the sort of big man James has proven over and over again that he can have success with. Whether it’s Chris Bosh when he was with the Miami Heat, or Channing Frye during his second stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers, James has always had a knack for being able to take advantage of the space a stretch big man can provide, and an ability to find them and make defenses pay for helping too far when they rush to contain James.
However, Wagner has only shot 32.7 percent from distance this season. That’s okay for a big guy, but will need to be better for it to be a real weapon for the Lakers. Combine such shooting with his struggles on defense, and it’s not that hard to see why head coach Luke Walton was hesitant to unleash the rookie earlier in the season when the Lakers were still trying to win.
Now, though, with JaVale McGee and Tyson Chandler mostly having lost their effectiveness for the past few months and with the Lakers out of contention for a playoff spot, there is no real reason for the team to not check out what they have in Wagner. It’s good that he seems highly motivated to not let them down, even if he hasn’t quite lived up to even his own expectations yet.
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.