[Marc-Gregor Campredon – MGoBlog]
By the end of last season, John Beilein whittled his rotation down to six core guys; three – including Derrick Walton, the heart of the team and its best player by far – left, and two who return (Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson) are veteran role players seemingly without much further upside. Had Moe Wagner elected to follow DJ Wilson into the NBA Draft as another early entry, the Wolverines would be putting the weight of even more expectations and responsibility on transfers Jaaron Simmons and Charles Matthews.
While those two will still be critically important following the graduation of Walton and Zak Irvin, the return of Wagner gives Michigan a proven commodity to build around. Wagner isn’t without his flaws – particularly on the defensive side of the floor – but his breakout season offered a glimpse of his tantalizing skill-set playing as the five. Most importantly, he has plenty of room to grow: he’s younger than average for his class, he’s had to adjust to life halfway around the world from where he grew up, and he’s still transitioning from being a wing-like player to a true Big Ten big man.
As an offensive whiz and indifferent-at-best defender, Wagner embodies many of the best and worst stereotypes about Beilein basketball. Most obvious is that he’s a lethal pick-and-pop threat who unlocks lineups with near-perfect floor spacing; few Big Men can hit 39.5% from behind the arc on three 3-point attempts per game. Fewer big men can score from the low block, mid-post, and on face-up drives from the perimeter with the array of moves Moe has at his disposal. Somehow he managed to make an absurd 66.1% of his twos, typically a number that would indicate that he’s a “only catch the ball on pick and rolls and dunk it or lay it in” kind of player (he’s not). His true shooting percentage (which weighs 2P%, 3P%, and FT%) was the best in the Big Ten last season.
Wagner’s scoring ability makes him a key asset regardless of all other factors, but his role as Michigan’s de facto defensive anchor (by virtue of simply playing the five position) is problematic, to say the least. His pick-and-roll coverage has improved, but it’s apparent that he’s still inexperienced and has lack of comfort in those situations. He doesn’t contest shots inside the restricted area as a primary or help defender. He struggles against teams that play at a quicker tempo. He gets bodied too easily on the glass (UM’s team defensive rebounding rate fell from 47th nationally in 2015-16 to 212th last season – surely a mix of several factors contributed to that, Wagner’;s increased playing time chief among them). Worst of all, he still picks up frustrating fouls that tend to limit his playing time.
Defensive technique and awareness don’t come easily to him, and that’s probably the biggest reason why he’s returning to Ann Arbor instead of starting his professional career. Development on that end will be crucial to Michigan’s success, but at the very least, Wagner’s likely to be the linchpin of another flamethrower offense and a matchup nightmare for most opposing centers. As a freshman, he was a little-used reserve who played fewer minutes than Ricky Doyle; as a sophomore, he was an above-average Big Ten starter. As a junior, he could be a star.
[More on Moe after the JUMP]
[Marc-Gregor Campredon – MGoBlog]
Michigan loses three of its top four scorers – Derrick Walton (15.5 points per game), Zak Irvin (13.0), and D.J. Wilson (11.0) – so Wagner (12.1) will be relied on to score much more heavily this season. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman’s usage rating has been stuck in almost the exact same spot in the role player range from year-to-year over his career; Duncan Robinson’s minutes (and, by extension, points) average will go up in the wake of Wilson’s early entry – he can score, but he’s not a shot creator. Xavier Simpson would need to take a huge leap to become a consistent scoring option; Jon Teske seemed averse to shoot in his spare minutes; Austin Davis is a complete unknown, as are the three incoming freshmen.
Jaaron Simmons and Charles Matthews will both play heavy minutes and take a healthy portion of Michigan’s shots; both will probably be double digit scorers or close to that. There’s a wide range in potential production for both. Simmons averaged 15.9 points and 6.5 assists per game in the “give the ball to Jaaron” offense in the MAC; how quickly and how well he’s able to adjust to high-major basketball and command the Beilein offense from the point guard position are open questions. That Charles Matthews was a take at Kentucky speaks very highly to the talent and potential he had as a recruit, but he didn’t make an impact in his season at Lexington. A redshirt year probably helped his development – still, he was mostly just a guy with occasional highlight-reel feats of athleticism at UK.
Fortunately for Michigan, Moe Wagner’s most valuable attribute is his ability to score, particularly by creating his own shot. His three-point shot, either spotting up or popping after a screen, has a release that’s quick and high enough to make it impossible for many bigs to contest. What sets him apart from most floor-spacing big men is his ability to dribble. Moe can string together several dribbles from the perimeter to take smaller players to the rim, he attacks reckless closeouts easily, and he loves his little right-to-left behind-the-back dribble.
The best one-on-one scorers seem to have an innate sense of how to fluidly string together sequences of moves to throw defenders off balance – and Moe seems to have that as well. He has a keen sense of how to manipulate defenders with the threat of his jumper (and since he has a high three-point attempt rate for a big man, it’s a credible threat). He’s able to sense moments in Michigan’s normal action where he can beat an unaware defender with a strong, ambidextrous dribble-drive. He changes pace effectively, uses slight fakes and jukes, works patiently in the post, and gets to his spots for high-percentage shots.
Of course, Beilein’s offensive system discourages isolations, “hero ball,” or one-on-one possessions. Whether he’s using his trademark spaced-out motion offense, letting his guards use ball screens, or drawing up set plays, he’s involving multiple players in the action – Beilein shies away from simply throwing it into the post or asking a guard to attack his defender alone, which are generally the most inefficient forms of offense. Per Synergy, Michigan used just 8.7% of its possessions on “isolation” plays and 3.9% on “post-up” plays last season. Surely most of those isolations were of the panicked it’s-late-in-the-shot-clock-we-need-to-do-something variety.
Shot creation is critical in any offense. Against the best defenses, Michigan’s motion can be stymied by wing defenders with elite length, quickness, or physicality. Zak Irvin ceded late-clock opportunities to Derrick Walton late last season, but he still led the team in field goal attempts – he could get his own shots, however inefficient they may have been. With both Walton and Irvin gone, Michigan will need to find new sources of offense. It’s likely that most possessions will flow through Jaaron Simmons; Charles Matthews will get a healthy amount of shots; it’s possible that Xavier Simpson or Eli Brooks could facilitate as point guards off the bench.
As antithetical to Beilein’s offensive philosophy it may be, increasing Moe’s amount of touches in the post may be a smart strategy. Teams that switch often will be exposed when they try to guard Wagner with a wing; his breakout performance against Louisville demonstrates how well he’s able to blow up those tactics, even if an elite defense is deploying them. Usually Michigan ignores those types of switches, but Michigan needed Wagner to exploit that matchup to beat the Cardinals and he did.
In that game, he was mostly backing down smaller players, but he likes to face up and put the ball on the floor from the mid-post against bigger defenders – which isn’t effective against above-the-rim defenders with mobility, but those are pretty rare. Beilein almost always goes to a high ball-screen with the clock winding down, but now he has a shot-creator at the five. Perhaps we’ll start to see the Wolverines look for Moe if the initial action fails, instead of tossing it out to a guard.
[Patrick Barron – MGoBlog]
Consistency is an issue for almost all players (and especially big men) in their first season of significant playing time, and Wagner was no exception. In his first matchup against Purdue, he scored 24 points on just 15 field goal attempts, taking advantage of Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas with his range and guile; in the second matchup two weeks later, he didn’t make a shot from the field (and finished with just 5 points, all from free throws). In the Round of 64, Moe was ran off the floor by Oklahoma State’s roadrunner offense and rendered unplayable, logging just 14 minutes; in the Round of 32, he put up a season-high 26 points to spring the upset over Louisville; in the Round of 16, he was completely dominated by Pac-12 DPOY Jordan Bell.
Michigan survived some off nights from Wagner, but may not be able to as easily without Derrick Walton. Last season, early events in the game dictated which Moritz would show up: if he hit a couple threes or beat an opposing center off the dribble early, it would be a good night – and if he had a layup blocked or committed an unnecessary foul, he wouldn’t make much of an impact. An analysis of Michigan’s six rotation players’ game scores from last season* demonstrates that Moritz wasn’t particularly inconsistent relative to his teammates (and was actually more consistent than either MAAR or Duncan Robinson) – in fact, each of the other five core rotation players had at least two performances worse than Moe’s worst.
Wagner’s perceived as inconsistent because his best is so good – if he could play like he did in the first ten minutes of the Big Ten Tournament win over Minnesota or in the second half of the Louisville victory frequently enough, he’d be an All-American. His ability to put up big scoring nights is mostly correlated with whether his three-ball is falling or not, but he can be effective inside the arc even if he isn’t making shots from outside. Consistent effort on the glass and consistent attention on defense are vital – a Robinson-Wagner frontcourt will give up plenty of points and Michigan will need to be incredibly efficient on offense to have a chance.
The area where Michigan absolutely needs Moe to be more consistent is defending without fouling. Playing time is inversely correlated with foul rate – with two inexperienced backup centers and no D.J. Wilson, the Wolverines will need Wagner to play more than the 59% of available minutes he did last season. He actually led Michigan in points per 40 minutes (20.2, ahead of Derrick Walton’s 17.8), but he played significantly less than the other Wolverine starters did.
Since Wagner’s not much of a shot blocker – to say the least – he shouldn’t be getting as many fouls as he does by contesting shots. He likes to gamble for steals and also sometimes gets caught being too aggressive on the perimeter in ball-screen coverage. Perhaps more discipline in those areas would cut down on his foul rate some. It’s an understandable issue: avoiding fouls is a classic problem for big men, and the vagaries of college basketball officiating make it impossible for players to judge how physical they can or can’t be. In any case, unless Jon Teske or Austin Davis is a pleasant surprise, there will be a huge drop-off from the starter to the backups at the five – so the starter needs to play as much as possible.
*According to the game score metric, Derrick Walton had six of Michigan’s seven best individual performances (and nine of the best eleven, and twelve of the best sixteen). He was pretty good, imo.
* * *
Wagner’s Big Ten player comparisons lead to interesting conclusions about what kind of player he is. In order, the ten player-seasons from 2008-2016 with the most similar statistical profiles were Andrew White, Will Sheehey, Jae’Sean Tate, Robert Carter, Sam Dekker, Victor Oladipo, Marvin Clark, Max Bielfeldt, Dekker again, and Jake Layman. Of those ten, Carter and Bielfeldt were the only to play any minutes as the five, and both played significant time at the four (next to Diamond Stone and Thomas Bryant, respectively) as well. Tate is an undersized four that plays around the basket. Otherwise, the rest are all wings.
Since arriving in Ann Arbor, Wagner has spent all of his time at the five, but he was never a post player. From Ace’s Hello post:
Wagner is going to need some time adding bulk at Camp Sanderson, and his slight physique—and still-developing shot—may limit his minutes as a freshman, especially if Caris LeVert comes back and a logjam results on the wings. He'll most likely be competing with Duncan Robinson and Kameron Chatman for a spot in the rotation, and of the three we've only been able to see Chatman play at this level.
Down the road, he's a very intriguing prospect. Michigan really missed having a player at the four who could create off the dribble, and while Aubrey Dawkins made some progress in that regard late in the season, Wagner looks like the most polished slasher among the guys who could play at that spot. If his outside shot comes along, he could be a very impactful stretch four.
Based on the evidence we had at the time, it was reasonable to assume that he’d be a four. Both Ace and Dylan’s commitment post at UM Hoops referenced an old European scouting report with a now-dead link has a fascinating take in hindsight (emphasis mine):
The young Moritz Wagner is a really interesting prospect for the future. Used as a PF on multiple occasions, Wagner showed that he has an outside game and that his future should be on the SF position. He can shoot from outside, either on catch-and-shoot situations or in the Pick and Pop when being the screener. Wagner can also put the ball on the floor which works particularly well when used against taller power forwards. He is also able to drive with direction changes and finish against stronger or taller players in the paint. Athletically, he is looking good and with his overall length, he is a good vertical presence on both sides of the court. Wagner really needs to be used on the wing positions in the future as he has the tools to become an interesting long small forward in the future. It will be interesting to see if [Moe’s German team] can do this as they will lack some inside presence in the next generations of their NBBL roster so that Wagner risks to be used as a pure PF or even center next season.
The scouting report itself was quite accurate (except for him being a vertical presence), but the conclusion about him needing to slide from the four to the three proved to be completely off-the-mark. Wagner would have proven to be too slow-footed to ever compete defensively as a “long small forward,” but based on his skill-set at the time, it was easy to envision him as a jumbo wing, perhaps in the mold of someone like former Iowa Hawkeye Aaron White. He was blessed with a late growth spurt after that evaluation and even though there was some question as to whether he’d play the four or the five at Michigan, he’s been steadily bulking up and playing minutes strictly at the five.
It’s apparent that he’s still growing into that role. By now, Wagner’s physical profile more resembles that of a true post player than that of the lanky small forward seen by that Euro scout a few years ago, but he’s still essentially an overgrown wing in how he plays. Because of the structure of the Beilein offense, Wagner often operates as the fulcrum of the offense, swinging the ball from side to side and setting on- and off-ball screens. Since Jordan Morgan’s departure, the Wolverines have struggled to set strong picks; Mark Donnal and Ricky Doyle were always big men throughout their development, and they never generated much contact; Wagner probably wasn’t the screener often back in Germany and has improved as he’s grown more comfortable in that role.
Moe’s seeming unfamiliarity with playing in the post defensively is where his inexperience as a five is most evident. There are a lot of flaws in his technique that suggest that doesn’t have a natural level of comfort with the little things needed to be an adequate defensive anchor at the five spot. When helping on dribble drives, Wagner too often readies himself to take a charge instead of contesting the shot. He doesn’t use his length well to compete as a primary defender in the post. He isn’t an instinctive rebounder and is too inconsistent boxing out opposing big men. His block rate is low. His steal rate is actually pretty high – the block/steal disparity is actually a big factor as to why his top player comps are wings – as he likes to jump passing lanes and take swipes at plodding bigs in the post.
With Duncan Robinson slated to absorb many of D.J. Wilson’s vacated minutes at the four, there’s even more pressure on Wagner to develop as a passable defender. Michigan’s frontcourt, while lethal offensively, will be a disaster on the other end unless Wagner becomes considerably better – Robinson is a defensive vulnerability and that likely won’t change. Wagner surely heard from NBA teams that he’ll have to improve his defense, rebounding, and physicality to improve his draft stock – and that will require him being more comfortable playing defense as a big. His wing skills are fundamental to his scoring ability, but he needs to shed his more detrimental wing-like defensive tendencies.
[Bryan Fuller – MGoBlog]
While the dream of a fully-operational versatile big man duo died with Wilson’s departure, Wagner will presumably take another step in his development and become an even more effective offensive weapon at the college level. If he can develop strong ball-screen chemistry with Jaaron Simmons (who frequently ran pick-and-pops with former MSU Spartan Kenny Kaminski last season at Ohio), Michigan will have a nearly unstoppable staple play: have Moe set a screen for Jaaron with everyone else spaced out at the three-point line.
If Simmons can’t create shots for himself and others as consistently as he did at Ohio, more offensive responsibility will fall to Moe – and he can probably handle it. Last season, Walton and Irvin each consumed about 20% of Michigan’s total possessions; Wagner was at 14%. In order to increase that number significantly, Moe will have to stop fouling so often. If he’s able to do that, he’ll get more shots, and shot selection hasn’t ever been much of an issue with him. The Ringer’s Rodger Sherman put it well in the aftermath of the Louisville game:
He’s like a video game character that has more weapons than any person could conceivably hold in real life — he needs a second to go to the weapons interface, pick which gun or melee item is best for this specific attack, and then he goes to work.
Wagner is a rare offensive talent. If Simmons and/or Matthews live up to the hype, John Beilein will have yet another elite offense – perhaps with his enthusiastic German big man leading the way instead of a guard.
No matter how good the offense is (and it will be very good in all likelihood), Michigan’s success will be contingent on Moe’s development as a defender. Last season, Wilson could sometimes compensate for his flaws – Duncan Robinson will not be able to. He’ll get stronger over the summer, and that will help, but Wagner’s general defensive awareness needs to improve more than anything else. Moe won’t ever be a two-way player. An improved feel for the game as a paint defender would go a long way though – and that will be something to keep a close eye on during the early part of the season. Hopefully he starts getting a better whistle as well.
* * *
Wagner’s emotion on the floor is a nice bonus. Michigan’s roster has had a lot of quiet and reserved kids in recent years, so Moe’s energy and demonstrativeness have stood out often. It was clear from the beginning that he has a strong personality. Moe’s ebullience on the court is endless – even at the NBA combine, he was getting hype like it was a real game. There's a degree of self-awareness too: during Michigan's tournament run, Wagner told reporters that “One of my youth coaches used to say I was somebody who sees the basketball court as a stage and really enjoys it. Last year I just started to understand what that really means. I embraced it this year.” He’s the most obvious candidate to be the emotional bellwether for the Wolverines next season.
Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson will grow into natural leadership roles as seniors, but Wagner wants to be a leader as well, according to John Beilein. In returning to Michigan, Moe has the opportunity to be the centerpiece of another very good team and could grow into one of the best big men in college basketball.