Embraced by a Home Away from Home, Moritz Wagner Is Finally Ready for a New Challenge

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On Wednesday, June 6, in an office somewhere in the Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, two men posed for a photo. On the right is Moritz Wagner, a 6’11”, 21-year-old native of Berlin, Germany. On the left is John Beilein, a 65-year-old native of Burt, New York.

Beilein won’t be heading to the NBA any time soon (he recently dismissed Pistons rumors), but Wagner will be. He formally announced his decision on The Players’ Tribune in April, and now, two months later, he says he feels good and ready to go. The hardest part of the process, he says, was not deciding to go to the NBA, but deciding to leave the place he’s called home for the last three years.

“It was time to get a new challenge and something new, as much as it hurt to leave this spot,” Wagner says. “I always felt like this is the right spot for me here. I feel very comfortable in this environment. I love it here [in Ann Arbor]. I’ll always come back. This will always be my home.”

More than 4,000 miles separate Wagner’s old home in Berlin and his present “home” in Ann Arbor. Wagner first made the trip across the Atlantic to Michigan in 2015, bringing along plenty of courage and a readily apparent love of the game.

“The one thing that makes me stick out, the one thing I try to embrace and… not sell, but make obvious [to pro teams] is that I really love basketball,” Wagner says. “I say this in interviews, but I also think if you watch me play that’s something I embrace 24/7, whether I make shots or not. I really like basketball and I’m not doing this just to please anyone or hype up crowds—though I do that and enjoy doing that.”

Nowhere was that more evident than in the second round of this year’s NCAA Tournament. When Jordan Poole hit a buzzer beating three-pointer to lift Michigan over Houston, Wagner, the closest teammate to him, virtually escorted the freshman back to their sideline to the waiting pack of baying Wolverines.

“I treat a basketball court like my playground,” Wagner says, “and I really enjoy doing this and that’s why I play with that type of energy and love for the game. It’s my playground. You’re not going to disrespect my playground. It’s nothing I have to sell. It’s just who I am.”

But that pure passion and love of basketball wasn’t always there. Back when he was a boy in Berlin, using actual playgrounds, young Moe Wagner was always around sports, but he started on a different kind of playing surface.

“My mom wanted me to play a sport, and I always played soccer,” he says. “For some reason, I played basketball one time and I didn’t really like it. I was good at it but I didn’t like it, so my mom dragged me to a practice.”

Two years later, Moe was playing basketball, begrudgingly, in gym class in grade school. The coach there also worked for the local club team, Alba Berlin, and he liked what he saw. And so, once again, he was dragged to a basketball practice. He ultimately grew to enjoy his second sport, and played both soccer and basketball together for two years. But he knew once he entered high school, Wagner would have to choose one or the other.

“At first I wanted to play both at the same time, but my parents weren’t agreeing with that at all,” he says with a hearty chuckle. “They wanted me to choose, so I chose. I’m happy we made that decision.”

Then came the next big decision: what to do after high school. He figured going to a college in the United States was a good path to travel. But there were some roadblocks. Wagner had risen through the ranks at Alba Berlin and even reached the club’s top-flight team in 2014, and the prospect of a professional basketball career was alluring.

“My club offered the perfect situation for me,” Wagner recalls. “They offered me a good contract with everything I needed—I didn’t need a lot—a great development program, great people around me, playing at home is always great. So it was tough to say, ‘OK, I’m leaving my city and trying something new’ and basically risk it, bet on something you’re not really comfortable with.”

But before he could leave that city, he had to have a destination. That produced the next roadblock: how does this young, lanky German forward register on American radars? Without the benefit of AAU basketball or extensive visits from scouts, Wagner took matters into his own large hands.

“I cut my own (highlight) video together, put some corny background music in the back and made a very bad video and sent it out,” he says with a laugh. “I had a couple connections that helped me, and it kind of found its way to coach Beilein and he really liked it for some reason. I don’t know how many emails he gets per day from people trying to play for him, but he liked that one.”

A few other schools established contact, but, he says, nothing was serious. Beilein flew to Germany to watch Wagner play, and Michigan emerged as the only serious contender. All roadblocks cleared, Wagner became a Wolverine.

Fast-forward three years, two conference tournament titles and one Final Four appearance later, and Moe Wagner is running through the gauntlet of the NBA pre-draft workouts for the second time. He knew he wasn’t going pro after his sophomore campaign, but all the experience he gained last May has proved invaluable to his preparation this year, when his name will be called on draft night.

“There are so many questions you have as a prospect going into all these things. You don’t know what to expect at all,” he says. “For me, it was almost like a sophomore season where I was like, ‘OK, I’ve been through this and I know exactly what kind of questions they’re going to ask me, what I have to do at the Combine, what I have to expect, and how I prepare for that.’ It’s a huge advantage, because you don’t waste as much energy thinking about all that stuff.” 

Wagner brings plenty of tangibles to the table for NBA teams to consider. He can drive and pass, but perhaps his best attribute is his shooting—he’s lethal on pick-and-pops, and can reliably knock down shots from anywhere on the floor.

“I work on my shot consistently, and I think it’s something I really have to work on in order to transition to the next level,” Wagner says. “Coach Beilein and I always had these conversations: be a big that can shoot and not just a shooter that is big. There’s a significant difference there. I try to involve everything on the court, and not only the shooting, which is obviously a huge aspect of my game, and why I’m confident I can do that in the next years too.” 

When Wagner made that first transatlantic flight to Michigan, he brought along a memento. In his announcement on The Players’ Tribune, Wagner relays the story of a poster of Dirk Nowitzki that he procured after the Mavericks’ 2011 NBA Finals win over the LeBron James-led Miami Heat. He’s called Nowitzki his “idol” and his version of Michael Jordan, and the two finally met after the Mavs played the Pistons in early 2017. Since then, that story has stayed with Wagner almost as long as that poster has.

“I love America for that because I think it’s so funny how one story blows up like that. It’s hilarious to me,” Wagner says. “But it is a cool thing, and it brings a smile to my face thinking that I could play on that level with him, at the same stage, with or against him, whatever. I just think Dirk is a great dude, I think that’s what makes him special. Not that he won a championship and that he’s so good at basketball, it’s more what type of character he is and what he stands for in life. I think that’s very impressive and underrated. So I’m very happy that the guy offered his advice and that I might play against him or for him, whatever happens, it’s an honor.”

Sure, Wagner and Nowitzki are both tall German stretch forward/center hybrids that can rebound, pass and shoot reliably from range, but don’t make those comparisons around Moe. He says he respects Nowitzki greatly—so much so, in fact, that he wouldn’t dare put himself in the same conversation as the greatest German basketball player ever. At least, not yet.

“I almost feel uncomfortable being mentioned together with him sometimes, just because of what type of guy he is and the way he brought the game of basketball to a different stage,” Wagner says. “I always put myself in his position. I feel bad for him because if I was him, I would be furious if they compared a college kid who isn’t even in the NBA yet, hasn’t even made a name for himself, compared to me, Dirk Nowitzki, who is a legend, you know? I’m very happy about his mentorship and what he stands for and all that stuff, but I’m still Moe, you know?”

Maybe Moe Wagner will get the chance to play against Nowitzki. Who knows, maybe Moe makes it with Nowitzki on the Mavs, who pick at No. 33, which is near the range Wagner could be selected. Either way, thanks to the mentorship of Nowitzki and Beilein, Wagner is ready for the next step. Moe Wagner loves basketball, he loves Michigan, and the NBA is going to love him.

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