Moritz Wagner: 'Dirk was my MJ; he made me believe this was possible'

Moritz Wagner: 'Dirk was my MJ; he made me believe this was possible'

Interview

Moritz Wagner: 'Dirk was my MJ; he made me believe this was possible'

Moritz Wagner is one of the most NBA-ready players in the 2018 NBA draft class due to his extensive experience.

He joined Alba Berlin’s youth team in 2011. As he continued to grow and improve, he won a gold medal with Germany’s national team in the FIBA Europe U-18 Championship. Then, his 2013-14 under-19 Bundesliga squad won a German title. The following year, he made the jump from Alba Berlin’s youth squad to the top team (even appearing in two Euroleague games).

Wagner then joined Michigan, where he spent three seasons and developed into one of the top big men in the nation. As a junior with the Wolverines, he averaged 14.6 points, 7.1 rebounds, 1 steal and 1.6 threes per game, while shooting 52.8 percent from the field and 39.4 percent from three. Wagner led Michigan to the national title game in April and while they ultimately lost to Villanova, Wagner was named to the All-Tournament Team.

Now, the 21-year-old is determined to prove that he’s a great fit for today’s NBA, as a 6-foot-11 big man who can hit threes consistently and efficiently. HoopsHype talked to Wagner about his move to the United States, his time at Michigan, the NBA players he studies and much more.

What was it like making the move from Germany to Michigan? Do you think that forced you to mature and grow up a bit quicker than your peers?

Moritz Wagner: It definitely helped me. Being by myself early on kind of forces you to do things by yourself that others aren’t doing – even if it’s just simple things like being in charge of your own money and taking care of yourself. Being in college is much different from being at home, just in general, because you don’t have your mom around to take care of you 24/7 (laughs). But it’s an even tougher adjustment when you’re in a new country. There was the whole culture change, which was difficult looking back. Back then, I was so busy with everything that I didn’t realize how much of a challenge it all was, but when I look back now, I see how different I was, how much the language barrier was a factor and how tough it was to meet new people. It was definitely challenging, but I wouldn’t change it at all.

Some guys have to go through that adjustment during their first NBA season, which seems so difficult, so it’s good that you got it out of the way early. During your time at Michigan, how much do you feel you developed as a player?

MW: Oh man, a lot. I think a lot of it has to do with my confidence. And I think you can only develop that confidence when there are certain people investing in you, when you have great resources you’re able to use, and when you’re able to work with people you trust and who want to help you around the clock.

Coach John Beilein is someone I give a lot of credit to for my development. Yeah, he was always hard on me, but in a good way. It’s because he believed in me and wanted me to be better every day. The one thing that I realize now, having been there for three years, is that when you commit to Michigan, you’re committing to being developed 24/7. You’re going to work and get better during the offseason and during the season. That was a big thing we stressed at Michigan: getting better every single day. Not only on the court, but also in the weight room. Coach [Jon] Sanderson, the head strength and conditioning coach, helped me out so much. My physical development was ridiculous thanks to him. There were so many different people in that program that helped me a lot.

What has the pre-draft process been like for you so far? I know it can be tough from a travel standpoint, but you also get to focus 100 percent on basketball. How has the process gone for you?

MW: It’s been fun, man. I have an advantage after [testing the waters] last year, so I kind of know what to expect and what it’s all about. Last year, I had a different state of mind because I was kind of uncertain about what I was going to do. This year, I know what I want, I understand what’s important and I can really enjoy it, you know? That’s how I’m approaching it. I’m enjoying meeting new people every day and embracing the opportunity to travel around the country. I’ve worked out for a few teams already and I have a few more scheduled for the upcoming weeks, but it’s been fun! The travel can be a challenge and a bit stressful when you’re waking up in a different bed every day, but that’s part of this and I have to get used to that. I’m a blessed man. This is the best job and I’m definitely grateful to be going through all of this stuff.

What do you feel you’ll bring to an NBA team?

MW: I’m just being myself [as I meet with teams] and that’s part of what I’ll bring to the next level. I’m a really honest, direct guy. I’ll never BS you or tell you something that I don’t actually believe. I’m also going to buy in and work extremely hard to get better. I’m going to give 100 percent energy every day. I think that’s very valuable. Whether we’re playing in front of a packed arena in a big game or if we’re on the second night of a back-to-back and playing in front of an empty gym, I’m going to provide energy and my effort level will be at 100 percent. It doesn’t matter what the circumstances are. I think that’s one of the biggest things that I’ll be able to bring to a team.

As far as what I can bring on the court aside from my energy, I know I can stretch the floor because of my shooting ability. I can also dribble really well. I’m a playmaker, and I’m not afraid of the big moment. I think those are the biggest things I can provide to a team.

What are your biggest weaknesses that you’re working to improve?

MW: I think my biggest weakness is probably my defensive consistency. I think I can improve that a lot at the next level and I’m looking forward to doing that. With that said, I am excited to prove that I can hold guards in front of me after a switch. That’s especially important now, looking at the way the league is evolving nowadays. I’m excited to be able to showcase that and improve my consistency on that end of the floor.

As a German big man who stands a little over 6-foot-11 and who shot nearly 40 percent from three-point range over the last two seasons, I’m sure you’ve heard Dirk Nowitzki comparisons. Was he somebody that you grew up watching and modeling your game after, or are those similarities just a coincidence?

MW: It’s definitely not a coincidence! I’m always flattered and shocked by any kind of direct comparisons to Dirk because that’s my MJ, you know? I had his poster on my wall and it motivated me every day. He made me believe that this was all possible. He was just another boy from Germany as well. Shooting is something that I always enjoyed and I remember thinking, “If he can do it, why can’t I?” That was my mindset. He’s definitely an idol of mine and one of my favorite players of all-time.

Are there any other players whom you study a lot or try to take certain aspects of their game?

MW: Yeah, there are a lot of players. I watch a ton of basketball, including the playoffs this year. There have been some really great series throughout this postseason. As far as specific players, Kevin Garnett is another player I idolize and he’s another one of my favorite players of all-time. I loved his passion and intensity.

There are a lot of guys I watch who are in the league now too, like Dario Saric, Kelly Olynyk and Anthony Davis. There is so much stuff you can learn from watching a guy like Davis. I just love watching basketball; I’m a blessed man to, hopefully, be able to get paid to play and watch this game.

Some mock drafts have you going late first round or early second round. Is that surreal to you and what does it feel like to be so close to achieving your dream of playing in the NBA?

MW: It is surreal. I mean, I’ve been training for this for so long and recently I’ve been traveling to all these different places [for workouts], and now it’s only a few weeks away. I try not to think about it too much because I don’t want to get caught up in dreaming. But it is kind of weird that this is about to happen when I’ve been imagining that moment my entire life.

But I’m mainly trying to focus on the here and now, rather than getting caught up in what’s going to happen on June 21. I’m not paying attention to any mock drafts or any of that stuff. I’m just trying to do my job and trying to be the best version of myself every day.

If you reach your full potential, how good do you think you could be in the NBA? What do you think your ceiling is at the next level?

MW: I honestly don’t know. I’ve never thought about that because I’m always so worried about the next step. There’s not really any room in my head for that because I’m always thinking about what’s next. One thing we always focused on at Michigan, one thing that Coach Beilein always emphasized, is that you can’t skip any steps in your development. That’s something I’ve realized throughout my career too. It’s not even worth it to look ahead like that. I just focus on the next step and we’ll see what happens.

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