March 15, 2019, 6:00 pm
Happy Friday Hoop Ballers and welcome to another installment of our International Spotlight weekly feature where we will be deep diving into German forward/center Moritz (Mo) Wagner, a potential down-the-road fantasy contributor for the Lakers in what looks like a lost season for the organization.
Contrary to their free agency acquisitions and trades in the last couple years, the Lakers have an excellent track record of picking up ready-to-contribute guys in the draft classes of recent years from Kyle Kuzma to Josh Hart, Ivica Zubac, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr., all of them drafted outside the top 25. And that trend continued this past summer with the selection of University of Michigan junior Moritz Wagner with the 25th pick in the first round, after he posted per-40-minute stats of 19.9 points, 8.6 boards and 1.5 steals while shooting 38.5 percent from distance in three years in the Big Ten Conference.
Wagner started his basketball career in the youth ranks of German powerhouse Alba Berlin and opted to play at the college level, turning down multiple offers to go professional. After a disappointing freshman season where he had to adjust to the level of physicality and to life in US, he had back-to-back tremendous seasons, leading the Wolverines to the NCAA championship game last year as their go-to scorer and leader, averaging 14.6 points and 7.1 rebounds in 27.6 minutes per game. The Lakers were glad to see him fall all the way down to #25 as the kind of offensive production he brings to the table is rarely found in that range, even though his game has some gaping holes that need to be addressed before he becomes a rotation piece.
Strong Summer League but an Unfortunate Start
The Lakers were focused on improving their shooting through the draft, as validated by the selections of Wagner and Svi Mykhailiuk, but neither was expected to have a major role for the team after the July acquisition of LeBron James. Still, the German big raised a lot of eyebrows during Summer League as he showed to be a lot more athletic than he seemed at Michigan, running the court exceptionally well and making his presence felt on the defensive side as well.
It was expected that he could stretch the floor and finish around the basket while his energy and intensity made him look like a guy LeBron would probably want to play with, but what came out as a big surprise were the defensive numbers of 2.7 steals and 1.3 blocks in five games. Unfortunately, Wagner injured his left ankle and his left knee at the same game with an MRI revealing a left knee contusion that forced him to miss the entire preseason and not make his NBA debut until the middle of November, with him clearly being out of the rotation after the Lakers signed Tyson Chandler to supplement their frontcourt depth.
The Lakers’ Lack of Shooting
The Lakers ranked second to last in 3-point shooting last year and clearly felt that it was something that needed to be addressed but even after drafting Mo and Svi, they had only three players shooting above 37 percent from behind the arc (Josh Hart, KCP and Brandon Ingram). Wagner’s postponed season debut further diminished their ability to spread the floor, as the Lakers opted to play Tyson Chandler, Kyle Kuzma and occasionally LeBron as the backup center while the team transitioned into win-now mode, failing to even contemplate switching to their younger, more energetic rookie.
Wagner is a prototypical pick-and-pop big man possessing a great combination of size and skill and he is a crafty scorer who can get open looks and get creative both around the rim and on the perimeter. His stroke is almost flawless while the only paradox is that, surprisingly, he struggled with his free throw throw shooting while in college, but I expect his percentage to rise with more experience and exposure.
The German kid brings a ton of energy and hustle to the court while his pick-and-roll game can unlock many offensive options for the Lakers as he has a quick and beautiful stroke behind the 3-point line, he can roll to the basket and finish strong and is an underrated passer with the ability to make the right play out of a double-team. This was very well known coming out of college where Wagner was an elite spot-up shooter, ranking in the 95th percentile amongst all spot-up shooters in the NCAA, tallying an impressive 1.27 points per possession in those situations. Look at Mason Plumlee being late on the switch as Wagner releases a beautiful shot on the side action with Rajon Rondo.
His shooting ability gives the Lakers completely different options on the offensive side of the ball compared to JaVale McGee, Tyson Chandler (and Ivica Zubac until recently) but these schemes have not been explored that often by the Lakers coaching staff and it’s still unclear whether the team wants to experiment with their rookie for the remaining 14 games. Here is a rare occasion from last week where Wagner operates as the center and the Lakers run their offense through him, allowing him to post Kyrie Irving and make the pass to a cutting LeBron James as Al Horford is closing in with help defense.
Wagner is equally effective when teams close-out on him on the 3-point line, where he shows off his ball handling and passing ability while attacking the rim with an array of moves that are tough to defend. He is patient inside the paint with a variety of post moves, he can face up with decent handles and has a really good first step for his size, often creating mismatches with his presence. Look at the deadly spin move he puts on Georges Niang before finishing with the nice backboard touch.
On top of everything else, Wagner also runs the floor very well in transition, creating a lot of opportunities for himself and his teammates and he really has all the intangibles that make him a keeper due to a very nice feel for the game, a lot of determination and no fear whatsoever.
The Positional Challenge
While Wagner had a very successful career at the college level there were clearly some major questions about the transition of his game to the pros. Defenders in the NBA are stronger, quicker and longer and even though the rookie has been able to use his agility to finish around the rim, he often gets too comfortable and finds himself beaten by lesser opponents. Look at him forcing the action against Gordon Hayward and managing to get blocked (!) deep down in the post.
These are the plays that make you wonder about his long term fit in the league as many scouts believed he could easily be neutralized to merely a stretch big at the next level. The Lakers have used him mostly as a power forward, in a Kelly Olynyk type of role, where he is being deployed as a deadly shooter around the perimeter. That move combined with the lack of size make him an average rebounder at best for a 6’11” guy, while he struggles with fouling against centers. He’s been unable to hold his ground with the likes of players like Gorgui Dieng and Dragan Bender in recent weeks. And at a game against the Nuggets he was helpless against Nikola Jokic, who used all the tricks in his bag to draw repeated fouls on the struggling rookie.
Wagner is not an ideal rim protector, nor athletic or quick enough to defend modern power forwards. That often limits his impact on the court and makes him a liability on the defensive side where opponents will attack him relentlessly. There are areas where he needs to put some work as adding lower-body strength, for example, will help him avoid getting overpowered in the post.
The coaching staff also needs to do a better job at hiding his weaknesses and teaching him how to properly use verticality. The rookie is a solid team defender who is willing to hustle on help rotations and moves fairly well laterally so not everything is bad, and if the Lakers see him as an integral part of their future they should pair him with a versatile frontcourt player in order to be part of an adequate team defense.
Luke Walton’s Defensive Scheme
The Lakers went after JaVale McGee and Tyson Chandler this offseason, mainly due to their desire to install a mobile rim protector who could drop back while defending the pick-and-roll action. Each time a screen is set, the big man almost always drops back and isn’t looking to switch or hedge as soon as the pick is set. Instead, the center will slowly backpedal towards the rim, giving the perimeter guy enough time to recover. By doing this the Lakers, just like the Spurs, are able to avoid finding themselves in bad mismatches while putting the pressure to their rim protector in order to defend the paint effectively.
McGee has been somehow successful at it, averaging 1.9 blocks per game, but he is not a long term answer. He lacks the energy and commitment to remain consistent at all times and the Lakers are surrendering 20.0 points in the paint, the fifth-worst in the league this year.
Wagner is also not the answer to that traditional scheme and his pick-and-roll defense is the main concern every time he plays as the center. The rookie has the right motor, and he usually knows where he has to be to cover for the lost ground, which isn’t always the case for young bigs, but the Lakers prefer to drop their big back to the rim, which doesn’t suit Wagner’s strengths as he isn’t much of a leaper and he can’t really put pressure on attacking bigs or guards who go right at him. When the Lakers visited the Nets back in December, Kenny Atkinson repeatedly went after him by spreading the floor and allowing Spencer Dinwiddie to run a quick action from the top of the key that left the German kid on the wrong side and backpedaling on back-to-back possessions.
And while not a great athlete, in college Wagner showed the ability to hold his own when isolated on the perimeter against guards thanks to quick hands that allow him to strip the ball but he struggles mighty with rookie mistakes and silly fouls. Here is Ryan Arcidiacono attacking him and gaining a trip to the free throw line after a simple pump fake.
The Lakers Have to Develop Him
Other than the Anthony Davis fiasco, the Lakers are in the midst of some big-market politics as they have been playing Mike Muscala recently in their effort to fight the public perception about how bad the Zubac trade was. Muscala has usually been a defensive liability and he was borderline unplayable with the Sixers this year so it’s really mind-boggling why the team decided to trade for him after drafting Wagner last summer but at the same time, this has been the pattern all along. Sign Rajon Rondo to challenge Lonzo Ball, Michael Beasley to go against Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma in practice and Lance Stephenson to fight with Josh Hart for backup minutes.
The modern NBA is trending towards a five-out formation, where all five players on the court are capable of stretching the floor with deep shooting. Wagner fits that mold but he needs to put the work on the defensive side of the ball where he has been exposed many times this year. His offensive versatility translates very well to the NBA based on the sample so far, so he should flourish whether that’s with the Lakers or another franchise and Wagner is one of the youngsters I will be keeping an eye on in the upcoming years.
Hope you enjoyed learning more about another international gem of our league and let’s see if he can continue getting minutes now that the Lakers are almost mathematically eliminated from playoff contention.
Hope you guys are still playing in your league’s playoffs, so make sure you stay up to date on all the breaking news and rumors by visiting our website and by following our Twitter account @HoopBallFantasy.
Stats are courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com and are accurate as of March 15th.
March 25, 2019, 12:43 amLeBron James - F - Los Angeles Lakers
LeBron James played through a left knee contusion on Sunday and put up 29 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists as the Lakers beat the Kings by a score of 111-106.
James looked like he'd miss some time after coming up limping from a slip-and-fall on Friday but powered through and might've unofficially ended Sacramento's faint playoff hopes. He played 35 minutes and rounded out his big performance with two steals, a block, three 3-pointers and marks of 9-for-22 from the field and 8-of-9 at the charity stripe. There will be more nights off in Bron's future but the big minutes here have us hopeful that he'll be able to deliver top-flight lines whenever he's active.
March 25, 2019, 12:39 amJaVale McGee - C - Los Angeles Lakers
JaVale McGee continued his late-season surge in Sunday's win over the Kings, going 8-of-8 from the field for 17 points, 14 rebounds, a steal and five blocks in 29 minutes of action.
A missed free throw was the only thing standing between McGee and a perfect night. He disappeared for parts in the middle of the season but is back looking like the early-round stud he was to open the campaign. That's two straight monster games and three in his last five, so McGee should be locked and loaded into all fantasy lineups the rest of the way.
March 25, 2019, 12:37 amKyle Kuzma - F - Los Angeles Lakers
Kyle Kuzma tied for the team lead with 29 points in Sunday's home win.
Kuzma led the Lakers to a big third quarter that ultimately was enough to hold off the Kings, and he rounded out his line with six boards, a block and five threes on 10-of-22 from the field. He also logged a team-high 40 minutes and might be the safest Laker to use in fantasy down the stretch. He's a late-middle round guy because of his weak stat set but we're not expecting Kuzma to get the same maintenance days that the other, older Lakers will.
March 25, 2019, 12:35 amKentavious Caldwell-Pope - G - Los Angeles Lakers
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope drew a start with Reggie Bullock (right foot) out on Sunday night and posting 16 points (5-of-15 shooting), seven rebounds, four assists and four 3-pointers in 33 minutes.
Caldwell-Pope will be a standard-league option for points, threes and steals if Bullock continues to sit but if the Lakers are at full strength he's a low-end specialist and waiver wire fodder. Lance Stephenson was the big winner off the bench with eight points, seven rebounds and three assists in 25 minutes but there's no need to react to that in any way, shape or form. If the Lakers give a timeline for Bullock it would really clear up the decision on KCP, so hope for some news on that front tomorrow morning.
March 25, 2019, 12:32 amRajon Rondo - G - Los Angeles Lakers
Rajon Rondo played 37 minutes on Sunday night but only turned it into three points, five rebounds, nine assists and a steal.
Rondo's only make on six attempts did come from behind the line, but there's not enough here to hang on unless you're in need of assists. The fact that he does have four games next week keeps him closer to the radar than he would otherwise, but Rondo has alternated big and moderate-minute games over his last five. It wouldn't be surprising if the Lakers dialed back on his time with their season over, adding a little bit more risk in case you weren't feeling frisky enough. Alex Caruso had six points and two boards in 18 minutes tonight as the backup point guard.
March 25, 2019, 12:28 amDe'Aaron Fox - G - Sacramento Kings
De'Aaron Fox set a new career-high with six steals in Sunday's loss to the Lakers, salvaging an otherwise lackluster night that included nine points on 3-of-16 shooting, four rebounds, six assists, a block and a 3-pointer.
Fox's shooting probably tanked a few fantasy teams this week, as owners could only watch their percentages dip in the final game on the last night of weekly matchups. That said, it's still been a wildly successful season overall and Fox brought home quality numbers outside of the scoring categories.
March 25, 2019, 12:26 amMarvin Bagley III - F - Sacramento Kings
Marvin Bagley had a big game in Sunday's loss to the Lakers, scoring 25 points (10-of-19 FG) to go with 11 rebounds, a steal, a block and two 3-pointers.
Bagley logged 36 minutes tonight, falling two short of a career-high while forcing Willie-Cauley Stein and Nemanja Bjelica into observer roles for most of the night. Keep him locked into lineups as he should continue to feast even with the Kings bowing out of the playoff race. The 3-of-8 from the line tonight hurts, but everything else looks to be coming together quite nicely.
March 25, 2019, 12:23 amBogdan Bogdanovic - G - Sacramento Kings
Bogdan Bogdanovic had his highest scoring game of the month on Sunday night with 17 points, four assists, a steal, a block and three 3-pointers in 30 minutes against the Lakers.
Bogdanovic scored 28 points on February 27 but prior to that, his last game with 17 or more points was on February 13 — the last one before the All-Star break. He's really hit the brakes over the last couple of months but tonight's work is far more indicative of what we expect to see from Bogdanovic. Hopefully he can get back on track to end the season.
March 25, 2019, 12:21 amBuddy Hield - G - Sacramento Kings
Buddy Hield finished Sunday's loss to the Lakers with 18 points, six rebounds, three assists and five 3-pointers on 6-of-21 from the field.
A big chunk of Hield's fantasy value comes from his ability to shoot efficiently (.462 on the season), at least relative to most of his positional peers, but he just didn't have it tonight. The Kings' playoff hopes took a major blow in this one and they might opt to give him a night off once they're officially eliminated given the immense role he's played all season, but until that happens Hield is a set-and-forget player.
March 25, 2019, 12:19 amHarrison Barnes - F - Sacramento Kings
Harrison Barnes was quiet on Sunday, going 3-of-7 from the field for 10 points with four assists and two triples.
This is what happens when a volume scorer doesn't get any volume. It's surprising that he didn't get more looks with Sacramento's backcourt having a terrible night from the field but Barnes had been a pretty reliable scorer up to this point with double digits in every game in March and 15 or more points in all but one game prior to this one. Keep him in lineups if you need help in that department.