On Thursday, Vice President of Basketball Operations Tommy Sheppard made his first trade as the Wizards interim General Manager. Washington traded cash to the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for a 2022 second-round draft pick, Mo Wagner, Issac Bonga, and Jemerrio Jones.
In doing so, the Wizards became the de-facto third team in the Anthony Davis trade, as they assisted the Lakers in clearing cap space by taking on the contracts of Wagner and company. The three players Washington acquired are all under the age of 22 and are viewed as developmental players.
However, whereas Bonga and Jones likely have a relatively long way to go and their future with the Wizards is murky, former Michigan Wolverine and 2018 first-round pick Mo Wagner could be ready to contribute right away. Wagner possesses a unique skill set and brings several positive attributes to the table – most of which Washington doesn’t currently have on their roster.
The Wizards were reportedly interested in drafting Wagner last year but with the 15th overall pick, they selected Troy Brown Jr. instead. Fast forward a little more than a year later, however, and they got their man via trade. They say everything comes full circle, after all. So, who is Wagner and why did the Wizards trade for him?
Wagner, 22, played four seasons at Michigan under esteemed coach John Beilein. Wagner entered the program as a scrawny kid from Germany with little-to-no refined skills. However, in three seasons with the Wolverines, Wagner improved significantly and by his junior season, Wagner was one of the most impactful big men in the nation.
After averaging 14.6 PPG and 7.1 PPG during the regular season, Wagner led Michigan on a deep tournament run – ultimately reaching the national championship game against Villanova. Wagner considered returning for his senior season but ended up staying in the draft, where the Lakers selected him with the 25th overall pick.
Wagner’s draft projection was all over the place. Some experts viewed him as a lottery pick, others saw him going somewhere in the second round – ultimately, he fell somewhere in between. Wagner’s rookie season with the Lakers was a forgettable one, but much of his struggles can be attributed to a variety of factors.
Wagner missed much of the summer league and preseason, as well as the beginning of the regular season, with a nagging leg injury. Missing out of valuable time to improve, acclimate himself to the NBA game, and develop chemistry with teammates was unfortunate and stunted his rhythm. When Wagner finally entered the rotation, his playing time was scares and inconsistent.
For the season as a whole, he averaged just 4.8 PPG and 2.0 RPG on 41.5% shooting from the field, as well as 28.6% shooting from three-point range. The numbers fail to represent the whole story, however. He didn’t exactly fit with the Lakers win-now direction and the culture in Los Angeles this past season was clearly a bit toxic, to say the least. Now, Wagner will get a fresh start in D.C. and could prove to be a diamond-in-the-rough pickup.
The 6’10” big man is not without his flaws, obviously. He’s not the best rebounder for his size and is prone to getting pushed around under the basket at times. Defensively, Wagner often has the right idea and puts himself in the right spots, but his lack of athleticism and strength can be defining.
These are the two biggest factors that caused Wagner to slip towards the end of the first round last year and are also part of the reason he struggled to carve out consistent playing time for L.A. However, on the offensive side of the ball, there’s a lot to like about Wagner’s game, especially considering his potential fit in the Wizards rotation.
Wagner is a skilled shooter with a pure, high-arching stroke. He was a 38.5% three-point shooter in college and while he didn’t shoot well from distance last season, the sample size was small and misleading. Wagner’s mechanics and technique suggest he’ll develop into a consistent shooter in the NBA, which alone makes him a valuable offensive weapon.
As a stretch-five, Wagner’s presence on the court opens things up. He can space the floor and allow perimeter playmakers, a la Bradley Beal, to have more room to operate with the ball. His shooting ability also makes him dangerous as a pick-and-pop threat, which can initiate new wrinkles into the offense.
— Michigan Moments (@GoBlueMoments) July 3, 2018
Circling back to his athleticism, or lack thereof, Wagner isn’t exactly an above-the-rim dynamo. He can certainly get up and down the floor well for his size and throw down dunks, but he won’t wow anyone with an elite vertical or big frame. Thus, he’s not a great finisher at the rim, but Wagner possesses a soft touch around the basket and can score with either hand. He also has some post moves in his arsenal, including a fadeaway that reminds you of his basketball idol – Dirk Nowitzki.
In addition to his shooting ability, what separates Wagner from many big men, and every other center on the Wizards roster, is his off-the-dribble game. Wagner has good ball-handling skills for his size and attacks closeouts well, which makes him even more of a threat offensively. He still has a ways to go as a passer, but showed improvement in that area during his time at Michigan.
Wagner is joining a crowded center group in D.C. that features Dwight Howard and Ian Mahinmi, both of which are currently under contract, and likely Thomas Bryant, should the Wizards re-sign him in free agency. Washington is also reportedly interested in German big man Johannes Voigtmann and are the frontrunners to sign him.
The addition of Wagner and interest in Voigtmann likely means one of two things, or possibily both; the Wizards are planning on parting ways with Howard and/or Mahinmi, or they’re preparing for the possibility of Bryant playing elsewhere next season. In an ideal world, Howard and Mahinmi are both gone and Bryant is brought back.
Bryant and Wagner would make for a solid 1-2 punch at the center position. Their skill sets complement each other well, as the differences in their game would diversify the center spot for Washington. Bryant is an athletic, rim-running big and Wagner is a skilled shooter and scoring threat. They could even potentially share the floor at times with Wagner stretching the floor at PF.
All-in-all, the addition of Wagner was a low-risk, high-reward move for Washington. The Wizards can afford to take fliers on young players with upside and given their current roster situation, that’s exactly what they should be doing. Wagner just turned 22 years old and has the combination of talent and upside to improve significantly.