With the No. 25 pick in the first round of the 2018 NBA Draft, the Lakers selected German Moe Wagner out of the University of Michigan.
The start of his season was plagued by an injury in summer league that kept him out of much of training camp, and he only recently became a part of Luke Walton’s rotation.
He’s flashed some intriguing signs in his time on the court of late, and what we’re seeing traces back to a freshman year as a Wolverine when he didn't play much.
We sat down with Wagner to discuss his first memories of basketball, how soccer impacted his game, what he learned from his high school Gymnasium in Berlin, how he ended up at Michigan, what he thinks about his rookie year as a Laker and more.
Below is a transcription of our conversation:
MT: What are your first memories of basketball while growing up in Germany?
Wagner: I started playing soccer. Passionately. I loved soccer. I was very good at it. Every morning, Saturday and Sunday, I was playing at 9 a.m., and it’s very popular in Germany, obviously. But at some point, my mom wanted me to try out a gym sport. Handball is very popular, and my dad played handball, or basketball. I never really wanted to go because I loved soccer so much, but then I tried out basketball when I was eight, and it was kind of easy for me even though I wasn’t really engaged. I was good at it, but I didn’t really want to play it, but my mom kept making me go. Eventually, I realized it’s a lot more fun if you’re that good at something. It just clicked a little easier than soccer, so I stuck with it. I did both for more than two years, and then at high school – which starts earlier in Germany, as early as 5th grade – and I had to decide to stay with basketball.
MT: Soccer - football - will always be king in Germany and Europe, but hoops keeps growing, it would seem?
Wagner: Soccer was a big part of my life. My brother (Franz) and I would always play soccer. Then all of a sudden, we were playing basketball. It’s kind of funny how that transition went really fast. He’s four-and-a-half years younger than me, but we did everything together. Always got along really well. I take credit for him being good at basketball now, because I always whooped his butt and didn’t have any mercy with him at anything we did.
MT: I don’t think this is an unfair assumption, but I assume your parents are tall?
Wagner: Yeah, my mom is 6’1’’, and my dad is 6’4’’ or 6’5’’. I give my mom a lot of credit, because she gave me the opportunity to try (basketball) out, forced me into it a little bit even though I didn’t want to. I always make the joke that she did it because she didn’t want to stand outside in the rain and watch me play soccer, which is 50 to 80 percent true. But the other 50 percent is that she wanted me to play a sport where I have a physical benefit, because I’m so tall.
MT: When you started playing hoops at age eight, did you have early success, or did it take a while?
Wagner: No, it went pretty quick. I had a lot of fun, and I was playing against all ages of kids. My first basketball game was after a soccer game that was in the morning. Then I rode to the southern part of the city with my dad to play the basketball game.
MT: Another assumption: Dirk Nowitzki made a big impact on all young German basketball players. True?
Wagner: Not until later (for me). It took a little while until I got into that so serious that I was saying, ‘OK, the NBA is it.’ But the Celtics, to be honest … with Kevin Garnett, to say that as a Laker is a little bit … but as a kid, Kevin Garnett was my favorite player. I don’t know why, because he’s crazy probably. He was my absolute favorite. I got a jersey for Christmas, and that’s when the fandom started and I got into the NBA. My first basketball magazine was actually when LeBron lost in the Finals to the San Antonio Spurs in 2007. I read that one magazine (“Basket”) eight times back and forth.
MT: How did you continue to evolve your game?
Wagner: In (Berlin), you can choose whether high school starts in 5th grade or in the 7th grade, and for me it was 5th. So I changed schools, and my parents said I had to decide if I was going to play basketball or soccer. I stuck with basketball because I predicted that I was going to be very tall, and there was so much upside, so much that I hadn’t filled out yet. And it worked out pretty well.
MT: Forgive the name drop here, but I used to have conversations with Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant about how their knowledge of soccer impacted their basketball games. Have you noticed that?
Wagner: That’s a great question. I think it definitely helped me be a little lighter on my feet. Not that I’m the lightest big man in the world, but just footwork in general. The whole European skill work, it definitely helped me with that.
MT: When did you first have a coach that really pushed you?
Wagner: I had a couple. My first coach, Marius Huth, had a huge impact on me because he worked with me when I was a young kid, and I would always foul. I wouldn’t find the off button. I would always go, go go, and I would be crazy, just hack people, be frustrated if I didn’t make a layup. Then I’d just play stupid defense or foul because I was so frustrated. He said something to me one time that stuck with me to this day: that there’s nobody who can stop me other than me. He said it at a very young age, and I still believe that.
MT: How does the high school system work in Berlin?
Wagner: It goes from 5th through 12th … I skipped the 8th grade. There was a school program, where the whole class, all 30 of us skipped together, and the teachers put half of us in the 9th, and half of us in the 7th. It was stupid. But I was done with school at 16, 17, so it helped out basketball. My school was Rosa-Luxemburg Gymnasium (Gymnasium is high school) in East Berlin. Rosa Luxemburg is very famous – she was a (Polish) Marxist, big on freedom. People in the East love her. She’s a big symbol.
MT: I was in Berlin in 2006, and I did feel a very distinct difference going from West to East. How would you define how the Berlin Wall coming down impacted kids growing up there?
Wagner: My mom is from West Germany, and my dad from East Germany. So it was pretty interesting to see. It comes down to simple stuff like cooking. My mom uses more (food and ingredients), and to my dad, less is more. That’s just how they’re wired. That helped me to reflect on different perspectives on life. I realize nowadays, because my parents were so different the way they grew up, I can see different perspective on things.
MT: Today in Germany, it seems to be one of the more open-minded places in Europe, taking a leadership role in things like immigration and being open to different perspectives. I’d imagine that traces back to WWI and WWII?
Wagner: There’s a lot of German history (in school), especially since there’s a certain responsibility that comes with being German. You got to know about your country’s history, because it’s very delicate and frustrating. Going into the world, you have to know what’s going on. They teach that. It’s very reflective, very liberal, and I like it that way because I grew up that way. There are people that (disagree) because you can’t come up with a solution, because everybody is arguing and there’s no solution maker, but it just takes a little longer. But I think it’s great.
MT: OK, back to basketball. When did you start having success? Were you getting any recruiting letters to American universities, or considering professional ball in Europe?
Wagner: I was playing club basketball for Alba Berlin, not for the Gymnasium. That’s the professional team too, and I played in every age group and worked my way up. I never got any recruiting letters. I worked out with a couple of players in a gym in front of an assistant coach for Columbia one time, and that’s when it all started. I wanted to cut my own video, send it out to contacts, and (University of Michigan) coach (John) Beilein got it. Because of Niels Giffey, I don’t know if that name tells you anything, but he’s from Berlin and he went to UCONN, and Coach Beilein recruited him, so that connection was there already. So I sent him the video, and he liked it a lot. I got lucky.
MT: So did Michigan respond?
Wagner: Coach Beilein replied personally, and I didn’t even see his e-mail for like two weeks. Then my coach told me to check my mailbox, and it was in my junk mail. I answered right away. I felt very bad. He was very (interested), he wanted to meet me and all that stuff. He was very good at recruiting.
MT: How did you end up deciding to come to play in the NCAA instead of staying and playing professionally in Germany or Europe?
Wagner: There are a lot of reasons, but it comes down to, I always would have hated myself if I didn’t at least try. I can say I wanted to have a different experience, a different culture, different language, all that stuff … but going to the NBA was my ultimate goal. I always told myself, if I failed and it didn’t work out, I could always go back. But the other way around doesn’t work out. I can’t just (play professionally) in Europe and then go to college in two years. That was my final point of, OK let’s do it.
MT: So, you made it work that way … other European kids play professionally and then eventually come to the NBA.
Wagner: Yeah, it depends from guy to guy and it depends on opportunity. For me, Michigan was the perfect fit. It wasn’t like, Moe is going to college or he’s staying to play pro, it was Moe is going to Michigan or he’s staying at Alba Berlin. Michigan played a huge role with that system, Coach Beilein, the whole culture they have over there.
MT: What was the first time at Michigan that you felt like you belonged, and you had a path to the NBA?
Wagner: Right away. I realized, ‘OK, I can do this.’ I didn’t play my first year, and it sucked. I hated it and I wanted to go home. But I didn’t hate college, I hated not playing. I missed home so much, my friends, my family. After my first season, I said ‘I’m going to put all of my eggs into this basket,' and I went home for five weeks, refreshed, and was back for spring and summer school and worked out every day. I told myself, ‘I’m going to kick everyone’s butt’ when I come back, and I did that. It kind of worked out.
MT: Then you start every game of your next two seasons, and lead a Final Four run as a junior…
Wagner: I beat out my teammate for a starting spot as a sophomore. In college, it’s all about preseason. If you kill in preseason … it’s so different (in the NBA). But I had a good preseason, which I planned on having and worked for all year, and then we had a good season. Unfortunately we came up a little short in the Sweet 16. The next year, I thought about going to the NBA, but the whole growing up thing – I didn’t want to pay bills yet, all that stuff, and I stayed in college another year.
MT: You got injured at Summer League after being drafted by the Lakers, and really weren’t able to do anything in the preseason, which you noted was super important in college…
Wagner: Yeah, my injury, it sucked. I had this conversation with a teammate the other day. It did suck coming in with my injury, but I think in a couple years I will look back at it and say, ‘It was kinda nice to be able to come in and be able to watch everyone.’ But it sucked in that moment to be unable to play with them and prove that I deserved to be here. I had to wait and watch. And it took forever. It’s a little bit like my freshman year experience. You think you’re ready, you worked your butt off, but then you don’t really get some burn, which is not anyone’s fault, it’s just how it goes. You can’t complain about it, you shouldn’t complain about it, you just got to keep going, keep going. That’s how the job goes. And then all of a sudden, you get your chance. You gotta use it. So that’s how it was my freshman year, and that experience helps me a lot now, trying to understand it’s all part of that. Have a good summer, see what’s up next year. I feel 100 percent again. I could add a little bounce, but that’s the usual at the end of the season, you feel a little tired in your legs, and you can work that out in the offseason and get better.