This article comes to you courtesy of Ashwin Ramnath.
The traditional plodding big man who lacks shooting range and mobility is a dead breed in the modern NBA. This has been in the works for years now. The rapid demise of Jahlil Okafor — the number 3 pick in the 2015 draft — being the prime example.
It was never more evident than when watching this year’s conference finals series where mismatches were ruthlessly exploited. If games were high level chess matches, individual possessions boiled down to a very basic stratagem; get your best offensive player switched onto your opponent’s weakest individual defender and let him go to work.
All players in today’s game are asked to create space on offense with their shooting and defend in space on the other end of the floor. The old adage in the NBA was that any 7-footer who has the basic level of competence and coordination to walk and chew gum at the same time had a place in the league.
That is no longer the case.
Being a big man is hard. Shooting is a necessary skill, but even that alone isn’t enough (see: Anderson, Ryan). Bigs need to have the ability to make plays when run off the line and can’t be a defensive liability to the point they’re targeted like the weakest kid in gym class every time down the floor.
In the second round it’s difficult to find bigs with such a rounded skill set, but one such option who may be available to the Knicks with the 36th pick is Moritz Wagner.
The young German spent three years at the University of Michigan. However, having just turned 21 in April he is still young relative to the level of his experience.
From a physically over-matched freshman, who struggled to channel his exuberance and energy productively or positively, Wagner transformed into the key player on a team that finished runners up in the NCAA tournament his junior season. He was always skilled, but it took time for his body and mental understanding of the game to develop to a point where he could make a difference.
The most obvious thing that pops out about Wagner on film is his shooting ability. Wagner has real range already — he shot 36.7% on 91 attempts from the NBA line — and he’s not just firing up wide open, uncontested 3’s either. He has an extremely quick release which allows him to get off his shots with very little space even over longer defenders.
If you can shoot over Mo Bamba and his Stretch Armstrong arms you’re doing alright.
He’s excellent in pick-and-pop as well.
While that shooting ability in and of itself is nice, it’s his ability to leverage that into more which sets him apart from many of his contemporaries in this draft. Wagner isn’t the quickest or most explosive athlete, but he’s fluid and he’s able to use the threat of his jumper to get guys in the air and drive to the rim.
He also has more in his bag than just a pump-and-go drive. Standing 6’10.5” without shoes, he has shown surprising creativity for a man his size in getting to the rim -- where he shot an astounding 79.2% -- using a variety of off the dribble moves.
He has in-and-out dribbles to freeze and get past defenders.
Wagner has also pulled out a fancy behind the back dribble to maneuver past opponents when they beat him to the spot on his initial move.
His improvisational adaptability when he does put the ball on the deck is special for a player of his dimensions.
That type of creativity for a big man is rare. The variation in his game puts doubt in defenders’ minds when they close out. They know if they don’t get tight he’s capable of making them pay from 3 and if they do he can blow by and get to the rim.
Wagner has even more diversity in his scoring package, though. He’s a very capable roll man. He has soft hands and can finish through and around contact.
When help defenders rotate over to cut him off he has demonstrated the ability to make the proper reads and hit cutters on the short roll.
While playing out of the post no longer constitutes the overwhelming majority of what is required of a big man, it is an area in which some level of skill remains advantageous. Not all possessions are pretty and being able to manufacture a quality scoring opportunity by dumping it down into the post still retains value.
Wagner is no slouch with his back to the basket, but he’s not an overpowering force who can muscle his way to the hoop with brute force. He’s a more canny operator. Able to finish with his right and left effectively, Wagner utilizes an array of spins, up-and-unders, hooks and flip shots to score down low.
While not the most fleet of foot, Wagner’s engine also make him a threat in transition on misses. He’s equally capable of beating his man down the floor on a rim run or subtly lagging behind the ball handler and allowing his man to get sucked towards the ball creating space for him as a trailer for 3.
While he’s not a slouch on the defensive end, but he’s nowhere near the impact player he has proven to be offensively. With just a 7’0” wingspan Wagner isn’t much of a rim protector, averaging just 0.5 blocks per game as a junior despite logging most all of his minutes at the 5. For a player who doesn’t block too many shots he also has a bad habit of committing unnecessary fouls contesting shots or reaching in wildly.
Stronger bigs give him trouble in the post. Wagner often fails at denying good position on the block. At times it’s because he stays too upright when fighting for a spot and his center of gravity is too high making it easy to unbalance him. There are other instances where he just isn’t strong enough even when he is low to the ground.
For whatever reason, when he does give up position rather than trying to hold his man up to allow for help he has a bad habit of reaching in an attempt to knock the ball away. This happened quite a bit against Isaac Haas of Purdue and predictably ended poorly.
Wagner did show growth in two key areas; as a defensive rebounder and, perhaps more importantly, his mobility when forced to defend in space.
As a freshman and sophomore he posted a paltry 14.8 DRB%, a rate which would be good if he were a small forward, but is unacceptable for a 5. After improving his strength and fundamentals in boxing out, Wagner posted an excellent 24.7 DRB% last season, an underrated factor in Michigan climbing from 185th in defensive rating the previous year all the way up to 17th.
A bigger key, though, was Wagner’s improvement when forced to switch in pick-and-roll situations.
He did a great job of getting into a low stance when forced out on the perimeter. Wagner stayed on his toes and kept his feet active. He was intelligent about allowing enough cushion where he could contest attempts to shoot over the top, while also not giving his opponent space to pick up a head of a steam to blow by him and get to the rim.
When he gets to the NBA it’s that ability which will be tested at an even higher level. Being able to keep guards in the Big Ten at bay is nice, but being on an island against Steph Curry, Damian Lillard, Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving, etc. is another matter entirely.
His footwork and concentration in these spots are solid, but those cushions that were so useful against college guards look like wide open shots shots for the NBA’s best perimeter scorers. If he crowds up on them to take that away does he have the quickness to stay with them on drives or will he get burned incessantly?
Other questions will be asked too.
Will he be able to overcome his limitations in size when banging with some of the league’s behemoths inside? Will his lack of length be an invitation to score inside against the superior athletes the league has to offer? Will his fundamentals and footwork be enough to avoid the fate of other skilled offensive bigs who give up too much defensively against the league’s best?
If the Knicks believe he can be at least average on that end then he should be of high interest to them. His inside/outside scoring potential would pair nicely alongside Kristaps Porzingis. His prowess as a pick-and-pop shooter and touch around the rim as a roll man could also form a solid partnership with Frank Ntilikina, who showed promise as a distributor in the two-man game.
Wagner’s offensive skill set certainly fits the bill as a big man in today’s NBA. He can space the floor, put the ball on the deck, finish at the rim and create offense for himself when called upon. It is, however, on the other end of the floor where his viability as a valuable long-term piece must be determined.