Though the story is one you’ll want to hear again, it’s not the story itself that matters. It’s the way Moritz Wagner tells it — with a smile on his face, fighting through laughter, capturing the attention of the five or six teammates within a 10-foot radius of his chair in Michigan’s locker room.
“I crossed over Chamberlain,” the 18-year-old German says proudly.
Redshirt freshman forward D.J. Wilson leans over to clarify: “He’s talking about Wilt Chamberlain.”
Wagner nods. “Jerry West, too.”
It makes sense that it’s Wagner who has changed Michigan’s team dynamic down the stretch. This type of unbridled enthusiasm and energy is Wagner’s specialty.
The difference between November and now? Wagner has learned to bring that energy from the locker room to the court, and on the court, it’s shaking things up in a big way.
Wagner’s triumph over two of the greatest players of all time, of course, happened months ago. More importantly, it happened in NBA 2K16, the video game — a fantasy matchup pitting an old-school squad starring The Logo and Wilt the Stilt against Wagner’s old German club, Alba Berlin.
The youngest player on Michigan’s roster this season, Wagner is also the only player to have a digital likeness. He brings it up sometimes, but his teammates aren’t impressed.
“He’s terrible,” Wilson said of Wagner’s 2K character, even citing his player rating. “He’s like a 56 (out of 100).”
But this is March 10, in the wake of Michigan’s Big Ten Tournament win over Northwestern, and Wagner is playing spot minutes. He’s still a week away from causing painful decibel levels in a packed NBA arena, energizing a team and a fanbase as he leaves hints of Mitch McGary’s 2013 Big Dance explosiveness right and left.
But back to 2K. Wagner takes issues with Wilson’s assessment of his character, leading to more stories of video-game triumphs, then a debate: Who’s the Wolverines’ top gun in 2K?
Wagner’s says it’s him, but sophomore forward Kam Chatman, entirely unaware of the instant fame he’ll experience the next day against Indiana, is having none of it. Neither are other teammates — “I beat him eight straight times,” Wilson says — and Wagner folds quickly.
“I’m bad,” Wagner says sheepishly, about 10 seconds after claiming he’s the best on the team.
Fast-forward a week, and Wagner still isn’t experiencing a crisis of confidence.
He’s gobbling up the basketball and delivering an enormous put-back dunk in Dayton to send the Wolverines past Tulsa in a First Four game. He’s making two first-half appearances against Notre Dame and scoring within seconds of checking in both times, bringing thousands of Michigan fans at the Barclays Center to their feet. He’s dribbling the ball between his legs and taking the ball to the rack with the shot clock winding down, only to be whistled for a questionable and game-changing charge call that has the referee warning Michigan’s bench, nearly hitting Spike Albrecht with a technical foul.
Charge or no, technical or no, one thing is clear: Wagner is the energy generator the Wolverines lacked all season long. Michigan assistant coach Bacari Alexander describes it as a “youthful exuberance,” but lately, it seems to be more than just that. Accompanying the exuberance, the happiness and the happy-go-lucky locker-room mentality is an underlying intensity that didn’t show until the season’s final weeks.
It’s there now, for the whole basketball world to see. Wagner is still raw, still developing, still growing into a 6-foot-11 frame that will be a sight to behold once he fills it out. Wagner arrived in Ann Arbor at 211 pounds, but quickly jumped to 228 after just a few months of weight training and American food.
With a full summer ahead of him and a love for Chipotle long since revealed, it’s easy to imagine Wagner undergoing a massive physical transformation this summer. Wilson, Wagner and sophomore forward Ricky Doyle all emerged from Michigan strength coach Jon Sanderson’s famed boot camp with double-digit weight gains, and Wagner’s frame is still the one with the most space for added weight and muscle.
Regardless of size, Wagner is a player who’s capable of changing games in a moment.
“He came (to Ann Arbor) in July,” said Michigan coach John Beilein after the Tulsa game. “He’s from Germany. He’s still only 18 years old today. So he’s been away from home a long time, and he’s done well. He brings me energy every day. He’s a terrific kid.”
Wagner’s nature has never been in question. He’s a favorite of teammates, fans and the media alike, and when he steps on the court, he’s impossible to miss.
Beilein’s early-season warning rang true — there will be times when Wagner appears lost on the court and there will be times when Wagner drops jaws, like he did with a thunderous step-across dunk at North Carolina State in December or a surprise, unsanctioned 3-pointer against Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament.
With a season of American college hoops under his belt and likely a shape-shifting offseason ahead, watch out for more of Moe. The awkward moments aren’t quite gone yet, but if Michigan is lucky enough to hold onto Wagner for the duration of his eligibility, he’ll be dropping jaws around Ann Arbor for years to come.
Facher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @levfacher.