Be careful to channel-surf in the presence of Moritz Wagner. A San Antonio Spurs game might flash on the screen, and before you know it, it’ll be story time.
“He’ll always revert back to it,” said senior guard Spike Albrecht, referring to Wagner’s brief encounter with some of basketball’s best in an exhibition against the Spurs a year and a half ago.
A freshman from Germany, Wagner was playing for German club Alba Berlin at the time, and he saw about 90 seconds of game action.
Wagner was 17 then. His appearance, to say the least, could have gone better.
“Danny Green beat his shit,” Albrecht said. “Danny Green. Moe has nightmares about that dude.”
Albrecht was talking about Wagner’s one field-goal attempt in the game, which began the stuff of daydreams, but, as Albrecht put it, ended more like a nightmare.
“All of a sudden, I was with Tim Duncan on the court,” Wagner recalled. “I had a shot. I posted up and he overplayed me. I got the path. … I thought I was wide open, and I could just lay it up.”
Wagner didn’t see Danny Green, who’s just 6-foot-6 — almost a head shorter than Wagner’s 6-foot-11. All Green had to do was sit and wait, meeting Wagner at the rim for a thunderous block the Berlin native will never forget.
Of course, Wagner wasn’t expected to compete with the NBA players, most of whom had at least a decade of experience and several dozen pounds on him. But his parents were watching from the stands, and the game was an exhibition, and Sasa Obradovic, Wagner’s coach, made sure to give the family an experience they’d tell stories about for years to come.
“It was one of the first weeks where I was part of the pro team,” Wagner said. “My coach liked me, and the game was close — he kind of subbed me in one and a half minutes before halftime to do me a favor. That was a huge thing for me, to see (the Spurs) right in front of me and then to sub me in.”
That Wagner has experience playing against basketball’s elite might explain why he seemed entirely unfazed last Friday, as he checked in for the biggest minutes of his career — a nationally televised, back-and-forth Big Ten Tournament game against Indiana, which the Wolverines needed to keep their NCAA Tournament hopes alive.
Michigan coach John Beilein called Wagner’s name, and it wasn’t a favor.
Sophomore forward Ricky Doyle, who has received the bulk of backup minutes behind junior Mark Donnal this season, had suffered an ankle sprain the previous day and was limited in his availability. The Wolverines needed Wagner, and he delivered in a big way.
Wagner, in his first minutes on the court, found himself with space around the perimeter and didn’t hesitate to hoist a 3-pointer despite having made just one all season, a garbage-time trey in November.
Wagner doubled his 3-point total quickly and wound up more than holding his own, scoring nine points in 16 crucial minutes to help Michigan to a stunning 72-69 upset.
After the game, Wagner said that nothing about his mentality shifted when he checked in against the Hoosiers, though he’s played sparingly throughout the season, recording the bulk of his minutes during early-season blowouts against non-conference opponents.
That’s par for the course for Wagner, who seems happy-go-lucky regardless of circumstance. In October, before any local reporters had spoken to Wagner, Beilein smiled knowingly as he described the experience of speaking with his only scholarship freshman.
“You’re in for a treat,” Beilein said.
Wagner didn’t disappoint, launching into a ringing endorsement of Chipotle burrito bowls soon thereafter when asked about his favorite Ann Arbor eatery.
For a player who has gone head to head with NBA opposition, Wagner often surprises with his nonstop excitement at his surroundings, explaining an even more ringing early-season endorsement from another one of his coaches.
“I believe that Moe feels that the streets are paved with gold, and milk and honey is flowing,” said Michigan assistant coach Bacari Alexander before the season. “It’s just a recurring comment. ‘Oh, man, this is wonderful. This is America.’ It’s just youthful exuberance, and it has an innocence to it that’s pretty funny throughout the whole group.”