Things are different now for Moritz Wagner.
As he walks through the University of Michigan’s campus, students pass. Some call him “Moe,” and wish him luck in his upcoming games for the Michigan men’s basketball team.
This phenomenon came as a surprise to Wagner’s father, Axel Schulz, when he came from Germany to visit a few weeks ago. Sure, he was aware of his son’s success; he just didn’t realize quite how popular he’d gotten.
Wagner admits it even surprises him sometimes. At 6-foot-11, he’s always stood out. But since last season, since going to the NBA Combine, things have changed for the junior forward.
When he makes one of his frequent trips to Chipotle, people approach him. It’s taught Wagner to always be conscious of what he’s saying and doing. Make no mistake, though, he enjoys the attention.
“I want to tell them, I just play basketball,” Wagner said. “I played basketball my freshman year, too.”
But the present is a far cry from his arrival in Ann Arbor. Back then, the recognition, the confidence and the success Wagner now enjoys were absent. Wagner was a raw, foreign product still trying to find his place. The spotlight had yet to shine on him.
In the matter of a few seasons, that would all change.
When Wagner came to Michigan, he was adapting to an entirely new culture. He could speak English, but it was clearly his second language. He’d tell people he was going to “brush his tooth,” and certain basketball terminology needed to be explained to him.
“This is probably bad for me to say, but I was always just frustrated to be around him, because it was just so aggravating just to talk to him, really,” said former Michigan guard Andrew Dakich. “And it’s not his fault at all, it’s more of me being patient with him.”
And no one needed to be more patient than Brent Hibbitts.
Wagner’s freshman year roommate, Hibbitts committed after Wagner, and since they were the only two players in their class, it was immediately clear that the two would be living together.
Hibbitts said he was nervous about that prospect. He didn’t know what to expect of somebody from a different culture, so when the pair moved in the summer before their freshman year, he was surprised by some things.
For one, he said, Germans are firm believers in conserving energy, and many of them don’t use air conditioning or fans. Wagner was used to silence when he slept. So despite Hibbitts’ preference for a cool bedroom, they turned off their air conditioning at night so Wagner could sleep.
Wagner adapted quickly, though. Throughout the summer, his lexicon expanded, picking up basketball terms and even some slang.
Yet, for all the progress Wagner had made off the court, there was still plenty of work to do on it. He had played a lot of basketball in Germany, but this was a new level and style. Wagner was skinny, and because his body wasn’t college-ready, he didn’t have the confidence to excel. It showed on the court.
“A lot of it was because of his body,” Hibbitts said. “I wouldn’t say he was physically ready to play college basketball, so he couldn’t really show his talents, because his body was so far behind. That kind of discouraged him and made him question himself.”
Added Wagner: “At the end of the day, if you trust your body, that’s really all it comes down to. … That’s what a lot of freshmen don’t have at a young age, especially me, being 210 or whatever I was.”
With Ricky Doyle and Mark Donnal in front of him on the depth chart, Wagner’s minutes were fleeting — he averaged 8.6 per game with 2.9 points and 1.8 rebounds.
Nonetheless, the Wolverines snuck into the 2016 NCAA Tournament as one of the last four teams, drawing Tulsa in the first round.
Early in the game, Doyle and Donnal got in foul trouble. Wagner’s number was called, and he took advantage, finishing with four points, eight rebounds and four blocks over 22 minutes in a 67-62 win. He followed that up by scoring six points in eight minutes against Notre Dame in the next round.
They were small numbers, but important improvements.
“He started playing really well for us at the end of his freshman year,” Dakich said. “If you look at the game against Tulsa and Notre Dame when he was playing a lot more minutes, just because of that energy and how he was finishing around the rim. … And his confidence just kind of grew.”
It was a strong finish to the season, but more importantly, Wagner now knew what he had to improve on. And that spotlight on him was about to get much, much brighter.
When Wagner signed on to play at Michigan, there were no available scholarships. It wasn’t until then-senior Max Bielfeldt transferred to Indiana that a roster spot opened up.
But the Wolverines were without a senior for the 2015-16 season, and Wagner was still looking up at Doyle and Donnal. That, too, changed quickly.
Doyle transferred to Florida Gulf Coast, opening up valuable minutes in a depleted Michigan frontcourt. And on the heels of his strong finish, Wagner saw an opportunity to seize playing time.
So he went to work. He gained 15 pounds working with strength and conditioning coach Jon Sanderson, and with that came a renewed mindset.
“I love these guys. Seeing Ricky leave like that, I hope he has a great season in Florida,” Wagner said. “… After my freshman year, there was, like, kind of a time where I saw, ‘Okay, this is my time. Now I’m ready physically, and especially mentally.’ And I kind of embraced it.”
From there, Wagner had to prove himself on the court. He cracked the starting lineup in the first game, but things weren’t always great for him at the start of the season. Wagner showed flashes, though. He had his first 20-point game against Kennesaw State on Dec. 3 and his first double-double in a blowout over Indiana on Jan. 26.
What Wagner struggled with was consistency. Interspersed in his double-digit scoring nights were losses against Illinois and Ohio State, when he had just six and five points, respectively.
Yet, through the ups and downs, Wagner was becoming a fan favorite. His natural charisma, which he says comes from his dad, has a tendency to show itself on the basketball court. He pounded his chest and stuck out his tongue after big plays. After big scoring outputs in games against Purdue and Wisconsin, his fans were hooked.
“One of my former coaches in Germany told me once that he thinks I see the basketball court as a stage,” Wagner said. “That kind of sums it up pretty nicely. I really enjoy that type of spotlight. I think it’s just my thing.”
That increased tenfold in the postseason. After a miracle run to the Big Ten Tournament Championship and a shootout victory over Oklahoma State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, the Wolverines ran into their toughest test: No. 2-seed Louisville. The Cardinals’ size figured to be a problem for Wagner, who had struggled on defense at times.
But Wagner exploded again. He led his team with 26 points, further cementing himself as a force for Michigan.
Fans weren’t the only ones who took notice. Suddenly, NBA scouts were watching, and at the end of the season, Wagner was invited to the NBA Combine. Thanks to new rules, he was allowed to work out for NBA teams and still be eligible to return to school.
Right up until the decision deadline, Wagner was on the fence.
“Even the day he made his decision, people had no idea, even us close to him,” Hibbitts said. “Unless he told us personally, we had no idea.”
Added Wagner: “I talked to a lot of people, but I kept the inner circle as small as possible, just because it’s my decision.”
Ultimately, Wagner decided to come back for one more year. The criticisms he received from NBA scouts were similar to the ones he’d been getting all season. He was told he needed to improve his rebounding, his defense, his strength and explosiveness. Even Wagner admits “it isn’t really big news.”
So back to work he went. He had been given advice on specific skills to improve, but Wagner didn’t let that faze him. He was more focused on improving his game in every facet.
“I hate when people come and say, ‘I worked on this all summer,’ ” Wagner said. “Like, no you’re not, because you’re going to shoot too. I always want to improve in everything. So, yes, I have those things in mind, but I know about that type of stuff. I just work out like I always do, and I focus on certain things, but it’s not a huge deal.”
Something else changed, though. There was more attrition coming, and the spotlight’s intensity was about to increase.
Wagner didn’t go to the NBA Combine alone. Forward D.J. Wilson went too. The difference was that Wilson’s feedback was positive enough for him to make the decision to enter the NBA Draft. He was taken by the Milwaukee Bucks with the 17th pick. Add that to the graduation of forward Zak Irvin and guard Derrick Walton Jr., and Wagner is one of the most experienced returning players for the Wolverines.
Not only does that mean heightened expectations from people on the outside, but it means he’s expected to take on a leadership role on the team, too.
“Now I’ve seen a couple of things,” Wagner said. “I’ve been to two NCAA Tournaments, and I’m one of the more experienced guys on the team. I think people listen to me and trust me too, just as much as I trust them. I think I’m one of the vocal guys that has to step up his leadership. Last year, I was a leader, too. But when I made a mistake, it kind of slipped under the table a little bit. This year, if I make a mistake I get held accountable for it, because I am one of the leaders.”
Wagner still has all his aspirations in front of him. The NBA will still be there next season, and his dream of opening a Chipotle in Germany is attainable from there. But for now, he will focus on the little things that will get him to that point.
That means slightly shifting the emotions that have made Wagner so beloved — he says he wants to cut down on complaining, not just on the basketball court, but in his entire life.
It means continuing to improve his body to make him more successful and continuing to develop the skills that have gotten him this far.
But Wagner is no stranger to adapting to change. He did it as a freshman, taking the leap to a foreign country to play college basketball.
He did it as a sophomore, thriving in a role no one anticipated he’d have.
Now, the man who calls the court his stage is ready to begin his third act.
The spotlight is brighter than ever. That’s just the way Wagner likes it.