It was a three-on-three workout in early June, just a few hours before Game 2 of the NBA Finals. Moe Wagner shared a court with players from Texas Arlington, Missouri State, Connecticut, Western Michigan and Rhode Island.
The Lakers’ coaching staff watched with general manager Rob Pelinka and Magic Johnson. Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart happened to be in the gym that day, too.
By the end of it, they were all smitten.
“He was competing, trash-talking, coaching from the floor,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said.
Added Pelinka: “The whole workout changed because of his spirit and energy. Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart … were elbowing Earvin and I this guy would be fun to play with.”
The Lakers’ directive in this year’s draft was simple: They needed shooters who could improve their offense, having been one of the worst shooting teams in the NBA last year. But culture and character matter to them. They talk often about respecting who their players are as people and wanting a group that likes each other and can work well together. That has been a stumbling block for the Lakers in the past.
Wagner, whom the Lakers selected 25th overall in the NBA draft on Thursday night, fit both desires.
“We like his energy, his skill set, his intelligence; we like the fact that he played for a really good coach,” Walton said. “We feel like he will come in right away and help our team. We are building a culture here and he brings a lot to the table. As far as the passion he plays with, his unselfish nature, the way that he sprints the floor, all these things that we’ve seen on film and saw live a couple of times when he worked out for us. We were really excited when he was still on the board at our pick.”
All three players the Lakers selected in Thursday’s draft have foreign ties. Isaac Bonga, the 39th pick, is German like Wagner, and stayed in Europe to pursue basketball. Svi Mykhailiuk, also a standout shooter, is Ukranian and grew into a star at Kansas.
For Wagner, a 6-foot-11 forward, making it to the NBA meant waking up at 3 a.m. to watch games. It meant being inspired by fellow German Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks. It meant delighting in watching Kevin Garnett’s intensity. His affection for Garnett made him a little sheepish Thursday night given Garnett’s playoff battles against the Lakers.
“It’s funny how things work out now that I’m a Laker,” said Wagner, who jokes about his German accent event though it’s become barely detectable. “It’s out there already, though. Kevin Garnett had a huge impact on me just the way he impacts games.”
In a Twitter post, Jon Sanderson, Michigan’s strength and conditioning coach, said Wagner was a scrawny 17-year-old who arrived at Michigan in 2015 with “a huge personality and big dreams.” He was just 205 pounds back then (and has put on 40 pounds since).
During Michigan’s run to the national championship game last season, Wagner became its centerpiece. He showed off his shooting ability, possessing an especially productive jumper for his size. Wagner took 63 three-pointers last season and made nearly 40% of them. Some scouting reports list Wagner’s post play as a weakness, but his shooting is a skill that made him appealing to the NBA, where every team wants big men who can stretch the floor.
In the Final Four, Wagner made 10 of 16 shots against Loyola Chicago, including three three-pointers. He scored 24 points to help the Wolverines advance to the championship game.
Pelinka was at that game, wearing his 1989 championship ring from when he played at Michigan. The Lakers then interviewed Wagner in Chicago at the NBA draft combine.
“I don’t think he had to convince Rob much,” Walton said. “The Michigan thing was pretty strong. He impressed all of us. From his interview in Chicago, which is hard to do to sit down in a room full of guys that you don’t know and to have the room electric the way he did. That was impressive.”
Pelinka joked that Johnson — a Michigan State alumnus — was concerned that they were drafting a Wolverine.