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Lakers’ trash-talking rookie Moe Wagner earns rave reviews after exciting first start

LOS ANGELES, CALIF. -- SATURDAY, MARCH 9, 2019: Lakers Moritz Wagner, right, looks for a shot as Cel
Lakers forward Moe Wagner tries to score over Celtics forward Guerschon Yabusele on Saturday night.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Rajon Rondo was left without a partner for the Lakers’ post-practice three-point shooting competitions after the Lakers traded Svi Mykhailiuk. Moe Wagner volunteered immediately, confident he could keep Rondo’s team afloat.

“Yeah, he did,” Rondo said, dryly. “And we’re like 0 for 10.”

To teammates, Wagner’s self-confidence is one of his most endearing qualities. There were times this season that Wagner’s belief in himself was tested. As he usually does, though, the rookie came through those tests with his buoyancy intact.

Now, with the Lakers short-handed because of injuries and trades, Wagner is getting bigger opportunities to show what he’s learned.

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On Saturday, Wagner made his first career start and scored 22 points in 34 minutes of the Lakers’ 120-107 loss to the Boston Celtics. The 6-foot-11 center made seven of 13 shots (all but two of his misses were three-pointers) and all seven of his free throws.

“I love the way he talks,” Rondo said. “And how he plays, he plays with a chip on his shoulder and he talks a lot of trash, so the more he scores, the more he talks. But that’s Moe. He’s a young rook you love to have out there because he has energy.”

Wagner’s energy was one of the reasons the Lakers drafted the 21-year-old German out of Michigan with the 25th pick. But his start in the NBA was hindered by an injury he sustained in summer league, a painful knee contusion that kept him out of the preseason. He didn’t play in a game until Nov. 17, when he played two minutes against the Orlando Magic.

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“I didn’t trust my body at all coming off that injury,” Wagner said. “That hurts mentally. If you work every day to walk without pain and don’t really focus on the game that much. Now I can confidently move the way I want to and just hoop.”

Wagner started feeling like himself again around Christmas. But even when his body and mind recovered from the injury, he had another hurdle to cross.

“Obviously experience, too,” Wagner said. “I played college the last three years so it’s a lot different coming out here. You hurt yourself, you’re in the shape of your life, you hurt yourself and then you start from square one after the draft, so it’s mentally [challenging].”

At the trade deadline the Lakers sent center Ivica Zubac and forward Michael Beasley to the Clippers, leaving them with few available big men. Tyson Chandler has missed five of the Lakers’ 12 games since the trade, and Mike Muscala, the forward they acquired from the Clippers, missed three games because of a sprained ankle and hasn’t played more than 14 minutes in a game.

Muscala played only 4:47 last week against Denver and was a healthy scratch against Boston.

With forwards Kyle Kuzma (ankle) and Brandon Ingram (blood clot) also sidelined, Wagner started at power forward Saturday.

“He looked a little nervous to start,” coach Luke Walton said. “Well maybe not nervous, but I think he was probably a little overly excited, it felt like on some of the stuff. As he got into the groove of the game and started making the reads and making plays, it was a good night for him and a great learning experience.”

Wagner politely disagreed with the idea that he was nervous. Rondo also didn’t see nerves from the rookie.

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“He’s pretty cocky,” Rondo teased.

Said Wagner: “I wouldn’t say I was nervous but it was a good anxiety, I would say. I was happy, obviously, to hear my name. Checked that off the list.”

tania.ganguli@latimes.com

Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli


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