Moritz Wagner grew up in Berlin dreaming of an NBA career, and he went all the way to Michigan to chase it.
The German big man will get his chance with the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Lakers chose Wagner with the 25th pick in the NBA draft Thursday night, adding the versatile center as the next piece in their talented young core.
The 6-foot-11 Wagner entered the draft after leading the Wolverines to the NCAA Tournament championship game. He led Michigan with 14.6 points and 7.1 rebounds per game last season, demonstrating versatility and a steady outside shot to go with his big-game clutch performances in the tournament.
Wagner worked out twice for the Lakers and general manager Rob Pelinka, a fellow Michigan man. After getting the call from Pelinka, Wagner already knew it was Showtime.
“They obviously are a very flashy franchise,” Wagner said. “They love to play fast. Coach (Luke) Walton used to play as well, so he’s a players’ coach, and he wants his players to make plays, be confident. They focus a lot on playing fast, and that’s something I’m really excited to do.”
The Lakers stayed in Europe during the second round and used the 47th overall pick on Svi Mykhailiuk, Kansas’ Ukrainian outside shooting whiz. Although Pelinka wasn’t allowed to confirm it, the Lakers also are widely expected to get German teenager Isaac Bonga, the 39th overall pick by Philadelphia, when the trade can be announced next month.
The Lakers are focused on the free-agent signing period next week as the path back into championship contention after the worst half-decade stretch in franchise history. But before the Lakers find out whether Paul George, LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard will land in Hollywood, they added Wagner to their foundation of young talent including Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart.
“We’re building a culture here, and (Wagner) brings a lot to the table,” Walton said. “As far as the passion he plays with, his unselfish nature, the way that he spreads the floor, all these things that we’ve seen on film and that we saw live a couple of times when he worked out for us, we’re excited.”
Wagner grew up in the Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood of Germany’s capital religiously watching NBA games and even American college hoops. He admired fellow German Dirk Nowitzki, but really idolized Kevin Garnett.
Wagner played in the youth system of German pro team ALBA Berlin before Michigan coach John Beilein traveled to Europe on a one-day recruiting trip and persuaded him to head for Ann Arbor.
“I remember getting up at 3 a.m., watching the games,” Wagner said. “Dirk (Nowitzki) had a huge impact on that, just being a player that made it, a player that did incredible things in the league, and also being a player that was under the radar for a long time, and just this skinny kid from Germany, similar to me. That dream is very, very far away when you’re over there, so it’s exciting to be here.”
He was joined at the draft by his parents, several German friends and the Michigan coaching staff.
Wagner is already familiar with Staples Center after leading Michigan to two victories in the arena during the West Regional last March. He dropped 21 points on Texas A&M and fellow first-round pick Robert Williams at the Lakers’ home arena before cutting down the Staples nets after scoring 12 points in a victory over Florida State in the West Regional final.
The Lakers traded away their own first-round pick in this draft, the 12th overall, in their deal with Phoenix six years ago to acquire Steve Nash in their disastrous attempt to build a superteam. Los Angeles acquired the 25th pick from Cleveland last February in the trade involving Isaiah Thomas, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr.
Mykhailiuk was an outstanding outside shooter for the Jayhawks’ Final Four team, scoring 14.6 points per game while hitting 115 total 3-pointers. Knocks on his defense and wingspan put him in the second round, but the Lakers were impressed by his skill in their private workout.
“When you build a team, you have to have pillars that you build on,” Pelinka said. “We felt like with the two players that we selected tonight in the draft that we added shooting and guys that know how to play the game the right way. We’re just thrilled with the way the night ended for us.”