ANN ARBOR, Mich. - There are hundreds of entertaining players in college basketball, but very few bring something truly unique to the sport.
Moritz Wagner is one of those who did.
Michigan's star forward announced Saturday that he will forego his final year of college ball to enter the NBA draft. He's hiring an agent, which means there's no going back. Wagner won't rock the Maize No. 13 again.
Short of winning a national championship, Wagner leaves behind an incredible Michigan legacy. His path to Michigan, his attitude and his playing style were all so unique, and checked all the boxes to cement himself as an all-time favorite Wolverine.
Wagner's path to Michigan
I remember the offseason before Wagner joined the Wolverines. John Beilein's team missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time in four years, and Michigan was bringing in a second straight underwhelming recruiting class.
For a program that was only two years removed from the national championship game, there was very little buzz nationally.
There were murmurs about Beilein recruiting a talented player from Germany, but we didn't know anything about Wagner. Even as a 4-star prospect, the Berlin native was a classic quiet Beilein recruiting story.
The first time I saw Wagner in person was during his official visit to Ann Arbor. He popped his head out of the tunnel during Michigan's final home game against Rutgers.
He was tall, gangly and a bit goofy, but he was the only true prospect Michigan had in its worst season this decade.
Wagner's background became common knowledge during Michigan's run in March. He talked about how he watched Michigan play Kentucky in the 2014 Elite 8, exchanged emails with Beilein and eventually hosted him in Berlin.
The rest is history. Wagner left his home and landed in Ann Arbor, which he now calls his home in the United States. It certainly wasn't a typical recruiting process, and that made Wagner intriguing before he even stepped on the court.
No matter how heartwarming a player's story is, the only true way to earn the support of a fan base is through winning, and that's all Wagner did at Michigan.
In three seasons at Michigan, Wagner won 10 Big Ten Tournament games, two Big Ten Tournament titles and eight NCAA Tournament games. Michigan beat the No. 1 seed in the conference all three seasons with Wagner and reached the 2017 Sweet 16 and 2018 Final Four.
Wagner's winning resume is as loaded as any other player in the Beilein era, including National Player of the Year Trey Burke.
Wagner didn't play much during his freshman year, but when he finally became a critical part of the rotation, Michigan picked up its two biggest wins. He played 16 minutes against No. 1 seed Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament, scoring nine points in the 72-69 win.
He got 22 minutes in his first NCAA Tournament game against Tulsa, going 2-2 with four points, eight rebounds, four blocks, an assist and a steal.
Kam Chatman was the hero against Indiana, and Zak Irvin against Tulsa, but Michigan wouldn't have had a chance to win either game without the true freshman from Berlin.
What else do Michigan basketball fans love? Wins against in-state rival Michigan State. Wagner started four games against the Spartans in his career, and the Wolverines went 3-1, winning the last three by a combined 50 points.
Wagner scored 71 points in those four games, only one of which was at the Crisler Center.
Overall, Michigan won 59 games the last two seasons with Wagner.
Showing up for big games
It wasn't just the team's success in meaningful games that endeared fans to Wagner, but his inherent ability to step up on the biggest stages.
We covered his heroics in the postseason as a true freshman coming off the bench, and that was just a sign of things to come for Wagner.
After Michigan fell to 14-9 in early February during Wagner's sophomore season, he exploded for 19 points on 7-11 shooting against MSU in a must-win game. The following week he dropped 21 on No. 11 Wisconsin to give Michigan its first win over a ranked team. Purdue suffered the same fate a week later, as Wagner's 24 points gave Michigan a blowout win against the No. 14 Boilermakers.
Point guard Derrick Walton carried the torch for Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament, but Wagner pitched in 35 points and 12 rebounds during the tournament while battling major foul trouble.
One of the best games of Wagner's career came in the second round of the 2017 NCAA Tournament, when Michigan was a heavy underdog against No. 2 seed Louisville. Wagner made 11 of 14 shot attempts for 26 points to lead the Wolverines to the Sweet 16.
This season, Wagner's accolades speak for themselves. He scored 27 points to lead Michigan in a 10-point win over MSU at the Breslin Center, then went on to take over Madison Square Garden as Big Ten Tournament MVP.
After scoring 85 points in the final five games, Wagner was named to the NCAA Tournament's All-Final Four team. He averaged 20 points and 11 rebounds in San Antonio, making 16 of 27 shot attempts.
Wagner fit Beilein's offense perfectly. He was more comfortable popping out to the three-point line after a screen than getting the ball with his back to the basket. His signature behind-the-back dribble victimized several slower centers, especially Nick Ward.
The Wolverines have plenty of good players coming back next season, but there's a big, uniquely shaped hole to fill in the offense.
Keeping it real
College basketball, in line with most major sports, has gone down a path of coachspeak, repetitive answers and controlled emotions. Wagner didn't fit into any of those categories, and his raw emotion made him even more likable, at least for Michigan fans.
There are so many images that captured Wagner's pure joy on the basketball court. He didn't simply get back on defense after hitting a big three, or jog quietly up the court after a dunk. It made him more real. It made him more fun to watch.
There's nothing wrong with composed players who keep their emotions close to the chest. But it was a breath of fresh air to see Wagner let it all hang out. It was obvious how much he enjoyed being a college basketball player.
Great college basketball teams almost have a spark plug, and that certainly wasn't going to be the calm-headed Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman or businesslike Zavier Simpson. Wagner took over that role, but it wasn't forced, it was refreshingly authentic.
It also made Wagner a bit of a villain for opposing teams, and understandably so. Nobody wants to watch another player score on their team and scream his head off all the way down the court. But that was Moe Wagner, like it or not.
College basketball was in the national spotlight all season due to recruiting violations that involved dozens of high-profile programs. The FBI even got involved in an investigation centered around illegal payments to high school players.
But Beilein is known for running a clean program, and Wagner fits that bill. Players don't necessarily deserve praise just for staying out of major recruiting scandals, but there were never reports of Wagner violating team rules or missing class or showing up late to practice.
Wagner's biggest problem at Michigan was staying out of foul trouble on the court. While that frustrated Beilein to the point where he learned to say "stop fouling" in German, it never translated to problems in the locker room.
Thousands of college basketball players are good students who stay out of trouble. Wagner was one of them, and that's never been more important.
Passion for Michigan
Even though Wagner enjoys the game of basketball, it would have been easy for him to use the college game as a stepping stone to his ultimate goal: Playing in the NBA.
Wagner never pretended the NBA wasn't on his mind. He made it clear that playing professionally was his ultimate goal, but at the same time, Michigan wasn't just a stop along the way.
Look back to the end of his sophomore season, when Wagner and his teammates were involved in a plane crash at Willow Run Airport on the way to the Big Ten Tournament. Right before takeoff, the plane skidded off the runway due to a heavy wind storm, and the team was rushed off-board.
There weren't any serious injuries, but it was a heavy dose of reality. Wagner wrote about the incident for the Players' Tribune.
In the article, titled, "Still Alive," Wagner talked about how his perception changed after the scare, and emphasized his appreciation for the school.
"I just remember thinking two things," Wagner wrote. "How glad I am to be alive. And how glad I am to go to Michigan."
When he passed on a chance to fulfill his NBA dream last summer to return to Michigan, Wagner proved how much the college game meant to him. He talked about Ann Arbor being his second home and how much he appreciated the fan base.
He tried to keep it cool during postgame interviews throughout the NCAA Tournament, but he almost always failed to keep the smile off of his face.
Now, even as he announces that he's leaving Michigan, Wagner talked about how much the school means to him.
"This wasn't an easy decision for me," Wagner wrote. "I know people always say that, and maybe it sounds like they don’t 100 percent mean it. But I’m telling you guys -- the idea of leaving Michigan, of leaving this community, is really tough. This place has really started to feel like home."
He wrote about how much he appreciated his teammates, the city, the campus, the classes and John Beilein.
"I know this school means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and maybe this is going to sound corny, but to me, Michigan will always be this place where -- if you work hard enough, and you work together enough -- you can become your best self," Wagner wrote.
From Berlin, to Ann Arbor, and now on to the NBA, Wagner's career has been a joy to follow. And Michigan fans were lucky to go along for the ride.
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