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The Many Faces of Moritz Wagner

A look at Michigan’s nervous, animated unicorn-in-the-making

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Before he drains any jump shots, before he yells and flexes his arms, before he chews his mouth guard or sticks out his tongue, before he smiles slyly postgame and basks in the limelight of a victory—before all of the madness actually ensues—Moritz Wagner is almost catatonic.

He sits frozen on a chair inside the Michigan locker room, his gold-and-white Beats headphones wrapped around his head like a rainbow and one of his hands at his mouth, chewing his nails as if he’s trying to prevent himself from talking. This is how the best player on the Wolverines, and one of the season’s most emotive college basketball stars, tries to cope with his nerves before every game.

“I’m shook. I’m a very nervous person before games,” Wagner says. “I’m a wreck, and I don’t allow myself to relax. On the court, it’s gone, but before, I can’t stand it.”

The court is Wagner’s comfort zone, and with good reason. Once the headphones and warm-ups come off and the clock begins to run, Wagner is a different person. On this particular night, he puts together his best game of the Dance, tallying 21 points and draining all three of his shots from deep in 30 minutes. Michigan beats Texas A&M by 27 to advance to the Elite Eight—it’s the type of game Wagner loves most: a blowout. “It’s better for the nerves.”

This year, the junior has been the driving force behind a scorching-hot Michigan team that entered the tournament as an unheralded no. 3 seed, but has found its way to the Final Four. The Wolverines haven’t lost since February 6, winning 15 of their past 16 games, including their second straight Big Ten tournament. Through it all, Wagner has been the figurehead for a squad that embodies his attitude: fun, electric, and fraught with emotion.

It’s ironic that before Wagner steps onto the court he, along with every other Michigan player, wears a white Jordan-branded shirt bearing the slogan “Do More, Say Less.” It seems Wagner hasn’t taken the latter half of that message to heart.

He’s the antithesis of the end of that mantra. Just watch him after he makes a big bucket: The camera darts to Wagner’s face, his eyes squint, his mouth opens wide, and he bellows. The audience gets a look at his clear mouth guard as he stretches out his arms and flexes after just about anything positive happens for Michigan. Wagner has averaged 14.3 points and 6.9 rebounds per game this season. He’s also notched nine different 20-plus-point performances.

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“Once he gets in the game, Mo’s a different beast,” walk-on C.J. Baird says. Baird is one of the many teammates who witnesses the entire spectrum of Wagner’s emotions, from his pregame anxiety, that lasts all the way through layup lines, to his ebullient in-game persona. Tipoff is the only thing that takes stress out of the equation.

“I can’t stand it. I’m biting my nails, all that stuff,” Wagner says. In the stands, his mother Beate Wagner, who traveled from Germany to New York to watch the team in the Big Ten tournament, does the same thing. “On the court, it’s gone. I don’t care what the noise is. … We’re a confident team.”

Wagner is the epicenter of that bravado. His yells are expressions of self-confidence, but they also motivate Wagner’s teammates. “You just let him get through it and get his mojo. It’s been working so far, so you can’t mess with it now,” Baird says. Wagner says Kevin Garnett was his “idol” growing up because of his intensity and energy. It’s almost like the German power forward is trying to replicate Garnett’s on-court persona in his own way. “Obviously he’s a little crazy in the head. But I appreciate that because I’m a little crazy out there too.”

Wagner’s best game this season—and arguably the best game of his career—came on the road at Michigan State in early January. He exploded for a career-high 27 points against the higher-ranked Spartans by displaying the full arsenal of his offensive weapons. The game was a testament to how much he has evolved over his three seasons in Ann Arbor.

Wagner dominated from everywhere on the court. This season, Wagner averaged four 3-point attempts per game and made nearly 40 percent of them. His freshman campaign featured only 0.4 3s per game, which he made at a 16 percent clip. The development of that shot has been the crux of Wagner’s (and Michigan’s) success and has done wonders for his NBA draft stock. (He’s now projected as a late first-round pick, after declaring for the draft last April but ultimately choosing to return to school for his junior year.) Give Wagner any space and he’s deadly; his quick trigger coupled with his height gives him the makeup of a unicorn-in-the-making.

“I sense [confidence] every day, that’s why I let it fly,” he says after the game against A&M. “I hate taking shots and not making them, and then looking at my teammates like, ‘I’m sorry.’”

The game against Michigan State allowed Wagner to show off his other weapons, too. When the defense pressed up on Wagner near the perimeter, he would pump-fake and drive—his handle is a marvel for a 6-foot-8 forward—gaining momentum as he barreled to the rim, where he either finished strong or drew a foul. Or both. That led to faces like this one:

And this one:

Wagner doesn’t lack confidence. On the floor, he can be extremely cocky. When juxtaposed with how tense he is pregame, or how jovial and affable he is postgame, Wagner’s fluctuating attitude gives a complete picture of who he is: A 20-year-old kid who, like most 20-year-olds, is at once overconfident and nervous. But unlike most young adults, Wagner can hit fadeaways directly learned from the School of Dirk:

“That’s the hottest I’ve ever seen him,” Baird says of the matchup with Michigan State. “He had that pogo stick shot over Nick Ward, and that just showed how unbelievable of a player he is.”

There are times when Wagner’s effervescent attitude takes a turn for the delirious and wacky. That’s when the scream is replaced with another gesture: the tongue-out grimace.

It won’t be long before Wagner’s patented this face, having perfected it. A comical grin spreads across his face as he sticks out his tongue following a clutch shot or big play. This face is another representation of how Wagner copes with his anxiety, how he’s able to divorce his worries outside the boundaries of the court once he steps on it.

Texas A&M v Michigan Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The childish grin makes it clear that this run, this opportunity, is a dream come true for the kid from Germany who remembers watching Michigan in the Final Four on TV in 2013. “It’s pretty crazy that Coach [John] Beilein was in my living room all of a sudden because I only knew him from the Final Four,” Wagner says of getting a recruiting visit from Beilein in 2014. “That’s kind of ironic. Now we’re here together.”

Before Beilein even knew of the German kid who could shoot, Wagner was on track to do what every German boy his age was doing: play soccer. That’s what he was supposed to do as a kid growing up in Germany. But there was one problem.

“I loved soccer, but my mom hated being outside in the rain, so she forced me to play a gym sport,” Wagner says, chuckling. “And I was very tall, so [basketball] was kinda easier for me than soccer.” So, Wagner got into the gym and excelled, playing for the youth team of Alba Berlin and moving up the ranks of the German league before he turned 20. Beilein eventually saw video tape of Wagner on the court and flew to see him in Germany.

“I recruited a couple German kids that there was a bit of a language barrier,” Beilein says. “But when when I met [Wagner], you see that kid, you see that smile, he’s so easy with his conversation. There was no language barrier.”

It’s not just his teammates who know how Wagner approaches games. Beilein knows what makes the forward tick, too. “You can ask John,” Wagner says, his eyes scanning the locker room for his coach. “I keep saying, ‘I’m so nervous’ before games it’s ridiculous.”

But Beilein also knows that once Wagner steps on the court, he gives the team its best shot to win it all. The 65-year-old coach knows that, with Wagner, he’s not just going to get a better chance to win, but also an ingredient no one else can provide: a bevy of emotions, and a whole lot of wacky faces.