Moritz Wagner went up for the layup and the Washington Wizards center was immediately stripped by John Wall. Rather than sulk, clap his hands out of frustration or plead for a foul, Wagner reacted fast: He swiped back — stealing the ball from the Rockets guard. Wagner then dribbled to the corner, splashing a 3-pointer to further extend Washington’s lead.
The sequence was a demonstration of the positive attitude that has paid dividends for the 23-year-old big man this season. One bad play simply is not going to keep him down.
Wagner’s energy has helped the Wizards move on after the loss of starting center Thomas Bryant, who tore his ACL last month and is out for the season. Since Bryant’s injury, Washington has relied on a committee approach, rotating Wagner, veteran Robin Lopez and former Terrapin Alex Len into the lineup.
Going into Wednesday night’s contest against the Denver Nuggets, the Wizards had won two straight with Wagner as the starter. A 6-foot-11 stretch five, Wagner plays with near-constant effort and has spaced the floor to help open up the offense. He’s played well in a bigger role, scoring 11 points on Sunday against the Celtics and 15 points against the Rockets on Monday.
Coach Scott Brooks, though, isn’t committing to Wagner as the full-time starter. He said he’ll keep the team’s options open, depending on the matchup.
But for now, Wagner’s promotion is working.
“When you don’t get your way, you have two choices … You can get better from it or you can be bitter, and Moe is handling it the right way,” Brooks said. “A positive mental attitude gets you a long ways. That’s why he’s becoming really a solid piece for us.”
Brooks said Wagner remained optimistic this summer when the Wizards declined the center’s rookie-scale option, a decision that means Wagner, a 2018 first-rounder drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers, will become a free agent next offseason.
Wagner, Brooks said, “didn’t pout,” and went about quietly working on his craft. When Washington declined the option, Wagner was largely out of the team’s rotation.
Wagner admitted he was disappointed. How could he not? But he said he “got over it” and realized the NBA is about proving yourself. Taking it a step further, Wagner said he wanted to make sure the Wizards knew he was there if they needed him.
“You’ll become crazy if you just look at the results every night and go to bed that way,” Wagner said.
The Wizards ended up needing Wagner — and the rest of their bigs. When Bryant went down, Washington was devastated. Bryant was not only enjoying a career year, but his hustle and shooting — he hit 42.7% of his shots from deep — would be hard to replicate.
But the Wizards are getting contributions from their three-headed center.
Coming off the bench, Lopez has provided a solid interior presence. Signed in free agency, the 13-year veteran has had success with a crafty game around the rim — scoring 7.9 points per game. Lopez clogs the paint and excels at boxing out for teammates to grab rebounds.
Len is perhaps Washington’s best defensive big. After being waived by Toronto, the 7-footer signed with the Wizards three weeks ago, shortly after Washington returned from being sidelined by the coronavirus.
And putting Wagner on the floor as a starter has the Wizards getting off to faster starts. The team has fed off the big man’s energy, teammates say.
“He’s been giving us nothing but life on both ends,” guard Bradley Beal said. “We need it. Moe loves what he does. I always call him an irritant. He’s out there to just be a pest, to get up under your skin, talk his trash, all while playing at a high level. I love everything Moe brings. His spirit is what uplifts us.”