ESPN Staff Writer
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — The Los Angeles Lakers added some size, rebounding and shooting Thursday night by drafting Michigan big man Moritz Wagner with the 25th pick of the first round.
Lakers team president Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka hope they were able to find another late first-round gem in Wagner, a 6-foot-11 forward who helped lead the Wolverines to the national title game last season. Last year during their first draft together, Johnson and Pelinka found Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart with the 27th and 30th overall picks.
The Lakers were impressed by Wagner during their interview with him at the Chicago pre-draft camp. Head coach Luke Walton said Wagner’s personality electrified the room.
“Selecting Moe Wagner was a big target for Magic,” Pelinka said. “When you build a team, you have to have pillars that you build on. For us we are sticking to those core principles, which are guys that are high IQ basketball player that play the game the right way and can shoot and have length and have versatility and play with toughness.
“The game, as you know, requires bigs that can spread the floor. What we noticed in all the games we went to in person is, he is a tremendous passer and great screener in pick-and-roll situations, coached by John Beilein, who is a terrific coach. And Luke felt that when we had him in our building that he had off-the-charts basketball IQ. Magic had to get over a Spartan drafting a Wolverine but once we got over that, he was our guy.”
The Lakers went all international with their draft this year. After tabbing the German Wagner, the Lakers used the 39th pick (acquired from the Philadelphia 76ers in exchange for their 2019 second-round pick via the Chicago Bulls and cash) on another German, 6-9 forward Isaac Bonga. And with the 47th pick, the Lakers tabbed 6-8 shooting guard Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, a Ukrainian native who set a Kansas single-season record with 115 made 3-point field goals.
Wagner said he grew up influenced by Germany’s greatest NBA product, Dirk Nowitzki, but that he also liked Kevin Garnett’s game. He said he considers another player of that generation, Kobe Bryant, to be the greatest Laker of all time.
“I am a big Kobe fan,” Wagner said when asked who he considers to be the greatest Laker in the storied franchise history. “I think I got to go with Kobe, especially since he stayed there for his entire career. Magic is up there, of course. This is a question where I can’t win.”
The Michigan product, though, likes how the current Lakers are trying to play as fast as the Showtime Lakers did.
“They obviously are a flashy franchise, they like to play fast,” Wagner said. “Coach [Luke] Walton used to play, he is a player’s coach, he wants his players to play and be confident, and they focus on playing fast, and that is something I am very excited to prove.”
Thursday night’s draft came a little more than a week before what could be the Lakers’ most important free agency period since Shaquille O’Neal signed in 1996.
With Julius Randle about to hit restricted free agency, the Lakers’ selection of Wagner gives them some depth inside. Wagner, 21, averaged 14.6 points and 7.1 rebounds and shot 52.8 percent from the field last season while earning second-team All Big-Ten honors. He joined Larry Bird and Hakeem Olajuwon as the only players to have 20 points and 15 rebounds in a national semifinal.
The Lakers, in need of perimeter shooting, now have a fiery big who shot 39.4 percent from 3-point range over the past two seasons, draining 108 3s during that span.
“I’m speechless,” said Wagner, who fought back tears after being selected. “I am just going to give it all, my 100 percent every day. … I am going to love it and leave it all out there [for the Lakers].”
This was the first time in five years that the Lakers were not drafting in the lottery. After taking Randle with the seventh overall pick in 2014 and D’Angelo Russell (2015), Brandon Ingram (2016) and Lonzo Ball (2017) with the second overall picks in the past three drafts, the Lakers had to wait until near the end of the first round to pick this year.
The Lakers’ own pick, No. 10 overall, belonged to Philadelphia as part of the Steve Nash trade in 2012. The Sixers used the pick on Villanova’s Mikal Bridges before trading him to Phoenix for Texas Tech’s Zhaire Smith, who was selected 16th, and a 2021 first-round pick via Miami.
But Johnson and Pelinka acquired the 25th pick from the Cleveland Cavaliers during a February trade-deadline deal that sent Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson to the Cavs for Isaiah Thomas and Channing Frye.
That deal helped the Lakers clear cap space and put them in position to pursue two max free agents in July when Los Angeles will be in the running for LeBron James and Paul George. With Kawhi Leonard reportedly hoping to play in Los Angeles, the Lakers will be busy exhausting all avenues to significantly improve their roster.
The Lakers worked out 125 players over the past few months.