“I got over it,” Wagner deadpanned on a videoconference. “I know what I can do. I figured out that in this league you’re not going to get any gifts. … My mind-set is that I’ll be here if you need me. And if not, I’ll be the same guy every day.”
Brooks said he believes that mentality has led Wagner to two banner starts with the Wizards (8-17), who this week tallied their first back-to-back wins of the season since Jan. 1 and 3.
Wagner, usually the third-string center, had 11 points and four rebounds against the Boston Celtics on Sunday and had 15 points, three rebounds and four steals against the Rockets on Monday. More than his numbers, he seemed to give Washington the jolt — and spacing — it needed after a stretch of poor offense.
When asked why the 6-foot-11 big man has been able to capitalize on his starts immediately, Brooks didn’t hesitate.
“You know why? Because he works. He didn’t pout,” Brooks said. “ … Just kept coming to work with a great attitude — positive mental attitude gets you a long way. That’s why he’s becoming a solid piece for us. I had a guy [with the Oklahoma City Thunder], Nick Collison, he’s a lot like him. Just makes winning plays, and he’s just good to be around. His teammates love him, and he just always wants to do right by his teammates.”
The coach inserted Wagner into the starting lineup for the first time this season Sunday. It was the Wizards’ 17th different starting lineup, and Brooks was trying to give them a different look at center after about a week of constant talk about the need to take more pride in individual defense and put forth a more consistent effort.
Energy, Wagner can do. He is perhaps the team’s best trash talker and is certainly its loudest communicator.
When starting center Thomas Bryant partially tore his ACL last month, the Wizards didn’t just lose one of their top scorers and the center of their defense, they lost part of the team’s heart, their nightly sparkplug. Wagner, with his constant over-the-top encouragement from the bench — he recently went ballistic on the sideline when forward Rui Hachimura drew the second charge of his career — makes up for some of that.
“He’s been giving us nothing but life on both ends,” leading scorer Bradley Beal said Monday. “We feed off of that. 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.”
Wagner was one of six Wizards to enter the NBA’s coronavirus protocols last month and has described boring days and a heavy feeling of guilt about not being able to help his team during the more than two weeks he missed. He jogged laps on the roof of his apartment building to get some form of physical exercise.
The Michigan graduate brings that same approach to the court whether he is starting, coming off the bench or not seeing any game time: Do what you can.
“My preparation hasn’t been different. I kind of expect that from myself every day, to be the same, not to be as high and low as I used to be in the past. That’s part of the growing process,” Wagner said. “You can’t be result-oriented. You have to embrace the journey a little bit. Sounds corny, but you’ll become crazy if you just look at the results every night and go to bed that way. You’ve just got to embrace the process, have fun with it and be the same guy every day.”
How Brooks configures his starting lineup against Denver (15-11) on Wednesday remains to be seen. The Nuggets’ 6-11 center, Nikola Jokic, is one of the most fearsome players in the league this season, averaging 26.5 points and 11.5 rebounds per game.
He also has about 40 pounds on Wagner, according to both teams’ rosters. And Brooks said Monday that he still plans to fill Bryant’s starting role by committee, with 7-footers Alex Len and Robin Lopez also providing options.
It won’t make a difference to Wagner. He’ll be yelling no matter what — either from the bench or on the court.
“I’m just trying to play, man. I’m trying to establish myself in this league, so figure out ways to do that,” Wagner said. “ … It’s all kind of part of the growing process.”