And this season, Wagner has hit the floor a lot.
“Oh, I’m fine. I still wear all these pads,” Wagner said Wednesday night after he added two more charges to his season total. “They call me the Michelin Man because I have enough.”
Troy Brown Jr., standing next to his locker and listening to Wagner’s interview, grew skeptical.
“Who calls you that?” Brown asked with a grin.
Apparently, Wagner’s nickname has not reached the Wizards’ locker room. However, Wagner’s reputation as a big man willing to sacrifice his body has him atop one important hustle statistic.
Wagner, 22, leads the NBA with 10 charges taken and has the most per 36 minutes (1.9). On this current trip, Wagner has taken half of his total in two games against the Boston Celtics and Minnesota Timberwolves. During Friday’s 137-116 win over the Wolves, Wagner scored 30 points, made all four of his three-point attempts and grabbed 15 rebounds, making him the first bench player in league history to reach those numbers.
However, it was Wagner’s work on the other end of the floor that helped set the defensive tone as he drew three Minnesota offensive fouls and riled up Karl-Anthony Towns, one of the most skilled big men in the league, into a technical foul.
“Those are energy boosts,” teammate Bradley Beal said. “As a big, you always think: ‘Oh, you got to block shots, protect the rim.’ But those are smart plays. Getting Karl-Anthony Towns in foul trouble and trying to make it difficult and frustrating guys — he’s really good at that. We need him to continue to do that.”
Growing up in Germany, Wagner said, he never took charges. He didn’t learn the fine art of falling down until he enrolled at Michigan and played under John Beilein — and that introductory lesson was a painful one.
“My freshman year, on my first charge I got a bloody forehead. I remember that,” Wagner said. “It hurt! But if you’re limited athletically, as a big guy, you’ve got to figure out ways to protect the rim still and know how to fall. It’s not the worst.”
When the Wizards acquired Wagner in a trade this summer, his new coach, Scott Brooks, knew the 6-foot-11 center excelled in drawing contact. This particular skill was one of several Brooks now describes as Wagner’s winning intangibles.
“I like guys that play hard. You should want your opponent to be upset with you, and a lot of players don’t want you to play hard against them, and if you don’t do that, shame on you and shame on the coach,” Brooks said. “But Mo plays hard, and he’s going to challenge the opponent. He’s not the most gifted guy, but he maximizes his abilities, and that’s what you want.”
Wagner does have a gift for creating enemies. Add the Timberwolves’ fan base and Towns to his list.
In the second quarter, when Wagner drew his third offensive foul (this one against Towns), a serenade of boos echoed through Target Center. Wagner just smiled. And the best segment of the Wagner-Towns show hadn’t even started yet.
At the 9:38 mark, Wagner defended Towns into missing a five-foot hook shot. As he secured the rebound, Wagner let his opponent know he had won this battle and shouted, “Gimme that [expletive]!” Just one play later, Towns dropped Wagner with a move to the basket and, with the lane cleared, dunked with resentment. Towns then carried the ball and placed it in Wagner’s lap; the taunt prompted official Dedric Taylor to whistle a technical foul. Once again, Wagner climbed to his feet with a grin stretching wide.
During the summer and training camp scrimmages, Wizards teammates got the full Mo Wagner experience. Beal nodded emphatically when asked whether Wagner had frustrated them.
“Mo talk a lot of trash, man,” Beal said. “That’s what a lot of people don’t know about Mo. Mo talk trash and get up under your skin a little bit. But he plays hard, so … can’t fault him for it. I always say as long as you back up your game and you come out and compete, I don’t care. I’ll protect him and rock with him until the end.”
Later in the second quarter, Towns leaned into Wagner while attempting a three-pointer. Although Towns initiated the contact, knocking Wagner to the ground with the elbow, Wagner was called for the shooting foul and not rewarded his fourth charge. The foul sent Wagner to the bench, but he has no plans to change his approach to taking contact.
“Because I have all this padding,” Wagner said, explaining why he feels fine after games. “So I’ll take it.”