On Wednesday, Beilein, who was in his first year of a five-year contract as the coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers, announced his resignation after a brief but tumultuous experience. Wagner would have reunited with Beilein on Friday, when the 20-33 Wizards return from the all-star break with a home matchup against the Cavaliers (14-40), who have the worst record in the Eastern Conference.
Although Beilein’s time in Cleveland will be defined by his disconnect with Cavaliers players, Wagner had only positive memories to share.
“I owe that man a great deal of — I don’t know — everything. I think without him I wouldn’t be in the NBA,” said Wagner, 22. “He’s an incredible man, incredible coach. He took care of me, man, and made me from a little kid into a grown man, who still has to learn a lot. But he really made that experience for me, and I have nothing but good things to say about him.”
That Beilein — a career college coach who led Michigan to the Final Four in 2013 and 2018 and, before that, West Virginia to the Elite Eight and Sweet 16 — lasted only 54 games in the NBA was unusual.
“You don’t expect first-year coaches to not be there the entire season. It’s very rare that it happens,” Wizards Coach Scott Brooks said. “I don’t know what happened. Nobody really does unless you’re involved in it. It’s a tough business.”
The belief that Beilein’s coaching tactics worked in college but did not fly with professional athletes should not have been that surprising.
“Honestly, it’s a little cringing for me to see all that stuff. I’m a little speechless,” Wagner said. “I do understand the transition is hard for him, especially for his style. I do understand why people would not commit to that and why that would be some type of obstacle.”
According to reports, Cavaliers players revolted against Beilein’s propensity for long practices and video sessions. Then in January, the chasm between coach and players grew when Beilein referred to the group as no longer playing “like a bunch of thugs.” Beilein later apologized to the team, explaining he made a slip of the tongue and meant to say “slugs.”
Wagner said he does not know the players on the Cavaliers’ roster and he didn’t want to choose sides now as a current pro who has grown accustomed to the NBA way of doing things. Still, Wagner spoke from his own experience and how Beilein’s style led to positive outcomes.
“There are certain things he has to adapt, and I think he did, too, but like I said, as a player, I think it is hard,” Wagner said. “It’s not easy to play for him, but I don’t mean that in a negative way. If you commit to what he does, it’s going to make you rich. It made me rich.”
During All-Star Weekend, Wagner participated in the Rising Stars game, the showcase between first- and second-year American and international players. He then visited his younger brother, Franz, in Ann Arbor, Mich. Beilein, too, recruited and signed Franz to play at Michigan but did not coach him due to leaving for the Cleveland job.
Wagner has made great leaps since his days as a German high school prospect. He only has respect for the coach who helped him.
“I have nothing bad to say about him,” Wagner said. “The most important part is to treat people with respect. I’m not sure what happened there. I’m not there, so I can’t really judge that. I’m sorry for him and his family, but for me, the most important thing is that he’s happy, and I feel like he made an active step in that direction toward being happy.”