Versatility is both a blessing and a curse for Michigan men’s basketball coach John Beilein, who’s spending much of the 2015-16 preseason teaching a crop of underclassman big men both the power forward and center positions.
While sophomore Ricky Doyle seems a safe bet to earn the bulk of playing time in the low post this season, the list of players who might back him up or spend time at the ‘4’ spot is still in question. Among those center-forward hybrids are redshirt freshman D.J. Wilson and freshman Moritz Wagner, each of whom is listed at 6-foot-10.
“It’s much easier for them just to be at one position,” Beilein said last week. “Fortunately, both Moe and D.J. are pretty good with picking different things up, and that’s really been good. Moe is exceptional.”
Michigan’s ninth-year coach, however, has little choice but to hedge his bets. Sophomore Kameron Chatman and redshirt sophomore Mark Donnal were both inconsistent in 2014-15, and they, too, could see minutes at spots other than power forward — Donnal at center and Chatman at small forward.
Wilson is the likeliest of the bunch to be relied upon heavily at both big-man spots. Since clocking in at 215 pounds prior to his freshman season, he says he has added 25 pounds of muscle. He showed flashes of potential early last season before suffering a knee injury in November, eventually spending the year redshirting.
The prospect of alternating between spots doesn’t faze Wilson, however.
“I don’t really have a preference,” he said. “It’s not really an issue for me. I’ve been playing multiple positions throughout my career.”
The injury gave Wilson a rare opportunity to add size and condition during the season without substantially impacting the Wolverines’ full-season prognosis, which later took bigger hits following the losses of starters Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton Jr.
“Me getting hurt last year and redshirting was a big benefit for me and the team,” Wilson said. “I gained a lot of weight and became more athletic.”
Wagner, however, hasn’t yet had the opportunity to add the size that Wilson will likely depend on down low this season. That hasn’t stopped Beilein from raving about his ability throughout the preseason, but he has consistently acknowledged that the 18-year-old German’s youth can lead to awkward on-court sequences during practice.
Michigan’s coaching staff isn’t giving much away about Wagner in the early going, preserving his status as the Wolverines’ biggest wild card. Beilein wouldn’t hazard a guess as to which position Wagner might appear at in the early going, and while assistant coach Bacari Alexander offered a long-term assessment, he also hesitated to make a prediction for the season’s first weeks.
“If you’re projecting out for Moe Wagner, he’s probably going to end up being a ‘4’-man,” Alexander said. “Reason being, his skill set, coming from the farm systems of Berlin, Germany, has called for him to be so multifaceted where he can make 3s; he can put the ball on the floor and make plays for others; he has the ability to post up smaller defenders.”
The biggest deficiency in Wagner’s game, according to both Beilein and Alexander, is his rebounding ability. But he’ll have the opportunity to ease into college play against teams that will be heavy underdogs entering Ann Arbor.
The Wolverines begin their schedule with an exhibition against Le Moyne on Nov. 6, followed by matchups with Northern Michigan and Elon. Those games, in which Michigan will likely hold substantial advantages in talent and size, could provide an early idea of which players will see minutes and where they slot in.
The going gets tougher over Thanksgiving, as the Wolverines travel to the Bahamas to face a pool of competition that includes Connecticut, Syracuse, Gonzaga and Texas in the Battle 4 Atlantis. There, size will matter, and that tournament could provide the first real test in physicality for the Wolverines’ front line, however it shapes up.