Ask Aubrey Dawkins if he expected to enter the 2015-16 season as a player who’d racked up substantial, meaningful minutes against top-tier Big Ten competition during his freshman year. The sophomore guard won’t hesitate.
“No, I did not,” Dawkins said Friday before the Wolverines’ first practice of the season. “You could say it’s a blessing in disguise.”
While Dawkins benefited immensely from being thrown into the fire, the circumstances that led to his opportunity were far from ideal for the Michigan men’s basketball team. Junior guard Derrick Walton Jr. and senior guard Caris LeVert both succumbed to mid-season injuries, forcing then-junior Spike Albrecht to take over the leadership role in the Wolverines’ backcourt.
It also forced Dawkins and fellow freshman Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman off the bench and into the limelight.
“Obviously, I always want the best for Caris,” Dawkins said. “I think he’s going to have a great season this year, and I can’t wait to see him back on the court. But yeah, it was a blessing in disguise. It happened, and I got better from it.”
The improvement during last season’s final months and over the summer has been readily apparent, even to the point that Michigan coach John Beilein singled out Dawkins this offseason as one of the Wolverines’ most improved players.
The extra attention Dawkins is dealing with could have added some level of extra pressure. But not so, he claimed — Beilein’s comments were flattering, but nothing more.
“It’s good to hear,” Dawkins said. “It’s good positive reinforcement.”
Dawkins added inches to his vertical and improved his handle during his summer in Ann Arbor, which gave him the opportunity to work out in a calmer environment than the frenzied winter months on campus.
“It was great,” Dawkins said. “Much more relaxed. Campus is a little more quiet. It was fun, (and) I got a lot better.”
Despite the physical improvements, Dawkins cited a heightened basketball IQ as his most substantial gain of the offseason.
“There’s no need to rush,” he said. “Coming in as a freshman, I was kind of deer in the headlights. You’re shocked — you want to play as fast as you can. But you don’t need to do that. In slowing down and just making smart plays is where I think I grew the most.”
Between spending the summer on campus and working at Adidas Nations camp in early August, the sophomore said his father — Stanford head coach Johnny Dawkins — didn’t get the chance to see him play in a formal setting over the offseason.
Dawkins said not much has changed in terms of their dynamic, a hybrid of father-son and coach-player relationship, even though he now has a season of Division I competition under his belt.
“Same old, same old,” Dawkins said. “(He’s) always giving me teaching points, telling me what I need to get better at. That’s how it’s always going to be.”
The three-hour time difference makes staying up to date tougher for the elder Dawkins, but his son said the Cardinal’s eighth-year coach manages to record all of the Michigan games, nonetheless.
As much as seeing Aubrey earn substantial minutes at shooting guard last season must have been a pleasant surprise for the entire Dawkins family, Michigan’s budding star is showing no signs of complacency. With the unexpected advantage of experience, a bolstered vertical jump, a higher basketball IQ and a less-frenetic on-court mindset, a breakout sophmore season for Dawkins wouldn’t come as a surprise.
There’s only one problem: LeVert, Walton and a plethora of other capable guards are all expected to be fully healthy and ready to contribute for a Michigan squad that could have at least a dozen players earn substantial time on the floor. Nobody is immune to the battle for minutes, but Dawkins is as well-positioned as anybody else to earn his time.