Nothing about Hunter Dickinson screams “freshman.”
For one, he’s 20-years-old, at least a full year older than most of his freshmen counterparts. And the typically-steep transition from the high school circuit to college basketball hardly befell Dickinson, who wasted little time asserting himself as Michigan’s go-to offensive weapon. He leads the team in averaging 15.1 points per game and was recently named to Late Season Top-20 list for the Wooden Award, an honor bestowed to the game’s top player.
Speed bumps have been few and far between, but opposing teams have recently begun to slow Dickinson off his blistering pace by deploying a flurry of double-teams. In the Wolverines’ last three games, Dickinson has scored 20 total points while committing 11 turnovers. That’s not to say Dickinson is playing poorly — his defense has taken a step forward and he remains one of the premier players in the sport. When Michigan returns from its current 14-day pause, though, Dickinson will continue to face the challenge of adjusting to the double-team.
When Dickinson bullied each and every defender in his path to begin the season, the rest of the Big Ten took notice: flummoxing Dickinson would require multiple defensive looks and certainly more than one defender. Nebraska was the first team to consistently send help his way, to mixed results: Dickinson notched 13 points, 15 rebounds and five turnovers in a Christmas Day win.
The first team to truly make Dickinson look mortal was Minnesota on Jan. 16. Ten days earlier, Dickinson had dominated Minnesota to the tune of 28 points, besting 7-foot-1 Liam Robbins. The Golden Gophers, though, altered their strategy for the rematch, swarming Dickinson with a second-defender and forcing him off the block. Dickinson scored only nine points, turned the ball over five times and Michigan suffered its first loss.
“As a freshman, those are mistakes that come with it,” senior forward Isaiah Livers said after the game. “He’s not perfect, not gonna know what to do in every situation. Has to grow. (Dickinson’s) a smart kid, though. Like everybody else on this team, he’s resilient. He’s gonna get back, watch film. He’s gonna shake his head like we’re all gonna do at our performances, but he’s gonna keep digging, keep grinding.”
Considering how little the college level has fazed Dickinson, there’s every indication that he’ll be able to put his turnover hiccups to bed. To start the season, the opposition viewed Dickinson as a complementary piece; now, he rests at the heart of the opposing defense’s game plan. That, in and of itself, requires another adjustment.
Dickinson has drawn double-teams before, attracting multiple defenders while dominating at DeMatha Catholic during high school. At 7-foot-1, he is capable of seeing over the double-team and has consistently drawn praise for being an above-average passer for his stature. At times, Dickinson gathers himself and calmly hits an open shooter in the chest; in other situations, he fires an errant cross-court pass.
Most of it boils down to patience.
“Not to let other teams rush it or rush the pace up for us when we get doubled or when it gets kind of fast-paced down there,” junior forward Brandon Johns Jr. said on Jan. 19. “Just to be calm, be patient, control the pass, control your mind and control yourself, and just make a smart play.”
When Dickinson lets the game come to him, Michigan has proven to be virtually unbeatable. Against Maryland on Jan. 19, Dickinson had a season-low three points, but fought through the double-team to contribute in other areas: he committed only one turnover and consistently found open teammates on the perimeter. The Wolverines, buoyed by Dickinson’s subliminal efforts, shot 12-of-24 from beyond the arc.
“It’s about trusting yourself, and I think Hunter did that tonight,” graduate transfer guard Mike Smith said after the game. “He made plays for everybody else and sacrificed and it worked.”
Banking on Dickinson to single-handedly dominate the competition, as he did through the season’s first month, always seemed unsustainable. His recent struggles, though, have hardly affected the team, with the Wolverines being fortunate enough to have a surplus of scoring options, operating with multiple focal points as opposed to one. Still, as Dickinson grows increasingly comfortable working out of double-teams, Michigan grows all the more dangerous.
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