How Jon Teske grew beyond his height

Tuesday, March 12, 2019 - 6:02pm

Teske at one point growing up guarded the opposing point guard to improve his defense.

Teske at one point growing up guarded the opposing point guard to improve his defense. Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily

Jon Teske warms up down below as his grandfather sits. It’s a Sunday in mid-January at Crisler Center and Jim Zuidema is up in the corner wearing a Michigan pullover, sitting near the aisle.

Zuidema grabs his phone and pulls up his texts, looking for one in particular. It’s to his grandson and it’s a message to play “Teske basketball.”

Three hours later, a victory over Northwestern in hand, Teske has 17 points and 11 rebounds to his name. He hit three 3-pointers and blocked two shots, affecting the game on every level. This, in the months before and since, has become Teske’s norm.

“I think it’s like (John) Beilein says,” Zuidema says on the phone the day after that game. “It takes a couple years to learn. And Jon, I think Jon’s right on course from what Beilein told me a few years back, how he thought Jon would progress.”

How Teske has progressed is this: Two years ago, he came to Michigan and his biggest skill on a basketball court was being tall. He got his ass kicked in practice and rode the bench in games. On the year, he played 60 minutes, made one field goal and blocked seven shots.

Since then, his development has proceeded with the slope of a 45-degree line. The next year, Teske backed up Moritz Wagner and looked good doing it. Then Teske broke out at the Big Ten Tournament final against Purdue, creating the lasting image of the game by dunking on Isaac Haas and yelling into oblivion. When Wagner went to the NBA last summer, Teske stepped into the starting role seamlessly.

He started every game of the regular season, averaging nearly 10 points and swatting away 7.8 percent of shots while affecting countless more, the backbone holding up a defense that ranks second in the country in adjusted efficiency.

“It’s really slowed down for me,” Teske told The Daily. “I think it’s just taking time. Some people get it right away, but others don’t.”

Teske’s path is rarely followed in college basketball nowadays, but it’s one that fits him. “I know Jon will hate anything that I said about him, that you write, OK,” Zuidema says toward the end of our conversation, and he’s doubtlessly right.

Zuidema talks the way grandfathers are supposed to talk about their grandsons. He adulates and adores, all while staying level about what his grandson wants and about his role in guiding him on the path. He is more interested in talking about Jon Teske than Jon Teske himself, which is both expected and defining.

Teske is one of few people on the planet who stands over seven feet tall and doesn’t automatically dominate every room he steps into. He’s cautious and circumspect, thinking through every word he says in front of a camera and falling back on polite clichés when the real answer has a chance of being twisted or misconstrued.

When I ask when he knew Wagner would leave, meaning he would start, Teske rejects the implicit assumption that there was no competition at center coming into this season.

“I knew the job would be open, that spot would be open,” Teske said. “Austin (Davis) and I, we worked hard all offseason. We knew Colin (Castleton) and Brandon (Johns) would be ready to come in, too, possibly. So I just knew we had to continue to work hard and try to help the team win. Just be ready for whoever won that spot to just go in there and do their job, right?”

The result of his demeanor is two-pronged: Teske doesn’t cause controversy or make himself a target for opposing teams or fans. He also doesn’t get the media attention that should naturally come to the anchor of one of the nation’s best defenses.

But Teske deserves that level of attention, even if he doesn’t want it, because he is just that.

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Despite being seven feet tall, Teske doesn't automatically dominate every room he steps into.

Despite being seven feet tall, Teske doesn't automatically dominate every room he steps into. Buy this photo
Natalie Stephens/Daily

“No one wanted Jon on their team,” says Drew Zuidema, Teske’s cousin. “Not at the young age.”

There are 18 cousins on Teske’s mother’s side of the family, nine boys and nine girls. At a young age, living in Grand Rapids, they spent the summers at their grandparents’ house, with a hoop in front and a pool out back.

While everyone else swam, the boys played in front — basketball, football, wiffle ball — as their grandmother fretted about little kids near a busy road. It would be an idyllic scene, had Teske been on the winning team.

At that elementary-school age, Teske was gangly and uncoordinated. He would take the ball and run with it instead of dribbling, and when the cousins split up, old versus young, he’d be on the losing team.

“They’d kinda push and blow their way to wins,” Teske said. “Sometimes cheat their way to wins.”

Drew, in contrast, speaks with the verve of a winner.

“He was at that awkward stage and didn’t know what he was doing,” Drew said of Teske. “He was always very tall and gumpy.”

But Teske has always been tall. When the boys would lower the 10-foot hoop to try and touch the rim, he was the only one who could dunk. The rest, that came later.

Zuidema likes to tell a story from when Jon was an underclassman at Medina High School in Ohio, playing under Anthony Stacey. A former player and current assistant coach at Bowling Green, Stacey was tough and demanding. The Teske family moved from Grand Rapids to Medina when Jon was in middle school, and Stacey saw the potential in him right away. After eighth-grade graduation, Teske estimates it was less than a week before he started for the summer high school team.

On this day, Zuidema sat in the stands and watched as Jon stood at the top of the key and checked the opposing point guard. “I about fell off the bleachers,” Zuidema said. It’s important to note here that Zuidema has kept relationships with all of Teske’s coaches, calling them after games, and isn’t afraid to let them know what he thinks.

Stacey came up to Zuidema after that game to get his thoughts. “Well, I got a question,” he responded. “Why you got Jon out at point guard?”

“I’ll tell you why,” Zuidema recalls Stacey responding. “I know Jon’s gonna become a player in college. I don’t know if he’ll play Division I, II or III, but he’s gonna play somewhere. And I want him to learn how to play defense and move his feet.”

Near that time, college coaches began taking notice. First a trickle of MAC schools, then a slow but steady increase. By the end of his sophomore year, Teske had Big Ten coaches calling him, and that summer, John Beilein started roaming the sideline at his AAU games.

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Junior center Jon Teske grew up playing pickup basketball with his 18 cousins at his grandfather's house.

Junior center Jon Teske grew up playing pickup basketball with his 18 cousins at his grandfather's house. Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily

The decision to come to Ann Arbor, when it came down to it, was easy. Teske made it in the first few weeks of his junior year.

Michigan was close to both Medina and Grand Rapids. Beilein had a record of developing players, and he — along with then-assistant coaches Bacari Alexander and Jeff Meyer — did the legwork in building a relationship with Teske and his family.

There’s also the education aspect of it. When you ask Teske, and those close to him, about his recruitment, words like, “degree” and “graduate” become motifs. On one visit, a coach showed Zuidema a trophy cabinet.

“He said, ‘I want your grandson to win me another trophy,’ ” Zuidema said. “And, that didn’t go over very well with his grandma.”

When Zuidema sat with Beilein, the Michigan coach told him that yes, he wanted Teske to help him win games, but there was more to his pitch than that.

“He’s gonna be with you four years, coach,” Zuidema recalled saying. “You do what you have to. Remember, I don’t want him here just to win trophies for you.”

Of course, the decision wasn’t Zuidema’s to make, and nor is the one that will be in front of Teske when the season ends. Back then, he was a three-star recruit. Now, if he wants to go pro, he can.

It’s easy to see the Big Ten Tournament final against Purdue last season, when Teske scored 14 points off the bench, dunked on Haas and helped Michigan to a trophy on a postseason stage, as the turning point of his college career.

“I know that everyone talks about the Purdue game being my coming out party,” Teske said, stopping short of answering whether he himself sees it that way. That’s fitting.

“It just kinda showed people what I think I’m capable of,” he said. “Obviously my teammates and coaches have always seen that in me, since I’ve gotten here. I think it was just, for me, just go out there. Just on that big a stage, and Moe being in foul trouble, it all kinda came out to be like that.”

Teske isn’t brash — he’s not Ignas Brazdeikis or Jordan Poole. He won’t say he’s the best free-throw shooter in the world, or that he expects every shot he takes to go in. He’s caught off-guard when asked about the decision in front of him after this season, but knows full well he’s earned the chance to make it.

“Um, I wouldn’t say that (decision has) changed anything,” Teske said, swallowing his sound. “I think just coming in, I knew I wanted — I wanted to go somewhere that had a good place I could go get a good degree at. Just coming in here, I knew I was capable of doing it. And so we’ll just see what happens.”

In October, the question of whether he could replace Wagner seemed as if it may define Michigan’s season. It took Teske all of a couple games to answer, and the question soon shifted to whether the Wolverines are better off with Teske, and whether he deserves All-Big Ten honors.

But Teske’s story is one of linear development. He’s built strength and conditioning with Jon Sanderson in the weight room to the point of being able to play up to 35 minutes at 85 inches. He’s gone from a one-dimensional hand in the face to an all-around threat on both sides of the ball.

That shift, more than height alone, has come to define Teske basketball.