Following key departures from last season, competition has been “like the Hunger Games”
Charles Matthews, Jordan Poole and Ignas Brazdeikis. If you followed Michigan basketball at all last season, those three names probably ring a bell.
Names like Brandon Johns Jr., David DeJulius, Adrien Nunez and Franz Wagner likely don’t, at least not to the same degree. And yet, some combination of this youthful quartet, the first three all sophomores and the last a true freshman, will feature significantly for the Wolverines this year. The departures of Matthews, Poole and Brazdeikis — who together accounted for 56 percent of Michigan’s scoring last season — make it so.
“We’re ready to step up to that challenge,” DeJulius, a guard, said. “It’s big shoes to fill losing those three. We understand that and are mature enough to know that. All of us are just locked in to fill those big shoes.”
Roster turnover is an intrinsic part of college athletics — basketball especially — but losing three starters to the professional ranks, all of whom had eligibility remaining, came as a bit of a surprise for the Wolverines.
As the saying goes though: when one door closes another one opens. Let’s just say that door is gaping.
Especially with the recent news that Wagner, who’s received the most praise of anyone early on, suffered a non-surgical fracture in his right wrist this week and is set to miss four to six weeks.
On the perimeter, there will likely be two starting positions up for grabs between senior point guard Zavier Simpson and junior forward Isaiah Livers — who primarily played the ‘4’ last season. So far in practice, the aforementioned young guns and junior point guard Eli Brooks are all in the battle.
“There’s always competition, especially when there's a sudden change,” Brooks said. “You just gotta do your job. You wanna be the best teammate you can be because at the end of the day, they’re still on your team. You have to just let the better player get the job.”
While Brooks has the most playing experience of that group, he hasn’t been much of a scoring threat throughout his career, averaging just 2.2 points per game. Brooks knows that and has tried to focus on it in the offseason.
“One thing I lacked was offensive production,” Brooks said. “So I’ve been looking for my shot more, getting to spots where I’m comfortable at and being more aggressive.”
Regardless of Brooks’ expected improvements, DeJulius and Nunez pose a significant threat to his playing time. DeJulius featured in 25 games last season and has impressed new coach Juwan Howard with his work ethic.
“He’s like (Simpson) in so many ways,” Howard said.
Nunez, who was left on the outside looking in last season, is also trying to make a leap forward this season with his sharpshooting ability being his biggest asset.
Both Johns Jr. and Wagner are natural scorers who are more than capable of slotting into the starting lineup this season, too. Johns Jr. played in all 28 games last season, flashing his offensive potential in an eight-point, eight-rebound performance against Indiana in early January.
“Brandon is a very athletic guy who has a beautiful stroke in his jumpshot,” Howard said. “He’s been competing hard in practice. He’s grasping a lot of the new responsibilities in teaching what is asked of him. I see that he’s gonna have his chance to play a lot this year, but as he knows, it starts in practice. You gotta earn your minutes.”
Wagner’s temporary absence will put even more of an onus on his teammates, like DeJulius and Johns Jr. to pick up the slack. The freshman played professionally in his native Germany as an 18-year old last season. His polished offensive game, sneaky athleticism and maturity have been major talking points thus far. Upon his return, look for Wagner to eventually crack the primary rotation.
Until then, the fierce competition that characterized practice will be even more important. That relentless drive to improve is just what Howard wants from his team though.
“Coach said that any drill we do, where we’re trying to compete, is like the Hunger Games,” Nunez said. “At the end of the day, we’re all family and teammates. When it gets on the court though, we’re all just trying to compete and earn that spot.
“It’s all just healthy competition but whoever is the hungriest is gonna be the one who plays in the end.”