The backcourt is a huge bellwether to the success of a team. Offense begins with a team’s guards, it’s often where leadership stems from and the ability to defend the opposition’s initiators is paramount.
For the second year in a row, the Michigan men’s basketball team returns only one veteran guard. And for the second year in a row, it’s fifth-year senior Eli Brooks.
Brooks averaged 9.5 points per game last year while shooting 39.6% from beyond the arc. He tied for second on the team in assists with 84. Brooks’ contributions on the court will unquestionably be valuable — there’s a reason the Basketball Hall of Fame named him as one of 20 shooting guards to be on the 2022 Jerry West Award watch list. But his contributions as a leader in the locker room and as a mentor are just as, if not more, important.
“What’s so special about Eli, is he doesn’t just mentor one individual, he mentors (them) all.” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said in Michigan Media Day on Friday. “That’s the beauty of having a senior like Eli returning.”
Again for the second year in a row, a transfer guard will sit at the helm of the offense alongside Brooks. Last season it was Mike Smith, a graduate transfer from Columbia. This season it’s DeVante’ Jones, a graduate transfer point guard from Coastal Carolina.
While Jones’s offensive numbers aren’t flashy, he’s more than capable of creating plays, and his real contributions to the team will come on the defensive side of the ball. Jones stands in at 6-foot-1, but his 6-foot-6 wingspan gives him a powerful ability to disrupt passing lanes, contest shots and create steals. Jones was third in all of college basketball in steals, with a total of 68 and an average of 2.96 per game.
“A great defender,” sophomore center Hunter Dickinson said Oct. 7 at Big Ten Media Day. “I definitely think he has a really good chance of winning the Defensive Player of the Year in the Big Ten.”
With certainty, Brooks and Jones are starting at the two and the one, respectively. But Michigan needs rotational players off the bench to continue producing while the starters rest, or be ready to fill in for an injury.
Two key candidates for this role are freshman guards Kobe Bufkin and Frankie Collins.
“I’ll start with Frankie,” Brooks said when asked about the freshmen last Friday. “Frankie’s really skilled.”
Brooks went on to talk about how the two have watched film together, and how he’s helped Collins on the pick and roll. Collins, a four-star recruit, is a natural point guard with skills to create plays and distribute the ball to his teammates or attack the rim.
More of a natural shooting guard, Bufkin brings his scoring ability to the backcourt. The four-star McDonald’s All American averaged 25.0 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 5.0 assists in his senior season, and can stretch the floor or pull up from almost anywhere on the court. He’ll make for a threatening presence off the bench for opposing teams if his efficiency and range can translate to the collegiate level.
“Kobe has really impressed me,” Brooks said at Big Ten Media Day. “I like his game. I like the way he plays. He has a good feel for the game, it’s just natural.”
Rounding out the potential rotational pieces for the Wolverines include senior Adrien Nunez, sophomore Zeb Jackson and freshman Isaiah Barnes. Each bring different skills to the table, but none has proved himself yet.
In his first three seasons, Nunez has generally fallen short of expectations. He’s been relegated to coming in only when the Wolverines hold a large lead late or are down an insurmountable margin. For Jackson, his play last season could be described as shaky at best. He was a four-star prospect coming in, but he’ll need to improve significantly to be seen as a legitimate rotational piece this year.
Barnes is more of an unknown, but there’s been less chatter of positive development for him than there has for Collins and Bufkin. His minutes will likely come more experimentally and for the sake of his personal development rather than the team’s competing interest.
The ceiling of Michigan’s backcourt rests on the shoulders of a slew of new faces that have entered the building. Should they coalesce as well as or better than the Wolverines did last year, they have the opportunity to be the best unit in the Big Ten.