Despite his raw talent and athleticism, Moussa Diabate's defensive struggles are holding him back. Jenna Hickey/Daily. Buy this photo.

Tune into a Michigan men’s basketball game and you’ll almost certainly see Moussa Diabate do something spectacular.

Whether it’s using an impressive post move to shake his defender with ease, a high-flying rejection or an emphatic dunk, the freshman forward has no shortage of tricks in his arsenal. His teammates have called him a “freak of nature” — and for good reason. When Diabate’s on the court, there’s always potential for excitement.

Recently, though, Diabate hasn’t been on the court enough to provide those jaw-dropping moments. Over the Wolverines’ past two games against Nebraska and Purdue, he’s averaged just 19 minutes — a far cry from the 30-plus he typically plays when he avoids foul trouble — and spent crunch time in both games sitting on the bench.

“That last group that was out there, they had it going,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said Monday. “They did some really good things (to) fight back and getting us back in the ballgame. It’s just tough to disrupt that flow.”

Howard’s reasoning for leaving Diabate on the bench in those final minutes is defensible; against both the Cornhuskers and the Boilermakers, the Wolverines made late-game runs with their offense clicking. Diabate’s presence down the stretch likely wouldn’t have changed either outcome.

The cause for concern is why Diabate wasn’t in the game down the stretch to begin with. Nebraska and Purdue both play shooters at the ‘4,’ and while Diabate was billed to be able to guard ‘1’ through ‘5,’ primarily defending on the perimeter has given him some trouble.

Diabate’s issue is not uncommon for a player like him. An extremely athletic but raw talent playing for the first time against a plethora of experienced players who can match that athleticism is bound to face a bit of a learning curve. As a result, Diabate often tends to overcommit on passes and rotations. When it works, it leads to a highlight-reel play. But when it doesn’t, an ugly defensive breakdown often arises.

“He will continue to work on his defensive prowess out there on the floor,” Howard said on Jan. 3. “Because we need not only just Moussa, but all of our guys to have an impact on the game on both ends of the floor.”

In Michigan’s last two games, Diabate proved he’s still a work in progress. Against the Cornhuskers, most of his minutes came in the first half at the ‘5’ as sophomore center Hunter Dickinson was in foul trouble. When Dickinson was on the floor, Diabate was susceptible to blow-bys, only playing four minutes in the second half as a result.

Diabate’s performance against the Boilermakers was a bit more up-and-down. He held his own against guard Jaden Ivey at times, but miscommunications on ball screens and rotations gave an already-daunting Purdue offense easy looks in the paint.

A minutes decrease for the Wolverines’ starters isn’t all bad. They’ve all carried a heavy burden this season due to Howard’s justified reluctance to trust his bench, and it has already cost them.

“I saw the fatigue in the first three minutes (of the second half),” Howard said after a Jan. 29 loss to Michigan State. “And you only get three timeouts. … You can’t just burn them all at once. I saw, first three minutes, we had low energy. And that cannot happen on the road, or anyplace.”

Just replacing Diabate’s minutes doesn’t fully solve the problem, though. Michigan’s ceiling is highest with him on the floor; it needs his aggressive offensive rebounding and interior defense. And Howard believes Diabate will be able to course-correct.

“Moussa has an opportunity to be special because of how his mindset is wired,” Howard said. “He’s not going to half-ass it. 

“He’s gonna put in full effort with everything he does.”