Over breakfast with Michigan coach Juwan Howard last February, Austin Davis’s fate for this upcoming college basketball season was sealed.
The then-redshirt junior would be returning for a fifth year in the fall.
It wasn’t too long ago that Davis was largely an afterthought. He struggled to acclimate to the college game, sitting out his first year and playing sparingly over the next two seasons — just twice did he see double-digit minutes over the course of 2017-18 and 2018-19.
Last season seemed destined for more of the same. Davis started off as the third-string center, leapfrogged in the rotation by sophomore Colin Castleton. He sat on the sidelines for seven of Michigan’s first eleven games.
And yet he managed to turn a corner. Davis flourished under Howard’s tutelage, establishing himself as the backup to Jon Teske. In a Big Ten stacked with viable big men, he was a revelation.
“It’s great to have Austin Davis on our side,” Howard said after an 89-65 win over Indiana last February, a game in which Davis contributed 11 points. “Austin is wired the right way. He’s such a giver. Total team guy. Never tried to go for his numbers or do anything he’s not good at. Come in with the right attitude in practice, working hard. Buying into the teaching and the developing. And he’s going out and having a great carryover game after game.”
With Teske having graduated in May, Davis’s importance is magnified. Michigan’s other true big man is freshman Hunter Dickinson, and while Dickinson is talented, the transition from high school to college necessitates a learning curve — just ask Davis.
The Daily took a closer look at what went right for Davis during his breakout campaign and where there’s room for improvement entering his last go-around.
The pick and roll was more integral to Michigan’s offense than almost any other offensive set last season. According to Synergy, the Wolverines averaged 28.5 points per game off the pick and roll, the fourth highest total in the nation.
Luckily for Davis, it’s an element of the game in which he excels.
In this clip taken from Michigan’s February matchup with Rutgers at Madison Square Garden, Davis frees up the ball-handler, Eli Brooks, with a textbook screen. As Brooks veers right, Davis’s defender hedges out, leaving him in the clear.
Brooks threads the needle with a bounce pass and hits Davis in stride. Rather than force up an ill-advised shot, Davis flashes his poise. He possesses the wherewithal to recognize the help defender blitzing in from the far corner to front him on the block. Working methodically, he gathers himself, takes a dribble and ducks under the air-borne defender. When a second defender closes in, he bides even more time with another successful fake, making for an easy basket.
Davis’ actions on the court are often coherent. It’s when he rushes that his play deviates — shuffled feet, forced shots. He is at his best when he slows the game down.
On this play, even after point guard Zavier Simpson stumbles with his dribble, Davis holds his ground down low. The patience pays off, with Simpson squeaking free and finding Davis for the two-handed slam.
A portion of Davis’s pick and roll success can surely be attributed to Simpson’s ability as an orchestrator. Now, Davis will have to rely more heavily on the trio of Brooks, graduate transfer Mike Smith and freshman Zeb Jackson to execute the two-man game.
Second-chance points are back-breakers, and no Wolverine displayed a knack for securing offensive rebounds quite like Davis did last season. Out of his 62 total boards, 24 occurred on the offensive end — a 37 percent clip that stood as the highest mark on the team.
This play begins with a similar sequence as the prior one. Davis sets a ball screen and both defenders chase the ball-handler, collapsing on David DeJulius.
DeJulius, though, isn’t looking for Davis. On the other side of the court, Brandon Johns Jr. walls off Indiana’s Rob Phinisee with an off-ball screen, freeing Brooks for a shot attempt. While not the focal point, Davis nonetheless strives to make an impact: he beelines into the heart of the paint, positioning himself for a possible offensive rebound.
By the time Davis’s defender leaves DeJulius, he’s too late — Davis, as if on defense, is boxing out. When Brooks’ three-pointer falls off, Davis out-wills four Hoosiers for the rebound, using his 6-foot-10, 250 pound frame to his advantage and finishing off the move with a layup in traffic.
If there’s a clear area where Davis has room to grow, it’s perimeter defense.
By all means, Davis is a traditional big man. His scoring radius is largely confined to the paint. Jump shots, let alone 3-pointers, are absent from his arsenal.
And in today’s era of basketball, the stretch-‘5’ is a hot commodity. A big man like Davis can thrive in the paint on the offensive end, but only so long as he can venture outwards on defense.
Against Ohio State, Davis matched up against versatile big man Kaleb Wesson. Here, Wesson catches the entry pass with his back to the basket before quickly pivoting to face the hoop, leaving Davis vulnerable to a dribble-drive. Wesson lulls Davis with a few jab-steps then darts right. A slow first step dooms Davis, who winds up on Wesson’s backside and commits a foul.
In guarding the inside-outside big, Davis has to make a concerted effort to be out far enough to contest a perimeter shot. Last year against Wisconsin, for instance, he was a virtual non-factor due to his inability to challenge three-point threats Micah Potter and Nate Reuvers along the arc.
Without Teske, Michigan will need Davis to stay on the court for long stretches and out of foul trouble. Improved individual defense is therefore all the more imperative.
Last year, after spending three seasons riding the bench, Davis proved he could hold his own among stiff Big Ten competition. If he can continue to make strides, he will not only help ease Dickinson’s transition to the college level, but also make Michigan all the more dangerous.