When Juwan Howard returned to Ann Arbor, it was a foregone conclusion that he’d bring his wealth of NBA experience with him.
Now in his first year as the coach of the Michigan men’s basketball team, Howard’s experience as an NBA player and coach is shining through. The area of the game in which it’s most obvious, though, is in transition offense. As a result, the Wolverines are humming along in an up-tempo offense that’s seemingly starting to become second nature.
Under former coach John Beilein, Michigan’s offense finished 341st in the nation in possessions per game last season. While the Wolverines averaged just under 57 shots per game in 2018, they’ve eclipsed that mark in three of their first four contests this season.
Thus far, the biggest beneficiary of the stark change is junior forward Isaiah Livers. To shed light on Livers’ success, The Daily broke down the film:
First and foremost, Livers’ most impactful strength is his combination of athleticism and ability to beat the defense to the rim. Because Michigan’s frontcourt presents so much size, Livers is afforded the liberty of leaking out if his defensive assignment is away from the rim.
At 6-foot-7, his long strides allow him to cover the court quickly. That much was apparent against Saginaw Valley State, particularly in the early going. Just three minutes into the exhibition, senior point guard Zavier Simpson found Livers lurking behind the defense after the Wolverines secured a loose ball.
From just in front of the logo, Simpson lobbed a pass over the lone defender standing between him and Livers. The defender made an effort to contest Livers, but stood no chance as he barreled to the rim. Livers’ sheer athleticism allowed him to elevate over his defender as he flushed home Simpson’s feed with two hands.
On the very next possession, Livers’ speed in the open floor allowed him to get to the rim for another dunk. When senior center Jon Teske pulled down the rebound, Livers was the furthest player from the basket. With a Cardinals player on his hip and the other four defenders standing between him and the rim, Livers took off in a full sprint, out-running two of them.
When he saw the fourth defender stop the ball and the fifth bolt towards junior guard Eli Brooks in the corner, he angled himself toward the basket. Livers then kicked his speed into top gear, reeling in a chest pass from Simpson in stride, reaching the paint without putting the ball on the deck.
Against Creighton, Livers showed no hesitation in running alongside Brooks following his steal. Seeing that Brooks was drifting towards the opposite wing, Livers correctly filled the lane, creating an angle that made it easy for Brooks to float an alley-oop pass. When both defenders committed to Brooks, Livers was left all alone for the two-handed slam.
With the NBA’s emerging emphasis on transition 3-pointers in recent years, Howard has given his team the green light to let uncontested looks fly. Livers, in particular, has taken advantage. Even when Simpson slows down the pace in transition, Livers still hunts for his own shot.
While the thunderous dunks against Saginaw Valley State stand out, Livers was just as effective at slower speeds. When the ball began ahead of him, he often hung back and read the defense. If the Cardinals failed to communicate, which happened twice, he’d find an open spot along the arc and make them pay.
Delaying his transition from offense to defense until the ball crossed halfcourt forced the opposing defense to communicate as Simpson brought the ball up. Twice, miscommunitcation led to two defenders guarding the same player, leaving Livers open for a walk-up triple.
In the instances in which Livers doesn’t beat the defense to the rim or no passing angle presents itself, he still keeps himself in the play. About midway through the second half against Saginaw Valley State, two defenders converged on Simpson at halfcourt as Livers sprinted ahead of him. Simpson couldn’t find an angle to get him the ball, and with sophomore forwards Brandon Johns Jr. and Colin Castleton trailing a few steps behind him, Livers filled out to the corner.
The decision not only cleared some of the paint congestion for the driving Simpson and trailing forwards, but also created a new passing window for him to get the ball. When Livers’ defender remained in the paint to help stop Simpson, Livers was left alone in the corner for an uncontested 3-pointer. Simpson, a creative passer, made the mid-air hook pass to the corner look easy and Livers canned the triple.
Altogether, Livers’ ability to beat defenders down the floor, finish at the rim and knock down the long ball add value to a Michigan offense that lost its three leading scorers from a season ago. With prized freshman wing Franz Wagner still recovering from a fractured wrist, the Wolverines will continue to lean on Livers in transition.
As the schedule gets tougher over the next few weeks, Livers’ ability to score in transition may be the difference in a number of potential signature wins.