Think back to August.
Hunter Dickinson is still three long months away from establishing himself as one of college basketball’s household names. For now, Michigan’s 7-foot-1 freshman center is nothing but an enigma.
Mike Jones, though, knows what to expect.
Jones, 19 seasons into his tenure as the head coach at DeMatha Catholic, has transformed the program into a perennial high school basketball powerhouse. As the school’s all-time winningest coach, he is no stranger to premier talent, having coached the likes of Victor Oladipo, Jerami Grant and Markelle Fultz.
To Jones, though, there’s an element of Dickinson’s game that sets him apart from other graduates of DeMatha’s pipeline.
“When the bright lights come on, Hunter’s there,” Jones told The Daily before the season. “He’s a big-game player who thrives in that environment.”
Now, Dickinson has an opportunity to prove so on the sport’s biggest stage.
Saturday afternoon, first-seeded Michigan will embark on what it hopes will be a lengthy run through the NCAA Tournament. And at the core of the Wolverines’ success is their man in the middle, Dickinson. The Big Ten Freshman of the Year averages a team-high 14.2 points per game and recently secured second-team All-American honors.
Dickinson’s days of anonymity, fleeting as they were, are squarely in the past.
The centerpiece of Michigan’s roster, his importance is only amplified by the absence of senior forward Isaiah Livers, the Wolverines’ third-leading scorer and captain, who is out indefinitely with a stress fracture in his foot.
To fulfill its championship aspirations, Michigan needs Dickinson, in his first NCAA Tournament, to carry the freight. That’s a heavy burden to place on a freshman’s shoulders, but Dickinson is hardly concerned.
“I think I’d be lying if not every single player in that locker room fully believes that we are the best team in the country and that we will win the national championship,” Dickinson said on Saturday, just minutes after Michigan slogged through a loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament semifinal. “If you go into the NCAA Tournament thinking that you’re gonna lose, then you’re gonna lose. It’s on the back of our shooting shirts, ‘For competitors only.’ ”
That brashness may rub some the wrong way. But those privy to the behind-the-scenes aspects of Dickinson’s ascent know the confidence he exudes is both genuine and warranted.
It finds its roots in a tireless summer.
Every now and then, Armando Bacot flips the channel to Michigan. When he does, he can’t help but marvel at what he sees.
Bacot first met Dickinson in seventh grade and the duo were teammates on Team Takeover in the AAU circuit. Back then, Dickinson resembled a shell of his current-self.
“The main thing at an early age was he was just so unathletic,” Bacot, now a forward at UNC, remembered with a laugh. “With bigger guys, it takes us a little longer to come into our bodies. We both always had high skill, but we just weren’t athletic at all.”
That is no longer the case. Part of the evolution comes with time, a byproduct of maturation. The rest, Bacot maintains, is a result of Dickinson’s relentless drive.
Last season, Bacot and UNC faced Michigan in the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament in November. He saw firsthand how the Wolverines utilized 7-foot-1 Jon Teske and thought of Dickinson — who, at the time, had whittled his college choice down to Duke, Florida State, Notre Dame and Michigan.
“I’m like, ‘I think Hunter could be even more skilled than (Teske) coming in,’ ” Bacot said. “So I was just telling Hunter, ‘Yo, you’re in a great position at Michigan and Juwan Howard, he’s a good coach, too. Just come in ready, and you don’t have to prepare yourself to be ready. Come in ready.’ ”
This past summer, Dickinson took the initiative.
He trained alongside former Maryland center Jalen Smith, a rookie on the Phoenix Suns, and Iowa’s Luka Garza, the odds-on favorite to win the Wooden Award as the nation’s best collegiate player. Each are alumni of Team Takeover, united through the tutelage of Takeover coach Keith Stevens.
The trio participated in a revolving door of 1-on-1 games, picking each other’s brains on everything from post-work to outside shooting. In these workouts, Dickinson’s transformation began.
“Hunter has always been a force, everybody knows that,” Smith, who met Dickinson at 16, said. “Every year Hunter improves at something, and this year it was honestly just him being more physical with everybody. He’s always been physical, but the fact of him saying, ‘OK, I’m gonna dominate everybody and not take any prisoners with it.’ ”
In an era of basketball infatuated with 3-point shooting, Dickinson stands as somewhat of a rare breed. While Jones raves about his outside stroke, Dickinson has buried that skill in his back pocket. Unlike many of his counterparts, he recognizes where his greatest strength lies.
Smith, a wiry big at 6-foot-10 and 215 pounds, bore the brunt of that strength, Dickinson’s physicality. “Withstanding those hits, that was the toughest part,” he says.
A two-year standout for the Terrapins, Smith had already found success at the collegiate level, and he knew that Dickinson’s “no prisoners” mentality boded well for the future.
“People start to realize how much of a dominant force you are, and they kinda start to back away and shy away from playing you,” Smith said. “Once you get that motive in people’s heads, you can easily be successful in that league.”
Much is made about Juwan Howard’s role in Dickinson’s evolution, for good reason. Dickinson is at Michigan in large part due to Howard and the allure of learning from a 19-year NBA veteran. There’s no doubt that Howard, already creating a reputation for himself as a big man whisperer, has been instrumental in Dickinson’s progression.
But so has Jon Sanderson.
Sanderson, a part of Michigan’s staff since 2009, is one of the nation’s preeminent strength and conditioning coaches. His offseason bootcamp, dubbed “Camp Sanderson,” is lore amongst Wolverines past and present.
On their official visit to Ann Arbor in September 2019, the Dickinson family stressed the importance of Dickinson’s physical development, according to Sanderson. Nine months later, the process began.
“My initial thought after evaluating him when he showed up on campus in late June (2020) was he had a lot of areas that needed development,” Sanderson said, adding a chuckle. “Do I think he would’ve passed our conditioning test in July? No.”
And so the pair got to work.
Sanderson curated a regimen that stressed lower body strength, core integrity, scapular strength, mobility, stability — you get the point. They left no stone unturned. “Polishing his body,” Sanderson put it.
From June to November, Dickinson added eight to ten pounds of lean muscle to what is now a 255-pound frame. The newfound strength produced a two-pronged effect. Beyond the consequence of sheer muscle, increased strength accelerated Dickinson’s development on the conditioning front.
“Stronger athletes produce more force and can do more work and can handle sustained, 5-10 minutes without much breaks,” Sanderson said. “They can just do more. That work we do in the weight room of developing that pure, raw strength all plays into making a more conditioned athlete.”
Dickinson’s conditioning constituted a question mark at the beginning of the season. No one quite knew what he would be capable of, minutes-wise.
Line drills, up-and-down activities, climbers and battle-rope circuits all helped boost Dickinson’s threshold. In just his second game, he scored 19 points in 26 minutes, carrying Michigan to an overtime victory over Oakland and alleviating those apprehensions.
Each game, Sanderson sees Dickinson’s summer workouts translate to his on-court performance. There are obvious metrics — like his ability to handle 25.6 minutes per game, a figure that would likely be higher without recurring foul trouble — and more subtle ones, too.
Take the added core strength, for instance. Over the summer, Sanderson ordered a patio awning on Amazon and constructed an artificial mesh ceiling with a height of 6-foot-6. Underneath, Dickinson performed his drills, the awning forcing him to stay low in his stab-stance, crouching to 6-foot-5 or 6-foot-4.
“When a guard comes off a ball screen, he’s gotta contain, kinda jab at him a little bit,” Sanderson, who provided The Daily with the above video, explained. “Get them off. That’s what he’s doing, why he’s kinda poking at the guy. So he’s trying to get that guy off balance and hesitant, and then he’s gotta retreat back to his guy.”
A drill like this, one that establishes a lower center of gravity, pays regular dividends. No longer is ball-screen defense a concern. Dickinson is capable of pestering guards on switches, affording his teammate time to recover.
His low base also allows him to stifle the Big Ten’s behemoths, including the seemingly unstoppable Garza, whom he limited to 16 points on 6-of-19 shooting back in February.
“In high school sometimes, playing against bigger guys he would sometimes get off-balance,” Bacot said. “But I feel like getting stronger and growing into his body has allowed him to not be out-matched by anybody. And he gets really good position in the post now.”
It goes without saying that the evolution wouldn’t have happened without Dickinson’s drive. His work ethic lies in the top-tier amongst all the athletes that Sanderson has ever worked with.
So, as Dickinson readies for his first trip to the NCAA Tournament, the weight of a team on his back, there’s not much preparation left to do.
The hardest part is already behind him.
“All that ties together to see the product that you guys see everyday,” Sanderson said. “He’s come a long way.”