As a high-school sophomore, Mark Donnal sat down with Bryan Borcherdt, a longtime coach and family friend, to discuss his future prospects.
Borcherdt asked Donnal a simple question: How do you envision your future?
The coach saw a 6-foot-9 prospect who could run, shoot and defend, one with the potential to succeed at the highest level. For some reason, Donnal saw something different.
“I remember him looking at me, saying, ‘Maybe a mid-major?’ ” Borcherdt said. “I don’t think he realized.”
Donnal may not have been aware of his potential then, but his abilities soon became obvious and unavoidable.
That potential was never more apparent than on June 15, 2011, when Borcherdt let a call he never expected to receive go to voicemail. He had since been hired as the head coach at Anthony Wayne High School in Monclova, Ohio, and was engrossed in running a summer youth basketball camp, too busy for the unrecognized number on the other end.
When Borcherdt checked his messages a few hours later, he saw the call might have been worth taking after all. Waiting in his voicemail was a brief greeting from Chris Collins, then an assistant coach at Duke and now the head coach at Northwestern. Collins wanted to speak with Anthony Wayne’s budding star in the low post: Mark Donnal.
The Blue Devils had come calling for a player who had thought, albeit fleetingly, his potential more closely corresponded to a program like Toledo or Bowling Green. But upon consulting with Donnal, then a rising junior at Anthony Wayne, Borcherdt could only smile. Duke was too late.
As it happened, June 15, 2011, was also the day Donnal committed to play for Michigan and for John Beilein.
“Mark said, ‘Tell them I’m a Wolverine,’ ” Borcherdt recalled.
It was a day Donnal never could have envisioned, even during his check-in with Borcherdt a season before.
In that year, Donnal morphed from a player who didn’t think he had a shot to play in the Big Ten to a player comfortable enough in his destination — Ann Arbor — to turn away interest from a program that had won the national championship the year before.
Donnal says the decision seems stranger now than it did four years ago. Turning down any level of interest from Duke simply seemed like the natural thing to do at the time, and he has never regretted the decision not to pursue Collins’ interest, saying he was “locked in” at Michigan.
It’s not that Donnal had a crisis in confidence. It’s simply that those around him assumed, perhaps too optimistically, that he knew his true potential. In the end, Borcherdt and the other influences in Donnal’s life needed to spell things out more explicitly. They told Donnal he was destined for a successful program in a Power Five conference, not a run-of-the-mill Midwestern mid-major.
“Just to hear somebody express that level of confidence in me was huge,” Donnal said of his early-career conversation with Borcherdt. “I think that was something of a turning point.”
Borcherdt was eventually proven right. Donnal is averaging 10.2 points per game in Big Ten play this season and has embraced his role as a big man who can rebound, take charges and play defense, even against players who dwarf him in the low post.
Donnal’s junior-year emergence, however, was difficult to predict. He spent his freshman season redshirting, working to build strength and size so he could contend in a conference where big men take a beating.
The work paid off, at least in the short term. Donnal began his sophomore season as Michigan’s starter at the ‘5’ position, but struggled in the early going and quickly lost the job to true freshman Ricky Doyle.
This year, Donnal once again began the season as Michigan’s starter, but once again, his early-season performance wasn’t enough to keep Doyle out of the starting five.
Donnal scored just 3.4 points per game that season, serving as a jarring symbol of the Wolverines’ lackluster year, in which they finished 16-16 and missed the postseason entirely — all on the heels of an Elite Eight appearance during Donnal’s first year and a Final Four run the season before.
Playing time came inconsistently for Donnal last season, especially as Doyle excelled in the early season and Max Bielfeldt came on strong toward the end. Donnal played 15 minutes or more just seven times, leaving him far short of where he’d hoped to be after his year on the bench.
To add insult to injury, Michigan announced at the beginning of the 2015-16 season that Donnal had been reclassified from a redshirt sophomore to a junior, meaning that a potential fifth year would have to be earned, not assumed.
“There are really two directions people can go when they’re frustrated,” said Donnal’s brother Andrew, a former offensive lineman at Iowa who currently plays for the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams. “Some people introvert. They go inside, they kind of clam up. Other guys come out, and that’s definitely Mark. He definitely excels in his game when things aren’t good.”
Determined to not let his sophomore season repeat itself, the younger Donnal did exactly that, punctuating an early-season comeback with a 26-point outburst at Illinois on Dec. 30.
That performance harkened back to a similarly defining moment during Donnal’s high-school days. His AAU squad, the Indiana Elite, traveled to Bloomington in May 2011 to face a team featuring three future college stars: Indiana’s James Blackmon Jr., Xavier’s Trevon Blueitt and current Utah Jazz forward Trey Lyles, who left for the NBA last year after his freshman season at Kentucky.
Donnal was unfazed.
“Mark kicked the living hell out of them,” said Dan Dakich, the current ESPN analyst and former assistant at Indiana, who coached the Elite at the time. “He tore up Trey Lyles in Assembly Hall when those kids were sophomores and juniors.”
Donnal’s 23 points paced the Elite, and his block of Blueitt’s buzzer-beating shot attempt sealed the 78-77 upset.
“I think there are definitely parallels,” Donnal said, comparing the AAU performance to the breakout game in Champaign. “Both were huge confidence boosters.”
After the Illinois game, Donnal said, he felt as if a weight had been lifted from his back. On the court, the difference in his confidence is palpable, especially in games when he’s forced head to head with some of the country’s elite interior players, like Maryland’s Diamond Stone or Purdue’s A.J. Hammons. Donnal seems to be in the right place at the right time far more often, and after fighting off a bout of early-season foul trouble, he’s playing vertical defense and rebounding against 7-footers, keying the Wolverines’ upsets of then-No. 18 Purdue on Feb. 13 and No. 3 Maryland on Jan. 12.
It’s similar to the process that took place after the early-high school conversation with Borcherdt, after which Donnal says he was more able to embrace his ability to excel. Playing with the mentality of a player who can excel at Michigan, Donnal says, has been a similar process, one that seems to be nearing its final stages.
Confidence, though, is hardly the only aspect of Donnal’s emotional profile that has changed since high school, when many close to Donnal say he needed to be angry to play his best.
“I told John Beilein, and I told Jeff Meyer when they were recruiting him, look, you can’t be nice to Mark,” Dakich said. “If you were nice to Mark, that was a problem. Because if you want him to be angry, you need to be angry.”
Donnal chalks that up to “high-school Mark,” saying Dakich’s assessment rang more true in high school than it does now.
“Coach Dakich was always good about letting me know there’s another gear,” Donnal said. “The coaching staff here is the same way. I don’t know if it’s necessarily about a need to be frustrated, but they definitely let me know there’s always another level.”
Regardless of whether he plays to that level, Donnal displays little emotion during games, especially compared to teammates like Spike Albrecht or Zak Irvin.
Donnal prefers to do his talking on the court, and whether he’s getting stonewalled or playing the game of his career, that’s the way things have always been. The quiet on-court persona, however, isn’t necessarily intentional.
“It’s not necessarily that I prefer to fly under the radar,” Donnal said. “It’s just that I haven’t spent that much time in the spotlight.”
If there’s anybody who knows how Donnal behaves when he’s frustrated, it’s Andrew, who claims to hold an advantage over his younger brother in a one-on-one driveway basketball series that now dates back more than a decade.
“Everything was a competition,” Andrew said. “Who could drink their drink the fastest, who could eat dinner the fastest. We loved going in the driveway and playing basketball and beating up on each other.”
Mark disputes his brother’s claim that he was at a disadvantage in their sibling rivalry, three-year age gap notwithstanding. The two have obvious strengths and weaknesses. Mark, a willowy 6 foot 9, has a body better suited for basketball; Andrew’s stocky, 6-foot-6 frame is suited better to the duties of an NFL offensive lineman.
As Andrew recalled, a loss in the driveway used to generate roughly the same emotional response — outwardly, anyway — as a win at Crisler Center does today.
Mark agrees that he’s not one to clue somebody into his emotional state or his mind’s inner workings unless they’re in his inner circle to begin with. Donnal is as reserved when speaking to the media as he was before he was a starter averaging double-digit scoring totals, and rarely lets his frustration after a loss — or, for that matter, his elation after a win — show.
Andrew, of course, is a member of that inner circle, and Mark hasn’t hesitated to use his older brother as a resource, especially given their similar experiences as Big Ten athletes. Andrew also redshirted his freshman year, and though the hiatus was more expected for a developing offensive lineman than for a basketball player, he made sure to discuss the proper mentality for a year off during Mark’s freshman season.
“A lot of guys are physically ready and have the skill set out of high school,” Andrew said. “And it’s not that Mark didn’t — I just think that for him to be able to compete better in the Big Ten, he did need to get bigger and stronger. I just told him that it can be frustrating, because you’re the only one that’s gonna be redshirting. All the other freshmen he came in with were going to be playing.”
To add to the frustration, one of those classmates — junior guard Zak Irvin — made 3-point shooting his ticket to playing time during his freshman campaign. Donnal, known as much for his shooting ability as with anything else during high school, was forced to learn quickly that as a ‘5’ at Michigan, he wouldn’t get the perimeter looks he enjoyed in high school.
“In our league, in our area, having a 6-foot-9 player, I’d have been foolish to not have him in the post,” Borcherdt said of Donnal’s inside-out game in high school, when he dealt with the same dilemma.
Beilein has spoken similarly of Donnal’s transition, saying he likely came to Michigan assuming 3-point shooting would be his meal ticket. Michigan, in its media guides last season, even dubbed Doyle “The Rim Rocker” and Donnal “The Shooter.”
Donnal prefers the simpler set of nicknames bestowed upon the pair by assistant coach Bacari Alexander: “Thunder” and “Lightning.”
In his renaissance, Donnal has learned to play more like Thunder, showing off the type of competitiveness Andrew remembers from him as a child.
“He is emotional, but he’s emotional in his own way,” Andrew Donnal said. “He’s not outgoing, he’s not a hoo-rah guy — he’s a guy who’s going to come to work every day and do his job and not make a fuss about it.”
Donnal has certainly never made a fuss — not when Beilein told him he’d be redshirting his freshman year, or when Doyle beat him out for the starting job last season, or when it seemed for a two-week stretch this year that recent history had repeated itself.
Now carrying the confidence of a Big Ten big man, Donnal seems ready to carry the load down low for the Wolverines, doing whatever’s asked for a team still reeling from two season-long injuries impacting its two senior stars and struggling to stay afloat.
For that responsibility, Donnal finally seems ready. “High-school Mark,” as Donnal put it, might be surprised.