With the first quarter of the regular season coming to a close, the Michigan men’s basketball team sits at a modest 5-3 record. Junior center Hunter Dickinson is doing Hunter Dickinson things, leading the team in both points and rebounds. Freshman wing Jett Howard has lived up to the hype and emerged as a dynamic scorer, becoming the Wolverines’ clear second option.
But still, Michigan struggles.
Those struggles can be largely attributed to subpar performances from graduate guard Jaelin Llewellyn and freshman guard Dug McDaniel — the two players who most frequently serve as primary ball handlers for the Wolverines.
“(Llewellyn)’s our point guard and coach expects a lot out of him,” junior forward Terrance Williams II said Nov. 11. “He’s played a lot of minutes at Princeton as well, so he has valuable experience coming here as a transfer. He (was in the) Ivy League so he’s a very smart, high-IQ player.”
Llewellyn’s high basketball IQ is one of his most reliable contributions to Michigan, and it shows in his 2.44 assist-to-turnover ratio. However, Llewellyn often opts for an uber-safe approach, looking to minimize mistakes by playing conservatively.
Averaging 15.7 points at Princeton last season, Llewellyn doesn’t look to score the basketball as aggressively at Michigan. He’s tied for the least amount of field goal attempts among the Wolverine starters, and he has attempted fewer 3-pointers than every starter except Dickinson.
And on the rare occasion that Llewellyn does turn his sights towards the basket, he has a hard time finding the mark. Averaging seven points per game while shooting 30.9% from the field, 18.5% from three and 68% from the free throw line, Llewellyn is anything but efficient.
On the bright side for Michigan, though, Llewellyn started to shake his scoring woes against Kentucky on Sunday. He looked to the basket with a level of aggressiveness and athleticism he hadn’t yet shown in the maize and blue. However, Llewellyn left the game in the second half with a knee injury, and what could’ve been a breakout game instead ended with him on the bench.
“(I) know nothing right now,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said of Llewellyn’s injury Dec. 4. “We’ll get back home and have our doctors take a look at it and then we’ll go from there.”
Without Llewellyn, the Wolverines kept McDaniel in at the point for most of the second half against Kentucky. While Llewellyn is Michigan’s go-to guard in crunch time, McDaniel was tasked with filling that role.
Though it wasn’t for a lack of effort, McDaniel struggled defensively against the Wildcats’ guards. Whether it was getting cut on or ran off screens, McDaniel couldn’t consistently keep up — sometimes allowing an easy basket. When asked about McDaniel’s performance against Kentucky, Juwan was mum:
“Great. Fantastic. Dug being our next man up.”
McDaniel, similar to Llewellyn, has also struggled with scoring the rock. Shooting an inefficient 34.1% from the field and 27.3% from deep, McDaniel hasn’t been the multi-dimensional threat on the offensive end the Wolverines need — especially in games like Sunday’s against Kentucky, where Jett struggled with foul trouble and Michigan needed a perimeter threat.
Where McDaniel shows signs of promise on offense is as a passer. He has the ability to make passes that few in the NCAA can, but sometimes his up-tempo pace can hurt the Wolverines.
Excluding his standout performance against Pittsburgh on Nov. 16 — in which he tallied a season-high eight assists — McDaniel has notched more turnovers than assists on the season. When he gets going too fast, he doesn’t always make the right play.
“As I keep playing games, the games tend to slow down,” McDaniel said after Michigan beat the Panthers. “I tend to get more mature.”
Although his game against Pitt was encouraging, McDaniel needs to prove that it wasn’t a fluke. That the game is slowing down, and that he is becoming more mature.
And with Llewellyn suffering an injury, leaving the Wolverines’ already lackluster point guard rotation shorthanded, there’s no better time for McDaniel to prove that than now.
While Dickinson and Jett have kept Michigan afloat early in the season, McDaniel and Llewellyn both have to clock better performances if the Wolverines want to stay above water going forward.