It’s fair to say that entering last season, Hunter Dickinson was slightly overlooked outside of Ann Arbor.
While the now-sophomore center was a four-star recruit, opposing teams instead keyed on stalwart senior forward Isaiah Livers and sophomore wing Franz Wagner, both of whom are now in the NBA, allowing Dickinson to quickly become the Michigan men’s basketball team’s star. He scored in double figures in each of the Wolverines’ first 11 games, highlighted by 28 points in a blowout of Minnesota.
“I wasn’t surprised that he had early success as a freshman,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said at Big Ten Media Day on Thursday. “I watched him closely in high school and how he was able to make plays being dealt with in the post and make the right pass on time on target. See an open man and not trying to do more, just wanting to make a winning play.”
Following his dominant early-season run, Dickinson had his fair share of struggles, often a result of opponents treating him as Michigan’s top option and throwing double teams at him. But the double team’s were only so effective, as the Wolverines easily combated them with their array of high-percentage 3-point shooters. Teams had to pick their poison, opening up more opportunities for Dickinson.
This year, though, nearly all of those perimeter threats are gone. Freshman wing Caleb Houstan and graduate transfer guard DeVante’ Jones should help, but they may not be reliable. As highly-touted as Houstan is, he’s still a freshman, while Jones struggled from deep early in his career before improving last year. Evidently, Dickinson’s job will be much more difficult this year. He’ll likely face consistent double teams.
But he’s prepared for that.
“Double teams aren’t really that fun, but coach Howard’s done a lot of working with me to just post up deep so they can’t bring the double team,” Dickinson said. “That’s always the best option, and then also just working on the face-up game, opening up, seeing the floor.”
This offseason, Dickinson also worked to diversify his game. After testing the NBA Draft waters and receiving feedback from scouts, a main focus of his was to improve his right hand. While teams will still hound him in the paint, a wider variety of post moves and counter moves should make it more difficult for defenders.
“I feel like I’m trusting it more,” Dickinson said. “I’m still not where I want to be with it in terms of trusting it, but I’ve definitely gotten a lot better and I think by the time the season starts, it’ll be something that I use regularly.”
Potentially most important for the Wolverines, though, is his goal of becoming an outside scoring threat. Not only will it create more opportunities for Dickinson, but if teams are forced to respect his shot, it will space the floor and open up the paint for other players.
“It opens up the floor a lot because then the big has to honor Hunter so he can’t stay as long, or they have to rotate so it creates closeouts,” graduate guard Eli Brooks said. “When people are struggling, it’s easier to score.”
If Dickinson was treated as a star last year, this year he’ll be treated as a superstar. While Michigan brings in the second-ranked recruiting class in the country, the losses of Livers and Wagner mean that this is Dickinson’s team. And with the expectations that will be placed on the Wolverines’ this season — likely a preseason top-10 team and the favorite to win the Big Ten — he’ll face lots of pressure.
But if there’s anyone who can handle that, it’s Dickinson.
“I can play with fans booing me. I don’t really care,” Dickinson said. “I actually like it.
“It makes me play better.”