Two-hundred-and-sixty-one days have passed since the Michigan men’s basketball team last hit the hardwood. With Wednesday’s season opener against Bowling Green imminent, that streak will finally be snapped.
After an offseason of roster turnover, this year’s team features a different complexion than last year’s group. Senior stalwarts Zavier Simpson and Jon Teske graduated, leaving gaping holes in the process. Three players transferred out of the program, while two more transferred in. Four freshmen, too, enter the fold.
In advance of the 2020-21 season, The Daily breaks down the odds and ends of the Wolverines’ roster.
Last season, Michigan’s offense was predicated on Simpson’s role as the floor general. To fill the cosmic void he leaves behind, the Wolverines will turn to a crop of ball-handlers rather than a single ball-dominant player. And without Simpson, there are more questions than answers.
Senior Eli Brooks will be more of a facilitator after predominantly flanking Simpson as the ‘2’ guard last year. Though Brooks initially came to Michigan as a point guard, Simpson’s stronghold on the position ushered him off-ball, a role in which he flourished: Brooks emerged as one of the premier perimeter defenders in the Big Ten and knocked down three-pointers at a 36% clip.
It remains to be seen whether Brooks can operate as a lead ball-handler in Juwan Howard’s ball-screen heavy system, or whether his defensive prowess will translate to the point guard position. Simpson, by comparison, sacrificed a portion of his defensive efficacy to expand his role on offense. But Brooks showed flashes of success guarding the point guard spot last season, as he was tasked with guarding the likes of Cassius Winston.
Mike Smith, a graduate transfer by way of Columbia, enters the season as somewhat of an enigma. An adept shot-creator and skilled offensive player, leading the Ivy League in scoring with 22.8 points per game, Smith’s efficiency was suspect — he topped the conference with 19.3 field goal attempts per game. His status as a high-volume scorer, though, was largely a product of Columbia’s depleted roster and he will likely handle a blend of on- and off-ball duties at Michigan. It’s important to take Smith’s gaudy numbers with a grain of salt. In transferring from a mid-major to the Big Ten, he’ll have to acclimate to a stark uptick in competition, which necessitates a learning curve.
A third and equally intriguing option at point guard is Zeb Jackson, an explosive 6-foot-5 freshman. It’s unknown how college-ready Jackson is, and the unorthodox offseason certainly did him no favors. Still, there are minutes to be had in the backcourt. While he learns the ropes of Howard’s system, it’s likely that Jackson, who projects as a combo guard, spends most of his time off-ball.
Largely forgotten in the backcourt picture is junior Adrien Nunez, who enters a make-or-break season following a pair of lackluster campaigns. Long billed as a 3-point marksman, Nunez has yet to see his expertise carry over into gameplay, shooting just 21% from deep in his Michigan career. While he began last season in the starting lineup, Nunez quickly saw his role evaporate. If he is to reclaim minutes, he’ll have to not only reassert his shooting prowess, but also shore up his defense, which has long been a work in progress.
In sophomore Franz Wagner and the senior duo of Isaiah Livers and Chaundee Brown, the Wolverines boast one of the top trios of wings in all of college basketball.
Livers returns to Michigan for one last ride after flirting with the NBA Draft over the offseason. His junior campaign was derailed by nagging injuries — first a groin pull, then a twisted ankle — but he vaulted the Wolverines into another dimension when healthy. Lethal in the open-court and an exceptional spot-up shooter from deep, Livers notched 12.9 points per game, tied for a team-high. In the past, Simpson masked some of Livers’ deficiencies — namely off-the-dribble playmaking. This year, he’ll be asked to further expand his offensive arsenal and do more on his own.
The same will be asked of Wagner, who oozes potential. Hampered by a broken wrist in the beginning portion of last season, Wagner hit his stride in Big Ten play. Across Michigan’s final 12 contests, he averaged 13.3 points per game, becoming the team’s most dependable scorer. This season, Wagner will look to discover his three-point stroke after shooting just 31% from beyond the arc last season. Those around the program are confident that Wagner, heralded as a pure shooter, will integrate outside shooting into his repertoire and become all-the-more potent in the process.
When Brown, a Wake Forest transfer, was ruled eligible in October, Michigan’s forwards went from formidable to frightening. A three-year starter in the ACC, Brown is known for his versatility, possessing the requisite physicality and athleticism to play multiple positions on both sides of the ball. Brown predominantly saw minutes as the ‘3’ and the ‘4’ with the Demon Deacons, but may see an increased role as the ‘2’ this year alongside Livers and Wagner. Most prolific when playing downhill and attacking the basket, Brown also focused on improving his ball-handling and 3-point shooting in the offseason.
Rounding out the wings is a pair of freshmen who figure to play more decisive roles in future seasons. Terrance Williams, a top-100 recruit whom Howard flipped from Georgetown, is an inside-out, 6-foot-7 forward and potential versatile piece. So far, Williams has worked closely with Livers, who has taken the freshman under his wing Jace Howard, Juwan’s son, originally committed as a walk-on but switched to scholarship with Isaiah Todd’s decommitment in April.
Two-year starter Jon Teske played 28 minutes per game a year ago, leaving a Simpson-esque hole to be filled in the frontcourt.
Austin Davis, a revelation off the bench last season, returns for his fifth season and will be pressed into a more prominent role. What Davis lacks in range he makes up with efficiency, using an array of succinct post-moves to score at a 69% clip, the top mark on the team. Davis is an imposing presence on the defensive glass but struggles guarding big men who can stretch the floor and often gets into foul trouble.
Though Davis may start at the onset, freshman Hunter Dickinson will likely receive the lion’s share of minutes at the ‘5’ by season’s end. The crown jewel of the freshman class, Dickinson, a 7-foot-2, 250 pound behemoth, is a bruising center who embraces his size and physicality in his playstyle. He is also capable of playing outside the paint, possessing a soft-touch from midrange and, like Davis, is adept in the ball-screen game. Throughout the offseason, he has drawn rave reviews from teammates and coaches. Translating the hype into tangible results will prove vital to Michigan’s success.
The wild card at center is junior Brandon Johns Jr., who conceivably could have been lumped into the forwards grouping. If he is to receive significant minutes, though, they’re bound to come as a small-ball center. Few players have been lost in the shuffle more so than Johns, who is buried behind Livers, Wagner and probably Brown on the depth chart. He has shown tantalizing flashes — a 20-point outburst against Rutgers last January comes to mind — but hasn’t developed any sort of consistency. Michigan deployed Johns at center in spurts last season, and the experiment has continued in practice leading up to this season. Johns, who stands at 6-foot-8, enables the Wolverines to space the floor more so than Davis or Dickinson, with his athleticism potentially bringing a more modern look to the offense.
Replacing Simpson and Teske is a proposition easier said than done, but this roster certainly has the pieces in place to do so. Michigan will rely heavily on Livers and Wagner to score, and the impact of the newcomers — Smith, Brown and Dickinson — will dictate the Wolverines’ ceiling. At the very least, they should be competitive and find themselves in the upper-half of a crowded Big Ten playing field.
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