In Thursday’s resounding victory over Maryland, freshman center Hunter Dickinson again stole the headlines with an overpowering 26-point, 11-rebound performance.
Yet at the helm of the Michigan men’s basketball team’s offensive clinic stood graduate transfer guard Mike Smith, playing in just his eighth game as a Wolverine.
“I think today I definitely felt more comfortable,” Smith said after the game. “I think as days go on and I start to get to know everybody, and Coach starts to get to know how I play — the tendencies that I have — I think I’m feeling more comfortable, for sure.”
Entering the season, Smith recognized that he would face an adjustment as an up-transfer, having spent the previous four seasons in the Ivy League. The rigors of the Big Ten are notoriously arduous and this year is proving to be no exception, with nine Big Ten teams earning spots in this past week’s AP Top 25 rankings.
Just as challenging would be acclimating to a new role. At Columbia, Smith was the offense. He posted a ridiculous 33.8% usage rate in his final season there, which ranked just outside the top-10 amongst all players. He also led the Ivy League in both field goals attempted, with 19.3 per game, and points, averaging 22.8 per game.
At Michigan, Smith projected as more of an orchestrator and less of a scorer. So far, he’s excelled in a complementary role.
“I’m for sure capable of doing that every trip down,” Smith said of scoring. “If you go back and look at the Columbia stats, you know I can do it. But that’s just not what we need here. It’s about sharing the ball and playing together.
“And if we need it, I will for sure do it. It’s just about time and score, and if nobody gets a shot and the ball gets back to me, just make a shot for the team, take a good shot. … Coach has confidence in me and the team has confidence in me, so why not do it when we need it?”
This year, as anticipated, Smith’s numbers are down. His usage rate is barely half of what it was last season. He is attempting just 6.1 field goals per game and averaging 9.1 points per game, tied for fifth-highest on the team.
Michigan’s offense, though, has hardly missed a beat following the graduation of Zavier Simpson, one of the most ball-dominant players in all of college basketball last season. According to KenPom, the Wolverines’ have the eighth-best offense in the country.
A significant portion of the success can surely be attributed to Smith. Michigan’s performance against the Terrapins, where the Wolverines posted 84 points even as Maryland held senior forward Isaiah Livers to a lone field goal, underscored Smith’s importance. On a team with this much offensive talent, he doesn’t have to score every game so long as he dictates the game’s flow.
“(Smith) has done a very good job, really integrating himself into our system,” assistant coach Saddi Washington told reporters during a Zoom call on Saturday. “It can sometimes be tough with a grad-transfer, knowing that they really only have one year to get it done. But that process started way back in May and June with how we tried to build our culture and how coach Juwan (Howard) was really intentional about making sure this year’s team identity was always team first.”
Needless to say, Smith has fit the bill. He leads the team with 41 assists, 11 more than senior guard Eli Brooks, who has the next highest total.
For Smith, fitting into this new identity is a balancing act. He’s had to search for a happy medium between the style of play he’s grown accustomed to and the one he’s been asked to play at Michigan.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily reinventing myself, I think it’s just applying new techniques to my game and adjusting to the team,” Smith said. “And I think I’ve been trying to figure it out and I think I am figuring it out. Coach is instilling the confidence in me that I need and I’m just out there playing the game that I love the way that I know to play the game.”
Smith has looked increasingly at home in his new role and new system. On Christmas Day against Nebraska, he notched 10 points, five rebounds and six assists. He topped that outing with a 16 point, six rebound and six assist outing at Maryland on New Year’s Eve. In both games, he displayed some of his best stretches in his young Michigan career.
“The biggest step that I saw is he’s looking for his shot now instead of being passive,” Brooks said. “That’s allowing him to get more people open by being more decisive with his moves and going to score, and then when that’s not there, finding the open man. I think early on he was just trying to run the offense and now I think he’s finding his ways of where he’s gonna score in the different sets, which is allowing him to have more assists, more points.”
That’s the type of growth Michigan was certainly hoping to see out of Smith as the season progressed. Yet with up-transfers, taking the next step is never a sure thing.
Smith, though, has slid in seamlessly.
“It’s been working,” Smith said. “So if it’s not broke, then why would you fix it?”
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