Take one look at Michigan’s depth chart, specifically the big men down low, and try not to shudder.
It’s an uneasy truth for Michigan fans: the Wolverines’ frontcourt options are downright inexperienced. There are just five of them, none of whom has stepped on the hardwood at the collegiate level. And those five — two redshirt freshmen and three true freshmen — will match up against some of the most formidable low-post talent in the nation.
The team’s depletion of big bodies obviously wasn’t planned. The coaching staff couldn’t have anticipated the career-ending hip surgery that seven-footer Ben Cronin underwent prior to last season, nor the abysmal all-around performance of last year’s squad, which eventually nudged Manny Harris toward the NBA a year early.
Still, Michigan coach John Beilein doesn’t appear overly concerned without an established force down low to start the season. His hope is that at least one player from this humble coalition of forwards will grow up quickly to become a reliable body in the frontcourt.
And he may just find his go-to guy in redshirt freshman Blake McLimans, a 6-foot-10 power forward from Worcester, Massachusetts.
When McLimans was recruited, he had nearly all the qualities of an elite Division-I forward — he worked the post effectively, floated to the perimeter to drain mid-range jumpers and the occasional three-pointer and averaged a remarkable nine rebounds and five blocked shots per game at Hamburg H.S. in New York (where he played for three years before moving to Worcester).
He resembled a young Dirk Nowitzki.
“Dirk’s obviously my favorite player,” McLimans said last month. “I guess I can see myself playing like him, working the inside and outside. I’ve played a few three-on-three tournaments in Buffalo, and people called me Dirk’s brother.”
But there was one significant difference between McLimans and Nowitzki — bulk.
When McLimans arrived on campus in 2009, he weighed in at a mere 215 pounds. Scouts labeled him skinny, lanky and awkward — not the typical adjectives used to describe a future starter in the Big Ten. Small-framed bodies wouldn’t bode well against such premier forces down low as Purdue’s JaJuan Johnson, Michigan State’s Draymond Green and Illinois’s Mike Tisdale.
But after a year of matching up against All-Big Ten stars in Harris and DeShawn Sims every practice and a grueling offseason during which he put on nearly 25 pounds of muscle, McLimans may be ready for those key matchups.
“Blake’s made great strides,” Beilein said at Big Ten Media Day in Chicago last Thursday. “He’s getting the body of a 6-foot-10 center in the Big Ten. (He) still has not had enough experience with the lights on for us really to know what to expect … but he’s got a really nice outside shot that could help us spread the floor.”
And to complement his shot, McLimans will be paired with a solid talent underneath in Detroit-native Jordan Morgan, a 6-foot-8, 240-pound redshirt freshman who averaged more than 10 rebounds a game in high school.
Morgan will be expected to make his presence felt in the key when McLimans drifts outside.
“Jordan and I go at it in practice every day,” McLimans said. “He makes me better, and I make him better. Even though we’re competing for time, we definitely encourage each other because it’s all about the team.”
It seems like a perfect match for the Beilein system, which puts a high premium on shooting — Morgan will flex his muscles in the paint, allowing McLimans to show off his outside shot, as well as some finesse in the post.
That’s at least the ideal scenario for the Wolverines. With such a young corps of forwards, nobody — not even the coaching staff — can offer a confident prediction of what will work and what wont.
But early on, don’t be surprised if it’s the relatively unknown McLimans who starts turning heads.