Tommy Amaker said he can’t figure it out.
Amaker’s best player right now — and maybe for the next two seasons — is Peyton Manning one game and Eli Manning the next.
Buried beneath the rubble of hurricane Disappointment — a Michigan basketball season full injuries, off-court distraction, losing streaks and walk-ons — are two versions of Dion Harris.
There’s the Illinois-Michigan State Dion Harris (43 total points) and the Minnesota-Ohio State Dion Harris (nine total points).
The difference: self-motivation.
Sometimes it’s there, sometimes it isn’t.
When it’s there, Harris excels offensively, hustles for balls and drives hard to the basket, inspiring teammates along the way. When it’s not, Michigan loses by double digits to teams like Boston University and Purdue, and that low-raspy voice accompanied by near-watery eyes is forced to explain itself.
Harris said in the games that he doesn’t play as well, he doesn’t compete as hard. What isn’t clear is if this is a conscious choice or a psych-out.
“I think it’s kind of both, but I think it’s a lot of him psyching himself out,” Dion’s mother, Rischon Harris, said
Dion’s mother said she has never seen her son play as unmotivated as he has, at times, this season.
“I can see there is no motivation (sometimes),” Rischon said. “I can see it all over him. I can tell the way he gets down the floor. I know right off the bat, he’s just thinking ‘It’s not working.’ ”
This season, Harris rode out the hurricane by staying in the eye. Injuries or legal trouble haven’t gotten in his way, unlike 10 of his teammates who’ve missed a combined 74 games. With last season’s two best players out — Daniel Horton because of suspension and injury and Lester Abram due to season-ending shoulder surgery — Amaker had no choice but to anchor the weight of the team on Harris’s back. There simply wasn’t another player on the roster capable of inspiring the team with his play. Graham Brown can motivate a teammate to dive for a loose ball, but not to score. And for a team averaging a conference worst 57 points per game, right now, it needs the net to dance more. The 2003 Michigan Mr. Basketball has the highest basketball IQ on this team; he’s got to lead every single game for Michigan to win again.
But with Horton and Abram out and the star-guard detail cut from three to one, Harris’s leadership was sparse and came in flurries, expiring too soon in games for a win to materialize. For much of the season, Michigan played without a leader.
While it appeared Amaker sat idly by scratching his head, he wasn’t.
A day after Michigan’s 64-53 loss to Michigan State three weeks ago, he brought in an AAU coach with NBA connections to critique Harris’s game. Much of it was extremely negative. The experience seemed to hurt more than it helped. Harris shot a combined 7-for-32 in the next three games.
“Dion’s not the type of person that’s going to listen to that,” Rischon said. “It has to be somebody that he trusts. It has to be somebody that he looks up to — that he feels can judge him overall. Even if I come at him in a negative way, he doesn’t want to talk. I learned not to criticize him because I know that you can’t get to Dion that way.”
Then, quite suddenly, something got to Dion. Whether or not it was a reported chat with Michigan football star Braylon Edwards about leadership, Harris was changed. Or, it could have been Rischon finally getting through to her son.
“When you start losing, thinking like that is going to affect you, you can’t think ‘win’ or ‘lose.’ You just have to think ‘play,’ ” Rischon said to Dion midway through Michigan’s current 10-game losing streak.
Sounds easy, but not for the mental complexity of a basketball star as sensitive as Dion, where the ebb and flow of the game affects how he plays, and, in turn, how his team plays.
In Michigan’s next two games, against No. 9 Michigan State and No. 1 Illinois, Amaker said Harris played like the best player on the court.
It wasn’t Amaker or a teammate that brought out Harris’s inspiring play; it all came from Harris himself.
“Against Illinois, I tried to let everything come to me, and I played harder than I had in previous games,” Harris said. “Finally, I just put my foot down and said ‘I have to lead the team, and everything starts with me.’ ”
Harris’s foot remains firmly planted. What began against Illinois has carried through the past three games. Harris finally got the leadership shoe to fit even though Michigan hasn’t been able to win games.
“When I’m out there leading, I understand that I’m one of the best scorers on the team,” Harris said. “I think when we need a basket, the whole team is looking at Dion.”
This wasn’t the case at the beginning of the season, even though Dion asked for it. Before the season, Amaker asked each player to write a paragraph about how he wanted to be remembered at the end of this season. Dion wrote he wanted to be the best player on the team.
Harris got his wish, but at a hefty price. On this team, Dion is a Ph.D. surrounded by undergrads.
Nobody questions the heart or effort of Harris’s teammates, but many question their talent.
If the frontcourt isn’t rebounding consistently, if Sherrod Harrell and Ron Coleman aren’t knocking down open 3-pointers and Dani Wohl and Ashtyn Bell are struggling to break the press, then just how much can Harris do? How can Harris remain motivated? Amaker and his teammates haven’t been able to figure that out.
Because it’s up to Dion, the self-draining battery.
What no one has figured out yet is if he can consciously control the level of motivation.
For right now Dion needs to keep taking mom’s advice. She seems like the best charger.
“You have two more years ahead of you, a lot can come out of two more years. So right now, you play to the best of your ability and go out there and enjoy yourself at the same time. If you stay frustrated, that is not going to help you out on that court … Just get it done. It will work.”
Eric Ambinder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.