Considering how often it’s played on the radio, it’s not surprising the words of Kanye West in “Stronger” struck a chord with redshirt freshman K’Len Morris.
The cliché chorus (“That that don’t kill me, can only make me stronger”) perfectly sums up what can only be described as a disastrous first year in Ann Arbor for the Grand Blanc native.
Just three weeks into the season, Morris went up for a dunk in practice and crashed to the floor awkwardly. It seemed like your standard Big Ten physicality, but turned into something far worse for the then-18 year old.
The diagnosis was a separated shoulder, and the original prognosis was for Morris to sit out three weeks. But weeks turned into months, and eventually the shoulder forced Michigan trainers to shut Morris down for the season.
“I hate sitting out, so sitting out for a year was hell for me,” Morris said. “I’ve never sat out for more than a couple days, whether it was for injury or just being really sick. It wasn’t a whole lot of fun to be around me.”
It got so bad for Morris, he went against doctor’s orders by going to Crisler Arena to shoot around while nobody was watching.
There was a silver lining in being forced to sneak around campus, though. The NCAA granted Morris a medical redshirt since his injury occurred so early in the season. Morris was unlikely to get significant minutes last year anyway because of his inexperience and the presence of veterans like Lester Abram and Ron Coleman.
Now, almost a year later, Morris is back and, he says, better than ever.
“I’m a lot stronger than I’ve ever been,” Morris said. “I think mentally, since I had to sit out for a year, I’m hungrier than I’ve ever been.”
The results on the court suggest the slashing wing may be onto something. Morris’s ability to play both guard positions and shoot the 3-pointer make him better suited for Michigan coach John Beilein’s offensive system than the motion-style offense run by former coach Tommy Amaker.
Beilein has already taken a liking to Morris’s style of play, starting the redshirt freshman for Michigan’s exhibition game against Ferris State last week.
“I think he’s going to benefit a lot from the new system because of the way he shoots the ball, the way he passes, the way he sees the game,” senior Ron Coleman said.
But glimpses on the practice court and performing in pressure-heavy situations are not the same.
For Michigan’s sake, it better hope Morris can “Touch the Sky” once again. But this time, the Wolverines need him to come down unscathed.
One month ago at Michigan Media Day, first-year coach John Beilein was asked which returning players would contribute this year.
The first words out of his mouth:
“A guy who has been real impressive so far is Jevohn Shepherd.”
Yes, that’s the Jevohn Shepherd who averaged fewer than two points per game in his two seasons at Michigan.
He’s the same player who shot 50 percent from the free-throw line through two years.
But under Beilein’s tutelage, Shepherd’s teammates have noticed a dramatic difference in the Toronto native’s game.
“I can tell he’s developed as a player mostly because of the new drills that coach Beilein brought in, like the new drills we’ve been doing and the skill work we’ve been doing,” senior Ron Coleman said.
Beilein emphasized shooting the most in his offseason workouts.
The new drills require players to shoot in all conditions – especially when they’re tired. Players at media day talked about Beilein’s drill in which players have to make 50 3-pointers in five minutes. Shepherd believes Beilein’s style of hard, smart practices has elevated his game.
“You need to intertwine the two of them because we’ve always practiced hard, but I don’t think we’ve practiced smart,” Shepherd said. “Now we’ve put the two together.”
Shepherd said he is confused why he didn’t get as much playing time as many thought he would early in his career. But he’s taken it in stride as part of the learning process.
In fact, basketball fans in Bangkok are more familiar with what Shepherd can do on a basketball court than those in Ann Arbor.
Playing for the Canadian team at the World University Games in Thailand over the summer, the 6-foot-5 junior displayed the talent that made him a 3-star recruit when he came to Michigan.
Against the New Zealand team, Shepherd posted a tournament-high 28 points, including four 3-pointers.
In the seven-game tournament, he averaged 12.7 points and 3.9 rebounds per game.
But in two years at Michigan, he hasn’t shown that potential in games.
That could change this year.
“Jevohn has always been a competitor,” sophomore DeShawn Sims said. “He just really didn’t get the opportunity last year because of some issues with the seniors, and how everything played out. I think this is the time where he’s going to show people what he can really do.”
C.J. Lee is a trendsetter.
When the backup guard found out Michigan hired John Beilein away from West Virginia in April, he quickly thought of redshirt sophomore Zack Gibson. In Gibson’s jump-shooting ability, Lee saw a similarity to Kevin Pittsnogle, the sharp-shooting center who led the Mountaineers to Elite Eight and Sweet Sixteen berths in 2004 and 2005, respectively.
It didn’t take long for comparisons between the 6-foot-10, 210-pound Gibson and the 6-foot-11, 250-pound Pittsnogle to become en vogue.
While most of the Wolverines are struggling to fine-tune their skills to get in sync Beilein’s offense, Gibson seems like a better fit in the new system than he would have been in former Michigan coach Tommy Amaker’s motion offense.
Gibson, who sat out last season after transferring from Rutgers, spent his off-season working on his jumper. He says he would have taken the same approach had Amaker not been fired, but the regimen will pay higher dividends under Beilein.
In the Wolverines’ exhibition game last week, Gibson didn’t display the perimeter skills he has shown off in practice, not taking a long jump shot the entire contest. But he proved he could play like a traditional big man. Gibson won the tip-off, scored eight points on 3-of-3 shooting and set good screens in 19 minutes of action.
“I’m glad he’s got an opportunity to play because that lets you know he’s dedicated to the game, that you can sit out for a whole year and still bring it every day in practice and compete,” sophomore forward DeShawn Sims said.
It must be comforting to Gibson, who started against Ferris State, that he is all but guaranteed playing time because of Michigan’s lack of depth up front. Almost by default, he has to shed his anonymity – Izzo referred to him as “the big kid that transferred from Rutgers.”
Although the likelihood of Gibson matching Pittsnogle’s numbers is slim, if he can efficiently mirror Pittsnogle’s style, Gibson will merit significant playing time as the first of many Beilein system-players in Ann Arbor.