Of the Michigan men’s basketball team’s freshmen last year, each saw important minutes and had big moments. Two of this year’s three freshmen did too.
Then there’s Mark Donnal. The 6-foot-9 freshman from Monclova, Ohio was redshirted and rode the bench as his teammates moved on the Elite Eight.
Even the walk-ons that entered blowouts late in the game became more recognizable than Donnal, the four-star recruit who flashed a dynamic inside-outside game in high school.
The 240-pound newcomer is reticent and soft-spoken, and if there were character traits that would keep him from blooming into a well-adjusted, productive freshman, those were a few of them.
“Coming in, I was a little timid,” Donnal said.
The lack of assertiveness and the slow learning curve were enough for Michigan coach John Beilein to tag Donnal with the “redshirt candidate” label early in the season. In a December victory over Stanford, fifth-year senior Jordan Morgan and redshirt junior Jon Horford both fouled out. Six-foot-six sophomore Glenn Robinson III had to play the ‘5’ in the final possessions, and yet, burning Donnal’s redshirt never crossed Beilein’s mind.
That was the last game before sophomore Mitch McGary was ruled out with his back injury, and so it would be just Morgan, Horford and a dash of redshirt sophomore Max Bielfeldt in the frontcourt the rest of the season.
Donnal said the possibility of a redshirt was never brought up when Beilein recruited him, yet, it still lingered in the back of Donnal’s mind. When Beilein broached it to him early this season, he marketed the plan as a chance to bulk up (he gained 10 to 15 pounds this year), become stronger and get to learn the offense.
It sounds nice enough, but that also meant spending the season watching from the bench, down on the opposite end from Beilein, where the guys who wouldn’t be of service on a given evening were placed. It was something Donnal never had to do. It was tough for him, but he knew there was nothing to do but soak in information.
“Jordan, especially defensively, just going up against him, I’m learning from what he’s doing when he’s playing against me,” Donnal said.
Donnal was on the scout team this season, and by seeing the angles and nuances Morgan and Horford played with in practice, he was able to absorb the new concepts.
“He’s still learning the ins and outs of the game,” Morgan said. “I don’t even remember what I knew in high school, but he’s learning.”
Donnal’s not sure when exactly it was, just that it came around the middle of the regular season, but he turned a corner. He’d found success against Morgan and Horford enough in practice that he knew he belonged.
“I started to pick up everything, and my game started to come back to me, and I’m getting in the flow of the college game,” Donnal said.
If it wasn’t for the redshirt, Morgan and Horford might have had to worry about their job security.
“He’s becoming a force,” Morgan said. “He’s hard to guard down there in the post, and he’s definitely come a long way.
“Over the past couple months, he’s just become really good. Really dominates, shoots the ball well.”
The tentativeness that plagued Donnal through the season’s first couple months seemed to disappear.
“Now that I have my confidence back, I know that I can play with these guys,” Donnal said.
The hallmark ‘5’ of the John Beilein offense is a guy that can hang with the best big men under the rim, but also take his defender outside to shoot the 3-pointer. West Virginia sensation Kevin Pittsnogle was the paradigm for the type of player Beilein wanted at that position.
But since he came to Michigan, Beilein’s ‘5’ has looked less like Pittsnogle and more like, well, Morgan. The outside shot has never been a threat from Beilein’s center in his Michigan days.
With Donnal, though, that might change.
“He’s told me that he’s excited to have a big man that can shoot threes,” Donnal said.
In a 50-minute open practice at Lucas Oil Stadium a day before Michigan’s Sweet 16 bout against Tennessee, Donnal showed fans for the first time — outside of pregame warmups — what he could do.
He had the most fluid jump shot of Michigan’s big men, he finished around the rim with both hands and he had perhaps the most polished post game behind Mitch McGary.
Asked if he’s thought about what the team might look like if Donnal was on the court late this year, Morgan sidestepped the question, but made a point with authority.
“I think about next year,” he said. “I think he’s gonna make a really big difference for this team next year.”