For decades, basketball has been a mostly specialized sport, with specific, standardized roles drawn up for the different positions on the court.

The smaller, more athletic guards captain the offense, take the ball up the floor, call plays, find open teammates on passes and hit medium to long-range shots. The taller, stronger forwards and centers work to out-muscle the other team, using their size to pick up easy buckets inside, set screens to free up guards in space, dominate in the post and clog up inside lanes on defense. Players’ roles are set to match their skill sets, and for almost all of basketball history, this has been the preferred system. 

But things have started to change. Accessibility to the game at a young age and more advanced training methods have allowed players at every position to develop more diverse skill sets. Guards that rely on their quickness and ballhandling to get into space now have forwards that can help space the floor and move the ball, freeing up more passing and scoring opportunities for playmakers. 

For the Michigan women’s basketball team, the transition to “positionless basketball” appears to be well on its way, and the success of this system should be a major difference-maker this season.

In their exhibition match against Northwood last Friday, every player in the Wolverines’ starting lineup measured at least 6-feet tall. While basketball players being tall is nothing new, Michigan’s combination of size and speed from the traditional guard spot can take pressure off the forwards on defense and create a more diverse attack down low offensively — evidenced by the Wolverines’ 58 points in the paint against Northwood.

Granted, Northwood is a Division II team, so putting up big numbers against them doesnt mean much for Michigans success later in the year. But it at least indicates that the Wolverines are willing to fully commit to a positionless system.

Adapting to the scheme will be especially crucial for Michigan’s bigs if they want this new offense to be effective.

Positionless systems rely on the ability of forwards and centers to dribble and pass effectively, move quickly and establish themselves as threats on the perimeter. This draws defenders to the outside and opens up space for guards and other bigs to break inside for easy buckets. 

“We just watched the WNBA Championship … there are players on the court — pretty much every single one of them, 6-(foot)-2, 6-(foot)-3, 6-(foot)-4 — that can bring the basketball up, that can handle the ball, that can pass the ball, that can shoot the three, that can post you up inside,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “And I think our (bigs) want to play at the next level and they see that. … They want to work on their handle every day in practice, and they want to be able to get a rebound and advance the ball with the ball in their hands without always having to find a point guard.”

Sophomore forward Naz Hillmon should be the most important key in the adjustment to positionless basketball. Coming off of a stellar freshman season where she led the team in points, rebounds and shooting percentage — all while coming off the bench — the 6-foot-2 Big Ten Freshman of the Year will need to adapt her game to fit the offense’s positionless style.

While she spent most of last year generating offense in the post, she’ll have to find ways to score points from further away from the basket as opponents work to neutralize her post presence this year. 

“That’s a challenge that she’s really embraced and really worked hard on in the offseason,” Barnes Arico said. “And we gotta constantly remind her, ‘Hey Naz, that’s a good shot, you gotta take those shots instead of just looking to be a passer in those situations,’ and I think that’s something that she really wants to get better at in order to take those next steps.”

Positionless basketball also means that Hillmon will need to move the ball quickly in transition. Assuming she maintains her dominance in defensive rebounding from last year, she’ll likely find herself in situations where she has to either find a teammate or dribble up the floor and score points herself. 

“I feel like I can play a role in that,” Hillmon said. “Just getting up and down the floor, running my lane, and trying to get some easy buckets in transition, to really try to get the ball out.”

Michigan should also be able to count on true freshman Izabel Varejão’s diverse skill set to complement its positionless system.

The 6-foot-4 center uses her quickness and outside shooting ability — two of the most sought-after traits in a positionless big — to counter her strong post presence. These skills are especially valuable in the pick-and-roll game, where a player traditionally sets a high screen for the ball carrier, then slips back toward the basket for the pass and an easy bucket. Varejão’s shooting means she can roll down low or pop back outside for an open jumpshot, adding yet another element that defenses have to worry about. 

With the transition to a positionless system, the Wolverines have put themselves in a position to attack defenses in a new way this season. But their success will rely heavily on the ability and willingness of Michigan’s bigs to adapt. With a wealth of talent on the roster this year, this could be the difference between an ascending program taking the next step or falling back into the Big Ten’s forgotten middle tier.

Brendan Roose can be reached at or on Twitter @BrendanRoose.

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