It's Teske Time
Michigan heads into this week's Maui Invitational with a 3-0 record in body-bag games. There's a good chance you haven't seen too much of this team yet; two of those games were on the dreaded subscription-only BTN-Plus stream.
As expected, this young team still has a lot to figure out. Neither Zavier Simpson nor Jaaron Simmons have taken control of the point guard position. Charles Matthews's scoring, and seemingly his confidence in his jumper, has waxed and waned. The offense, as it often does early in the season under John Beilein, looks disjointed, and the team is connecting on only 32.9% of their three-pointers.
We do, however, have a definitive answer to one looming preseason question. Jon Teske removed all doubt about his standing on the depth chart with a ten-point, 11-rebound outburst against Southern Miss, going a perfect 5-for-5 from the field in 15 KenPom MVP-worthy minutes. Competition caveats abound, of course—bold prediction: Teske doesn't shoot 100% in most games—but USM at least fielded a 6'11", 260-pound center. Here's Teske eating that center alive:
Before getting into the serious analysis, some Small Sample Size Theater with Teske's early-season stats:
- He's shooting 100% from the field and 80% from the line with an 83.3 free throw rate.
- He's posting a 19.3 offensive rebound % and 37.9 defensive rebound %.
- His 7.7% block rate would be Michigan's best over a full season since Ekpe Udoh in 2009-10.
- According to Synergy, Teske has used nine possessions, including assists. Michigan is averaging 2.11 points on those possessions.
Pretty, pretty good.
[Hit THE JUMP for a bunch more Teske GIFs, Z's lockdown defense, and more.]
Let's start with Teske's progression on offense. He's no longer the lost puppy of yesteryear. He's functioning within the offense, executing his assignments, and taking advantage of the space Beilein's system opens up. On the play embedded above, Teske waits until a second defender commits to Charles Matthews, timing his cut perfectly and finishing with a nifty reverse.
He's functioned well in the high screen offense, doing so in a very different fashion than Moe Wagner. Whereas Wagner is more perimeter-oriented, Teske has looked to use his size and take full advantage of the mismatches presented when opponents switch on the pick. The moment USM switches this screen, Teske gets into the lane and gives Jaaron Simmons a nice target. And-one among the Lilliputians:
Many young centers are black holes once they get the ball in the post. Not so with Teske. He had three assists in the exhibition against Grand Valley State, each impressive in their own way. I couldn't clip one because the video skipped, but it was a Teske post-up on which he recognized the defense bending his way and found an open three-point shooter. That appears to be a repeatable thing for him:
And this is just a gorgeous drop-pass after skillfully keeping the ball away from an extra defender:
He's also showed off a smooth midrange jumper, and I know from watching him in open practices that his range extends farther out than that. I mostly expected Teske to contribute as a rebounder and defender this year; his first few games suggest he could also be a plus player on offense.
That Defense, Though
But yeah, about that defense. This was a criminally bad call in the Central Michigan game that robbed Teske of a two-block transition stop:
Teske looks much more mobile than he did last year. While he's still relatively undefined in the upper body, which could become a problem when Michigan faces some burlier post players, he's clearly made significant strength and conditioning progress. He got another block against CMU after switching onto a 6'5" wing and sticking with his drive from the three-point line. I don't think he he makes that play last year.
I'm also encouraged by Teske's play against the pick-and-roll. This is an eye-opening play on a hedge:
Teske also used his reach to make one of the biggest plays of the CMU game, tapping a defensive board away from two Chips and right to Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman when CMU was threatening to tie up the game.
While Teske has played so well thus far, we shouldn't get ahead of ourselves—these are games against sub-200 KenPom teams, after all. Calls for lineups featuring Wagner and Teske on the court simultaneously are premature; Teske still has a lot to prove, while Wagner has never functioned as the four in Beilein's offense (when DJ Wilson played center on defense last year with Wagner on the court, he still played on the wing on offense). I don't see that being much more than a situational lineup down the road, albeit an intriguing one.
Still, this is a very promising start, especially given how lost Teske looked out there last year. I don't think there's much question at this point that Michigan will get improved play from the backup center spot this year.
Offense vs. Defense: The Point Guard Battle
One thing I'm sure Beilein wanted more clarity on by now is the point guard position. Zavier Simpson currently holds the starting spot because of his defense and familiarity with the system. While he's been a very efficient offensive player, however, that's because he's barely asserted himself—his usage is at 13.4%, which is actually a tick lower than his mark from a freshman year when he was an offensive nonentity. His stats belie how the offense often bogs down when he's running the point.
That's opened the door for Jaaron Simmons, who played most of the second half against USM. As The Athletic's Brendan Quinn notes, Simmons sparked a 21-1 run; he only scored two points but dished out five assists and kept the offense moving. The issue has been on the other end:
The hang-up, it seems, is Simmons’ defense and practice play. The staff tracks data during Michigan practices and through the early portions of the season, Simmons was regularly behind Simpson, who, in addition, is said to be a better defender. What’s unclear to me is whether Simmons is in fact a poor defensive player or whether it’s the product of a new system. At Ohio, coach Saul Phillips ran a low-gap, low-catch defense, whereas Michigan plays high-gap. Beilein noted this past week that Simmons has been caught several times in low gaps and given up threes.
We're working with tiny sample sizes, so keep that in mind, but the Synergy numbers confirm what we're seeing in the eye test. Simmons has allowed 11 points on ten possessions as the primary defender, ranking in the 16th percentile. Simpson has locked down opponents, ceding only 13 points on 22 possessions.
I expected Simmons to wrest control of this job, but if Simpson can continue knocking down open shots, he may just hold onto his starting spot. There are few college guards who can slither around a screen as quickly as Z:
Simpson has obliterated pick-and-rolls this year. He's faced ten such possessions and only allowed three shots to go up, two of which have gone in; he's forced a turnover on all seven other possessions. He currently ranks 39th nationally in steal rate. His matchup tonight with LSU's Tremont Waters, a lightning-quick point guard off to a scorching start, will be a big test—and probably great television.
If Simmons isn't going to be an impact offensive player, Beilein may choose to stick with the impact defender. I believe Simmons will make a strong push as he gets more comfortable in the system; he's been too productive at a similar level of competition to drop off into nonentity status. That said, Simpson may be tougher to unseat than we initially thought.
Early Season Stats of Note
Quickly, a few notable numbers from the first three games:
The shooting gap. Michigan has done a great job of getting more three-point looks than their opponents. 46.3% of M's field goal attempts have come from beyond the arc compared to 34.7% for opponents. As we covered in detail during last year's defensive turnaround, percentage of attempts, not the rate at which they go in, is a better measure of perimeter defense than three-point percentage allowed.
Michigan is currently making 32.9% of their threes. Opponents are at 48.1%. This will correct itself.
Which makes the defense all the more impressive. Everything else about M's defense so far looks better than expected. Opponents are shooting a paltry 39.8% on two-pointers; meanwhile, they're turning the rock over on 24.8% of their possessions. After some hiccups in the exhibition, the Wolverines have kept the defensive boards clean, allowing a 23.6% offensive rebound rate. As usual, foes are rarely getting to the line.
The most encouraging bit is this lines up with how Michigan has looked. For such a young team, not to mention one that's turned over half the coaching staff, there have been scant few blown switches or missed assignments. There will inevitably be regression as they face opponents who can better exploit individual matchups, namely at the four. So far, though, so good.
Moe Wagner muscle emoji. Wagner, who last year was the center on a team led in defensive rebounding by their point guard, is hauling in 37.4% of the available defensive boards when he's on the floor, good for fifth in the country. Opponent caveats abound, yes, but he wasn't doing that against even the most overmatched foes last year. He not only looks stronger; he's positioning himself better and making a more concerted effort to grab rebounds. Wagner being even an average rebounder for a Big Ten center would be a significant development for this team; at least for now, he's doing a lot more than that.