Player Development At Ludicrous Speed, Part One
Moe Wagner considers how to shred his defender to bits. [Marc-Gregor Campredon]
John Beilein's acumen at player development is, by now, unimpeachable. He has turned Michigan into one of the top producers of NBA talent in the country without the steady stream of high school All-Americans who end up at the likes of Duke, Kansas, and Kentucky. After last weekend, Moe Wagner and DJ Wilson—a late import to the 2015 class and an oft-injured three-star wing*—are firmly on the NBA radar after two and three years on campus, respectively. Following the Louisville game, Beilein reminded us just how far those two have come in only a year's time:
Moritz, he averaged two points a game last year. He’s 19 years old. You got to watch this guy. D.J. averaged the same. There’s a process that people go through to develop their teams, and [the Big Ten] had a lot of good seniors last year who graduated and a lot of guys waiting in the wings. It may have not showed in November, December. It’s showing in March.
The year-to-year progression is remarkable; so is the seemingly game-to-game progression. Here's Beilein after the Purdue victory at Crisler less than a month ago:
[Wagner] is learning that fine line between shooting a three and driving it. I can’t wait to work with him more on selling his shot fake before he does, sometimes he just rips and goes. He’s almost like a forward or a guard in how he plays. But he had a really good post move inside. He and DJ have to bottle this thing up, that they can shoot from the outside, but to help teams win, they’re going to play professionally if they have a post-up game. They’re not going to just be these 6’10” shooters. They’re going to need to grow in that physical part of it. He’s got a good mix of that. If we can put that third part in, that he can shoot, he can drive, and he can effectively post up and hold position, he could become very special.
We saw a whole lot more than a pair of 6'10" shooters last weekend. That shot fake Beilein wanted to see Wagner utilize? He busted it out on arguably the biggest possession of the year:
Wagner also obliterated Louisville from the high post. His career-high 26-point output against the Cardinals couldn't have looked more different from his previous best, the 24-point performance in that aforementioned Purdue game. The latter featured Wagner raining in threes off pick-and-pops with a couple post buckets standing out as notable exceptions. The former saw him working with his back to the basket against smaller defenders and using that three-point threat to take bigs off the dribble; he only attempted (and made) one three-pointer.
*[HT to Maize.Blue Wagner for posting a thread of the current team's commitment posts.]
[Hit THE JUMP for DJ's development and the late-season surge from MAAR and Irvin.]
Player Development At Ludicrous Speed, Part Two
Not Just A Stretch Four™ [Campredon]
I'll be spending my travel time to Kansas City catching up on The Dak and Dunc Show, which has been excellent from the limited amount I've heard. Their most recent podcast features an interview with DJ Wilson in which he discusses how much he's developed since getting blocked at the rim by then-Villanova point guard Dylan Ennis in Michigan's 2014-15 loss to the Wildcats:
Wilson, who said he was just a "cub" then, didn't play another minute the rest of the season, taking a redshirt year. He still had a long way to go last year, often looking lost on the court playing limited minutes in 25 appearances.
Now a self-described "lion," Wilson's third-year breakout mostly came at the power forward position, but he's been a late-season revelation spelling Wagner at center for increasingly long streches. That development culminated in the Oklahoma State game, in which Wilson played all 40 minutes and spent the majority of the second half at the five when Wagner proved ineffective at protecting the rim. Wilson looked like a natural; this hedge, recovery, block, and rebound is textbook:
Like Wagner, Wilson showed off his versatility on offense while often operating out of the high post. Even though his three-point shot hasn't been very effective, he's been an extremely efficient player since the Big Ten Tournament began. His numbers in the last six games: 32/48 on twos (67%), 6/19 on threes (32%), 15/17 free throws (88%), 29 reb (4.8/game), 6 assists, 10 turnovers, 12 blocks (7 in the last two games), 3 steals.
Of note: Ennis is now a grad-transfer starting guard for Oregon. You can bet that Wilson will look to exact some serious revenge should the two meet at the rim again on Thursday.
Zak Irvin, Reliable Role Player
Zak Irvin has learned to pick his spots. [Campredon]
When posed a question about Zak Irvin's leadership after the Louisville game, Beilein made sure to slip in a mention of Irvin's newfound efficiency following that ugly midseason slump:
He was unflappable through it all. All of a sudden now, if you check his stats, he’s shooting about 50 percent overall and from 3 during these last five games when it really counted. I had several questions about this. When do you turn to somebody else? I said I’m not turning to anybody else. We’ve got a team. Zak Irvin is in there and will take shots because he makes shots. We have a lot of confidence in him. I wouldn’t do that if he hadn’t shown extreme selfless leadership during the entire four years here.
As we discussed on this week's podcast, Irvin has almost entirely eliminated the ineffective heroball shots from his arsenal. He's no longer jacking up off-the-dribble shots early in the clock; instead, he's turned his midrange game into one of Michigan's most reliable ways to generate points in late-clock situations, something that was on full display with his three straight buckets to tighten up the game against Louisville:
Irvin's numbers over the last eight games would seem unbelievable to Early-February You: 34/51 on twos (67%), 14/32 on threes (44%), 66.2 eFG%, 20 assists, 12 turnovers. He's picking his spots with a discernment he didn't have in his first three years. His usage is mostly hanging in the mid-teens, well below the 22-23% load he carried in the past.
Perhaps the strongest sign that Irvin is choosing the right time to attack is his almost complete lack of free-throw attempts; he's taken only seven in that eight-game span, all in the final two games of the BTT, and while that'd be a bad sign for many players, Irvin is at his worst when he's driving the ball into traffic—that's when he tends to toss up his ugliest shots or turn the ball over. Instead, he's drilling his pet midrange pull-ups and going to the rim only when the defense opens up. Irvin's willingness to take a back seat to Walton, Wagner, and Wilson and find a role that suits his game has been overlooked as a reason Michigan has turned into a Sweet Sixteen team. It shouldn't be.
MAAR, Reliable Role Player
MAAR gets buckets. [Bryan Fuller]
Another overlooked reason this Michigan team has become a fire-breathing hellbeast: timely scoring from Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, who's maintained a remarkable level of efficiency since the ugly loss to Ohio State, which capped a five-game stretch in which he went just 4/17 inside the arc. His eye-popping stats in the 14 games since: 40/59 on twos (68%), 17/42 on threes (40%), 64.8 eFG%, 26/33 free throws (79%), 28 assists, 13 turnovers.
MAAR boasts an impressive array of moves to score around the rim. He's equally comfortable scoring off kamikaze drives or using moves stolen from that 65-year-old dude at the YMCA to exploit switches:
In the past, MAAR's forays to the hoop almost always resulted in him putting up a shot. He's recently added a drive-and-kick element that's tough to contain given his ruthless efficiency as a scorer. He tallied four assists against Oklahoma State; three of them set up Walton three-pointers.
If all of the above carries over into the second weekend of the tournament, it's going to be very difficult for any foe to slow down this team. These guys don't need Walton to carry them anymore; that was evident against Louisville. Every player seeing major minutes right now poses a matchup problem in one form or another. It's a joy to watch.