It's their team now. [Marc-Gregor Campredon]
I'm not ready yet. A memorable season and the collegiate careers of Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin are over; the postmortem will come when I've had a little more time to collect my scattered thoughts. In the interim, a six-part mailbag question about next season has sat in my mailbox for the last few weeks, and while I'm not quite prepared to look back, I'm ready to look ahead.
I'll get this caveat out of the way now: Moe Wagner and DJ Wilson haven't made decisions about their potential NBA futures. This post makes the not-entirely-safe assumption both will be back. DraftExpress' latest 2017 mock doesn't feature either player; in fact, only Wilson makes their 2018 projection. In Chad Ford's latest update, Wagner is a "stock down" after Oregon while Wilson held steady as a late first/early second projection who "most [scouts] think needs another year of school." There's a decent chance both stay. If not, there will be plenty in this space on the ramifications for 2017-18.
Now that we've addressed the elephant, here are one reader's most pressing questions heading into next season and my attempts to answer them.
Can X make the leap? [Bryan Fuller]
Will we have the necessary performance from a Lead Guard to succeed?
We can gush all we want about the big guys and the allure of Charles Mathews, but Michigan's offense has only reached its potential when there was a lead guard at the controls -- Burke, Stauskas, Morris (to a lesser extent), and the 2017 version of Walton. Can Michigan reach that potential with Simpson/MAAR having the ball in their hands most of the time?
Xavier Simpson came along at the perfect time. He got a year to learn from Derrick Walton, get his feet wet, and process the intricacies of John Beilein's offense. As a drive-first, shoot-second player, he'll step into the ideal lineup to fit his skill set. Simpson's iffy outside shot would normally put a ceiling on the offense; the Darius Morris squads topped out at 38th in offensive efficiency on KenPom. Those teams couldn't play five-out, however. With Wagner and Wilson, this team can and will.
That should leave ample room for Simpson to operate off the dribble. While we only saw flashes of his scoring ability as a freshman, it's worth remembering he was capable of scoring 65 points in a high school playoff game. As he got more comfortable within Beilein's offense, he began to display his playmaking ability, especially off the high screen. He showed no fear of the nation's leading shot-blocker in the BTT semifinal:
In the conference title game, he displayed a Morris-like ability to both see and make a pass from a difficult angle:
Simpson isn't going to be a dead-eye shooter like Walton; hopefully he can use the leadup to next season to refine his outside shot enough where he's at least not treated like Tum Tum Nairn. Regardless, I expect he'll be a relatively efficient offensive player because of his quickness, court vision, and the surrounding talent; he won't need to be the number one or possibly even nos. 2-4 scoring option. As long as he keeps his fouling under control he should be an upgrade over Walton as an on-ball defender.
I'm not entirely sold on Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman as a primary ballhander; he still seems to decide before he drives whether he's going to shoot or pass. He'll take on more late-clock possessions because of his ability to create decent looks for himself outside of the offense. Unless he has a major breakthrough as a pick-and-roll ballhandler, which isn't entirely out of the question, he'll still be better-suited as an off-guard. As I'll discuss later in this mailbag, however, I believe Eli Brooks is going to have a role on this team.
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How good is Charles Matthews?
Hopefully he can match the 2017 version of Irvin at a minimum and that's probably good enough. But is he better than that? Is he good enough to demand 30mpg like Irvin? Does he need to be? Can he shoot? Can he play multiple positions? Can he defend?
Let's start with this: no idea. Few players in the country next season will be able to alter their team's outlook, for good or bad, as drastically as Matthews. He could be the team's top scoring option; he could lose a starting spot to Duncan Robinson.
The Kentucky transfer has garnered a lot of practice hype during his forced redshirt year, but we've been burned by that before (see: Donnal, Mark). That said, our circumspection with regard to practice hype doesn't mean we should ignore it entirely; what's been said about Matthews is certainly intriguing:
Ineligible to play this year due to NCAA transfers rules, Matthews is the star of Michigan's scout team. According to those who attend practices, he's described as follows: Slasher. Dynamic athlete. Shot creator. Lock-down defender.
Essentially, everything the Wolverines are currently missing.
"When we go five-on-five, he does some things where you stop and say, 'Wow,'" Zak Irvin said. "He's going to be something special."
Beilein is careful not to preordain Matthews. One of the grand traditions in college basketball is for the redshirt player -- the one no one gets to see -- to be billed as a team's best player. Beilein avoids the pitfall. He has a yearning look, though, when he says, "He would really help us right now."
"He does things in practice that we haven't seen since (Tim Hardaway Jr.)," Beilein added. "He's probably a combination of Hardaway and Glenn Robinson III. That's a good combination to have."
Matthews should be Michigan's best athlete on the perimeter right away; while he may not be able to moonlight as a post player like Zak Irvin, he should otherwise replicate what Irvin did on defense. As for replacing Irvin's offense, I'm cautiously optimistic.
The main question about Matthews is his shot, both from long range and the free throw line. While Scout liked his shot mechanics out of high school, he only attempted four three-pointers (making one) in his freshman season at Kentucky, and he went a dismal 14-for-34 from the line. He wasn't a threat from outside of the paint:
Over half of Matthews’ shot attempts were within five-feet of the basket last season and he was just 5-of-22 (23%) on all shot attempts outside of that range. His free throw shooting is another red flag. Matthews made just 14-of-34 (41%) free throw attempts last season in Lexington.
In high school, the signs were somewhat more promising. Matthews shot 59% in the paint (206 attempts) in his senior season, 36% in the mid-range (103 attempts) and 37% from three (124 3PA).
Beilein has developed shooters before; you need look no further than Wilson and MAAR on this year's team. Matthews had a full redshirt year to hone his shot. This isn't a hopeless cause.
There's another side to those stats, too: Matthews went 17-for-26 on shot attempts inside of five feet. He's much more athletic than Irvin, especially in terms of explosiveness; Matthews recorded a 41.5-inch vertical leap at Kentucky. It was notable when Irvin dunked; it will not be when Matthews does. On tape, he shows the ability to get to the hoop and a feel for finishing when he gets there. As long as his jumper isn't totally broken, that should help him replicate Irvin's offensive contribution. If Beilein and his staff can get Matthews' shooting passably from midrange and beyond—not out of the question, as he displays decent form—he could be a more effective player. The concern comes if neither Matthews nor Simpson develops into a threat from beyond the arc. That would negate the spacing that Wagner and Wilson provide.
Matthews could also potentially be an upgrade on the boards. While Irvin was a decent defensive rebounder, he rarely created second chances on offense. Matthews' propensity for going to the bucket could create more of those opportunities; he pulled down 32 offensive rebounds in 370 minutes at Kentucky and made all four of his putback attempts*, per hoop-math. While he probably won't grab 3.1 offensive rebounds per 36 minutes in Beilein's system, he'll provide more of a threat in that regard than Irvin.
I think it's possible to both underestimate the all-around impact Irvin made on the court this past season and expect Matthews to at least not represent much of a dropoff. His ceiling is certainly higher, and given his athleticism and finishing ability his floor shouldn't be too low.
*Those are conveniently four of the first five clips on UMHoops' reel of every Matthews bucket at Kentucky.
Wilson and Wagner need to grab a bigger share of the boards. [Campredon]
Can we rebound well enough without Walton?
Wilson and Wagner have been erratic as rebounders and Walton has been a stud. Simpson will not be able to replicate that. Who picks up the slack?
The hope here is another summer of Camp Sanderson will have Wagner and Wilson better prepared to defend the boards. Most of that improvement should come from Wilson, who showed the capability to be a dominant rebounder only to post a lower defensive rebounding rate in conference play than Irvin. With a little more strength, Wilson will have all the requisite physical ability; he possesses a rare combination of length and athleticism.
The backup center spot should provide a boost, too, whether it's manned by Jon Teske or Austin Davis. Both are big-bodied, physical players. While Mark Donnal was a solid offensive rebounder, he posted guard-like rebounding rates on defense the last two seasons; he was at 10.6% in Big Ten play this year, less than a point ahead of Robinson.
This is still probably not going to be a strength for Michigan. Even with Walton and Irvin providing solid-to-spectacular rebounding for their positions this season, the Wolverines were a below-average rebounding team. Any improvement is going to come from the big men taking a leap and the defense improving as a whole—it's easier to box out and grab boards when you're not allowing good shots near the hoop in the first place.
Livers shoots well enough to be an early contributor. [Fuller]
Who backs up the 4 position?
One luxury with Irvin is that he can effectively back-up three positions on the floor and give Beilein flexibility with how he uses his bench. Can Matthews do the same and essentially replace Irvin? Does Livers have the potential to play 10-15 minutes in that spot? Will one of the bigs (Teske, Bamba?, Davis) allow a few minutes per game where Wagner plays the 4?
Listed at 6'6", 190 pounds, Matthews doesn't have the same broad-shouldered build as Irvin; while he can play the two or the three, defending power forwards wouldn't be ideal. I'm not sure I like the idea of Wagner trying to stick with quicker fours on the perimeter, either, and that lineup shift may not be much of an option anyway if Michigan once again finds that one of their best lineups features Wilson as a small-ball center.
That all may not matter, because Isaiah Livers looks like an early contributor. There's much, much more in Matt D's pair of scouting posts, as well my post on him from earlier this month. In short, Livers looks like a solid option as a three-and-D guy off the bench who can eventually grow into a bigger role. He's a much more natural fit at that spot than Matthews, Wagner, or Robinson. Livers should be the top reserve at the four, though Michigan some flexibility depending on the opponent—Robinson becomes a viable option if presented with the right defensive matchup.
Who is the backup guard on the roster?
Essentially the rotation is set at almost every spot - the five starters, backup wing, and backup bigs. But who is the other guard that will handle the ball? Will it be Brooks as a true PG? Poole as a shooter?
As the embedded video indicates, I like Eli Brooks' chances of getting regular time as the backup point guard. If not for how long it takes most PGs to get comfortable in Beilein's offense, I'd give him a half-decent shot at passing Simpson; he's bigger, more athletic, and shows an impressive ability to make shots off the bounce. The Beilein Learning Curve is real, however, so Brooks will probably ease his way into the rotation; by the end of the season, I bet he'll be getting 10-15 minutes.
Duncan Robinson will soak up most of the reserve minutes at the three, but there's still room for another backup guard to emerge; it hurt Michigan this year not having another bench option in the backcourt, especially given Robinson's defensive shortcomings. If Jordan Poole's shooting lives up to its reputation, he'll be a viable option. While his freshman year was a disappointment, Ibi Watson is too young and athletic to count out, too.
After a season mostly spent on the bench, LeVert starred as a sophomore. [Fuller]
How will the youth develop with such a short bench?
We can rip Izzo for playing too many guys, especially when they are inefficient seniors. But the byproduct of his early-season deep bench is that he often develops his younger players quickly. This season Michigan had 4 freshmen and here we are at the end of the year with Simpson playing about 10-12 minutes as the only contribution from the whole bunch. Next season we bring in 3 more (maybe 4 if we hit the Bamba lottery) and there won't be a lot of minutes with the top 7 spots essentially locked up. How do those players grow so we don't experience the early-season blip every year? (Especially if we lose some combination of MAAR, Wilson, Wagner, Matthews after next season).
I trust John Beilein's player development. When players are ready, he gets them on the court—sometimes at a slower pace than we'd like to see (Wagner comes to mind), but doubting his ability in this department is to deny reality at this point. Caris LeVert cracked six minutes only once in Michigan's last eight games as a freshman; he was ready to play second banana to Nik Stauskas right away as a sophomore. Wagner and Wilson had similar breakouts this year. Spike Albrecht had freshman-year highs of 15 minutes and seven points until the national championship game.
Game experience matters but only to an extent; after all, there are plenty of college-ready true freshmen every year even (especially) at the high-major level. What these guys do in practice and the film room on a daily basis matters, too. Beilein hasn't just showed the ability to make players better; he's got a knack for bringing them into the spotlight at the right time.