More of this, please.
The hoops preview continues with a look at Michigan's wings, which will be split into two parts because the Wolverines legitimately have eight wing-ish types who could conceivably see the floor this year. Today's post focuses on the three wings expected to slot into the starting lineup: Caris LeVert, Aubrey Dawkins, and Zak Irvin. While this trio has its question marks, they also have the potential to be one of the most dangerous starting groups in the country.
Measurables: 6'7", 205
Base Stats: 35.8 MPG, 14.9 PPG, 43/38/82 2P/3P/FT%, 4.9 RPG, 67 assists, 39 turnovers
Key Advanced Metrics: 25.9% usage, 101.1 ORating, 22.9 assist rate, 3.4 steal %
Caris LeVert passed up the chance to go pro for one last season at Michigan, and in doing so he has the chance to establish himself as a borderline lottery pick if all goes well.
Unlike with Derrick Walton, whose injury struck so early in the season that it's easy—and correct—to blame it for his struggles before he shut it down entirely, LeVert wasn't the All-American candidate many expected he'd become before his broken foot cost him the majority of Big Ten season. Instead we saw LeVert struggle to balance becoming the number one option with playing within John Beilein's offense; while he had less help than Trey Burke and Nik Stauskas before him, LeVert's herky-jerky drives to the hoop often caused the offense to grind to a halt.
[Hit THE JUMP.]
With Derrick Walton at full strength and Zak Irvin rounding out his game, this year should be different. LeVert is a great spot-up shooter and he'll be able to do that much more with Walton and Irvin (as well as Spike Albrecht) absorbing a bigger load of the ballhandling and distributing, not to mention streching out defenses to provide more room for LeVert to attack off the dribble. Add in bigger contributions from the suddenly experienced group of sophomores and the addition of Duncan Robinson and this should no longer be a significant issue:
“(LeVert’s teammates) are better, you can count on them to make the right play and the right decision more than they did last year,” Beilein said. “Last year there may have been moments before he got injured that I was dialing him up no matter what. Even if he was 0-for-10, he was getting that last shot. Now we don’t have to do that this year.”
LeVert can get to just about any spot on the court he wants, even if it sometimes takes him a little time to get there. This year there should be a lot more action around him as he attacks and far less need for him to make something out of nothing at the end of the clock. That alone should bring him back up towards his sophomore-year efficiency; if LeVert can improve his midrange game and finishing through contact, he's got All-American potential.
On defense, LeVert hasn't ever lived up to his early billing as a potential defensive stopper. At this point it's unreasonable to expect he'll be anything more than average as an on-ball defender. He still finds a way to make an impact on that end, however, because his length and ability to jump passing lanes proves critical when Beilein calls for the 1-3-1 zone changeup, something he did more often last year than we've seen from him at Michigan.
As long as LeVert plays within the offense, which should be much easier with Michigan's depth and talent this year compared to last, then he has the ability to push for Big Ten Player of the Year—he can stuff a stat sheet with the best of them. Even if he doesn't blossom into a Stauskas-like killer, he should be a reliable top option on a team that won't have to rely too heavily on any one player.
Measurables: 6'6", 205
Base Stats: 20.7 MPG, 7.0 PPG, 54/43/87 2P/3P/FT%, 2.1 RPG
Key Advanced Metrics: 16.4% usage, 116.3 ORating, 12.5 turnover rate
John Beilein did it again. Aubrey Dawkins was an unheralded three-star recruit most likely ticketed for Dayton when Michigan snapped him up late in the 2015 class. Dawkins barely saw the floor during non-conference play, rained in six triples against Illinois in the Big Ten opener, and finished the season locked into the starting lineup while leading the conference in effective field goal percentage. While Dawkins mostly shot open threes and finished alley-oops, he did both of those things very well, and he may not have to do much more as a sophomore.
Despite an oddly flat shot trajectory, Dawkins proved to be a deadly spot-up shooter, hitting 48% of his three-pointers in Big Ten play. Even if that number comes back to earth, Dawkins should be in the 40% range and give opponents a very tough choice—help their teammates on Walton/LeVert/Irvin drives and risk a three or stay put and potentially give up the lane. Dawkins also improved the timing of his cuts as last season wore on; by the end of the season he was realiable for around one sneaky backcut down the baseline for a dunk per game, and those dunks were exquisite feats of gravity-defying athleticism. Dawkins can bounce.
The big question for this year: can Dawkins translate that athleticism and talent to other areas of his game? While Michigan has more than enough players who can handle the ball and run the pick-and-roll, they could use more rebounding help, and Dawkins had the occasional jaw-dropping offensive board as a freshman that could be a sign of things to come in that area. Despite that, he made almost no impact on the boards last year; adding the size he did in the offseason should facilitate improvement. John Beilein is seeing that happen:
“I would say Aubrey Dawkins would probably be the one right now that I see (showing the most improvement),” Beilein said in a radio interview this offseason. “I see it every day in practice that the game is slowing down for him, that the work that he has put in with his ball handling, his shooting, his rebounding and his defense is showing up. He’s going to be tough keep off the floor. We’ll see what happens and where we can fit him in.”
Dawkins also must get better as a defender. He looked like a freshman on that end last year, which is to be expected, but he can't log the minutes he's expected to and look as lost as he did. If he can bring that part of his game up to par—and, really, all Michigan needs there is average performance—then he'll be able to play heavy minutes against any opponent, which would be huge for this team.
The hope for Dawkins is he comes close to replicating his shooting numbers while beginning to fill in the other parts of his game. Michigan doesn't need him to be a major distrubutor, big-time rebounder, or lockdown defender, but if he breaks out in any of those facets, he could be on his way to stardom. On a team full of X-factors, Dawkins may be the biggest one.
Measurables: 6'6", 215
Base Stats: 36.2 MPG, 14.3 PPG, 45/35/69 2P/3P/FT%, 4.8 RPG, 49 assists
Key Advanced Metrics: 23.2% usage, 101.0 ORating, 13.9 DR%, 10.4 assist rate
This preview is operating on the assumption Michigan will start Zak Irvin at the four, which may not be his ideal college position—he's a natural three—but it allows the team to get its best starting lineup on the floor.
First and foremost, Irvin is a shooter, and while his three-point percentage dropped off substantially from his 43% mark as a freshman, hitting 35% of 211 attempts is still pretty decent, especially when considering Irvin was the last of Michigan's expected stars standing for most of conference play. He should get more chances to drill outside shots with this team at full strength.
Through most of the season, Irvin stayed on his Just A Shooter™ path, making marginal but unspectacular progress as a rebounder and passer. Over the final six games of the season, however, he morphed into a different player, averaging 17.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 3.8 assists per game over that span; after reaching three assists, and no more, just three times over the season's first 26 games, he matched or bettered that mark in each of the final six contests.
That could be chalked up to a two-week fluke, but Irvin legitmately looked like a different player at the end of the season. Where before he didn't have a consistent way to get to the basket, a rudimentary yet effective array of dribble moves appeared, opening up drives to the hoop on which Irvin could finish or drop off passes to an open cutter—often Dawkins flying in from the corner. Irvin even drew fouls, nearly doubling his free throw rate from his freshman year.
That he did this while assuming more responsibility as a defender is a great sign. Irvin logged a lot of time at the four as a sophomore, and even spent several possessions defending Frank Kaminsky(!) in the Big Ten Tournament; while that was a product of Michigan's myriad injury issues, it's remarkable that Irvin could expend that much energy on defense and rebounding and still put together a great game as a scorer (21 points on 9/18 FGs).
Irvin will be at a disadvantage defensively against the burlier power forwards in the Big Ten, but he's proven to be a solid rebounder who isn't overmatched in the post, and Michigan has plenty of options when they run into a truly huge team like Purdue. Meanwhile, he's a tough cover for your average stretch four, and opponents don't have many places to hide defenders against this Michigan squad.
If Irvin is close to the fully-formed player he was at the tail end of 2014-15, Michigan's offense will fire on all cylinders. An offseason back injury is something to keep an eye on; he's still not a full go and may not be until a couple weeks into the season. As long as that doesn't hamper him, expect big things as Irvin puts it all together while he's reunited with Walton and LeVert.