After a hiatus for State Week, the hoops preview continues with a look at Michigan's starters on the wing. I'll cover the backups in a separate post later this week; Seth's been kind enough to take over the Maryland FFFF this week so I have time to get these posted before the season starts.
The starting wings will be the same as last year: Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman mans the two while Duncan Robinson and Zak Irvin occupy the nominal forward spots. All three had their ups and downs in 2015-16; all have the potential to make a huge mark on the 2016-17 season if they can more consistently play to their strengths.
[Hit THE JUMP for the player previews.]
Rahk consistently created looks for himself at the rim. [Bryan Fuller]
Measurables: 6'4", 190
Base Stats: 27.8 MPG, 8.6 PPG, 51/36/72 2P/3P/FT%, 2.7 REB/G, 61 assists, 27 turnovers, 22 steals
Key Advanced Metrics: 16.2% usage, 112.9 ORating, 11.5 assist rate, 9.4 turnover rate, 18.3 defensive rebound percentage
While Muhammad-Ali Adbur-Rahkman didn't get top billing, when Michigan needed a tough bucket last year, he was by far the best bet to convert. As the season progressed, so did MAAR, who scored between 14 and 16 points in each of the team's five postseason games.
According to Shot Analytics, MAAR hit 60% of his shots at the rim, a solid figure made more impressive by the high degree of difficulty on many of those attempts. That was a slight improvement over his freshman-year percentage, and he also raised his level of play in several other regards: his three-point percentage jumped from 29% to 36% on twice the attempts, he got to the free-throw line with more than twice the frequency, and he halved his turnover rate.
Put it all together and MAAR's ORating jumped over 20 points. His progression wasn't just apparent in the numbers; this and-one in the late stages of the Minnesota game was an "oh, damn, he can do that?" kind of moment:
MAAR hadn't shown that level of physicality and dogged effort at the rim as a freshman; we should only see more of it in his junior season, and it's not as much about his athletic ability as his mental approach:
"Sometimes I get down on myself and I'm not as confident as I should be," he said.
Now he has every reason to be. Abdur-Rahkman explained that his strong finish to last year and this year's inherent starting job have changed him just as much as his role.
Now the guy who has been different for Michigan is starting to feel different about himself.
"I need to be more confident," Abdur-Rahkman said, "for the team to be more successful."
One way MAAR can show off that added confidence is by running the offense, an opportunity which may arise more often this season with only freshman Xavier Simpson providing backup for Derrick Walton; the team needs another ballhandler and MAAR could be better-suited to that role than Zak Irvin, who often took that on last year, especially if MAAR learns to look for the kickout more often on his drives. A MAAR-Wagner pick-and-roll, for instance, would allow Walton, Irvin, and Robinson to hunt for shots while opposing defense have to deal with scoring threats on both ends of the screen.
If MAAR's outside shooting progress holds and he continues to elevate the rest of his offensive repertoire, his previously low usage rate could take off this year. He should see a lot of run; right now, he's the team's best finisher, most reliable perimeter defender, and a good bet to be the third primary ballhandler after Walton and Simpson.
Robinson's torrid shooting cooled as opponents started gameplanning around him. [Fuller]
Measurables: 6'8", 215
Base Stats: 28.9 MPG, 11.2 PPG, 48/45/89 2P/3P/FT%, 3.5 REB/G, 65 assists, 36 turnovers, 23 steals
Key Advanced Metrics: 17.4% usage, 123.6 ORating, 12.1 assist rate, 11.6 turnover rate, 12.2 defensive rebound percentage
We all know the main reason Duncan Robinson is out there: he's a deadeye marksman whose practice exploits have surpassed even those of Nik Stauskas. His quick, consistent release and seemingly endless range make him a devastating three-point shooter:
For a healthy portion of last season, Robinson's first as an eligible player after transferring from D-III Williams College, he looked like he'd finish with a three-point percentage above 50. Conference play saw that figure fall back to earth, however; he shot a (relatively) disappointing 36% from beyond the arc in Big Ten games as foes hounded him off the ball, doing anything possible to prevent him from getting enough room to comfortably rise and fire.
Last year, that was enough to effectively negate Robinson. While he posted a respectable two-point percentage, his looks inside the arc had a stark contrast to those of, say, MAAR—Robinson's mostly came on blow-bys when opponents closed out way too hard or wide open backcuts when they overplayed him off the ball. He temporarily lost his starting job to Aubrey Dawkins, who was posting similar shooting numbers from outside the arc while bringing an entirely different level of athleticism.
Oddly enough, Robinson's much-maligned defense helped him earn that spot back, but only because Dawkins was even worse on that end of the floor. John Beilein said at media day that he's looking for Robinson to give more of an effort on that end; the main focus, however, is working to free him up for open looks again:
I’d like to play him in a couple different positions, so at 6’7”, 6’8”, he can play off the ball screen. Duncan’s whole thing is now, every year has been this great step. The next step is, I’ve got to run a little faster, I’m a marked man. This is not a game of HORSE, I’ll tell him often in practice. You’ve gotta be—watch Kyle Korver, you’ve gotta be running at high speed, because the scouting report is out on you. You are maybe the best shooter in the country. They’re not gonna get you open, you’ve got to get yourself open. That’s that nice, next progression. Guarding his yard, diving on the floor, becoming a more rugged defender. That’s another step.
With Dawkins gone, Robinson won't be looking over to the bench whenever he makes an error; he should be locked in at ~30 minutes a game barring a huge breakout year for DJ Wilson.
As Beilein's quote indicates, Michigan won't be looking for Robinson to expand his game as much as refine it. His exceptional shooting, when he's on, opens up space for the rest of the team—space that slashers like Walton, Simpson, and MAAR will be happy to work in. If he can improve his off-ball movement and become a passable defender—c'mon, Billy Donlon—then his absurd non-conference numbers from last year could become the norm. At worst, he should be a consistent double-digit scorer who occasionally goes off and swings a game or two by himself.
Irvin worked his way to the rim more often last season. [Eric Upchurch]
Measurables: 6'6", 215
Base Stats: 32.9 MPG, 11.8 PPG, 48/30/66 2P/3P/FT%, 4.5 REB/G, 107 assists, 65 turnovers, 27 steals
Key Advanced Metrics: 22.7% usage, 97.7 ORating, 18.0 assist rate, 15.2 turnover rate, 15.1 defensive rebound percentage, 1.4 fouls committed/40 minutes
Much like Derrick Walton, Zak Irvin is a bizarrely difficult player to figure out given he's a three-year contributor heading into his senior season. As a freshman, he was an unabased and effective long-range gunner, hitting 43% of his 146 three-point attempts. That percentage fell to 35% as his role expanded in his sophomore year, then plummeted to 30% last year as a back injury plagued Irvin for the first half of the season.
While the season-long numbers don't look good, Irvin got much better in Big Ten play, making 37% of his threes. He still posted an ORating below 100, however, because the rest of his offensive game remained a work-in-progress even as Michigan relied on him to be their highest-usage player. Irvin was featured as the ballhandler in the pick-and-roll for the first time in his career with mixed results; while his assist rate nearly doubled, his turnovers rose too, and his inability to finish with force at the rim led to a lot of layups getting batted into photographers row—Irvin shot only 43% inside the arc in Big Ten play.
On the other hand, Irvin added a lot to his repertoire last year, including an off-the-bounce pull-up game that came through in the clutch a couple times:
As a wing masquerading as a power forward, Irvin also frequently drew the toughest assignment on defense against much bigger players, and he generally held his own. The taller Robinson could provide some respite there, as Beilein mentioned, as could DJ Wilson; at the very least, not having to guard burly post players should help him expend more of his energy on offense.
At this stage, it's unclear what Irvin will be as a senior. If everything comes together, he's an all-conference player, but first he needs to rediscover his shot. This stat from UMHoops is alarming:
The injury clearly affected Irvin last year, but his shooting fell off the previous season, too. At this point, I don't expect him to return to his freshman-year mark—opponents weren't gamplanning around him with all the surrounding talent that season—but a jump back into the mid-to-high 30s would be huge for this team. Not having to shoulder as much of the offensive load should help, and I don't think he'll have to with Walton hopefully at full health, MAAR improving, and Simpson stepping into the rotation.
To be perfectly honest, though, I have no idea what to expect of Irvin this year. His collegiate career could end with a boom or a thud; neither would come as a shock.