[Photos/graphic: Marc-Gregor Campredon]
Previously: Point Guards
The second part of the three-part position previews comes one day before Michigan opens the season, which means I'm way behind. While the season preview will continue into next week, I should probably post the first game info, right?
Oh, dammit, they scheduled it while the football game is almost certainly going to be in the fourth quarter, and you'll have to pay for a stream if you're not there.
WHAT: Michigan vs. North Florida
WHERE: Crisler Center, Ann Arbor, MI
WHEN: Saturday, 7:30 pm EST
TV: BTN Plus ($, online stream only)
Uh, don't expect an instant recap, but I'll get some notes posted on this game once I get a chance to actually watch it.
Anyway, the wings. Michigan loses two starters, DJ Wilson and Zak Irvin. Kentucky transfer Charles Matthews, a similarly sized player with a similarly broad set of skills, is the clear replacement for Irvin. As for Wilson, well, can we interest you in some three-point shooting? Ask about the rest later.
[Hit THE JUMP for individual player previews.]
Measurables: 6'4", 190
Base Stats: 30.6 MPG, 9.1 PPG, 53/38/77 2P/3P/FT%, 2.8 REB/G, 75 assists, 39 turnovers, 35 steals
Key Advanced Metrics: 16.3% usage, 115.8 ORating, 11.7 assist rate, 12.9 turnover rate
While MAAR may not be in the all-conference discussion, he's developed into a reliable role player with a clear niche on this team. Despite being a relatively slight 6'4", 190, his specialty is driving and finishing—he's hit 56% of his two-pointers in Big Ten play in each of the last two seasons. He's not otherwise much of a shot creater, but he ranked in the 93rd percentile in isolation-derived offense, per Synergy, making him a legitimate late-clock scoring option.
Whereas MAAR's outside shooting numbers nosedived as his sophomore season went on, they crescendoed in his junior year—he canned a scorching 49% of his threes in conference games. While he won't put up numbers that good over the course of an entire season, he's a decent bet to make 40% of his triples, which'll do just fine.
If Jaaron Simmons and Charles Matthews play up to expectation, MAAR should be able to settle into the same role that he's had the last two years—a secondary scorer who can carry the offense for short bursts.
On the other end of the floor, MAAR was surprisingly bad last season, grading out as easily Michigan's worst primary on-ball defender. In his case, it's a matter of technique and focus; he broke Tim Hardaway Jr.'s lane agility record this offseason, so athleticism isn't the issue. He was marginally better, but still below-average, as a sophomore. He probably won't be great, but there's hope he can at least be a passable defender given his experience.
Measurables: 6'8", 215
Base Stats: 20.1 MPG, 7.7 PPG, 58/42/78 2P/3P/FT%, 1.7 REB/G, 33 assists, 19 turnovers
Key Advanced Metrics: 16.9% usage, 20.8% shot, 123.2 ORating, 8.3 assist rate, 9.2 turnover rate, 9.3 defensive rebound %
DJ Wilson's unexpected rise to NBA first-rounder kept Duncan Robinson in a reserve role last season. That was ideal: Beilein could get instant offense off the bench while also handpicking defensive matchups to help paper over Robinson's poor play on that end. We saw why that was necessary in the final game of last season, when Oregon isolated Robinson seemingly every possession he was on the floor to devastating effect.
A decent portion of the problem was physical; Robinson is far from quick-footed. But there was also a mental aspect; other than MAAR and the freshmen, he was the player most prone to missing rotations and switches. We'll see if it carries over to defense, but one thing I noticed at the open practice was Robinson has taken on the role of vocal leader—that could help keep him focused.
Regardless, Robinson will be out there primarily for his shooting, which usually makes up for his issues on the other end. He's shot 44% on threes at Michigan and his exceptionally smooth stroke keeps him relatively slump-proof—he's the example you use in the jump shot instructional video. He's particularly lethal on the fast break. He was the most efficient transition scorer in the country as a sophomore, producing 1.61 points per possession with a bonkers 84.2 eFG%, among players who used at least 40 much possessions, per Synergy, and he was nearly as effective with a similar workload last year, finishing in the top ten among high-major players. He's great at finding the right place to spot up and his teammates know to look for him.
Quietly, he expanded his offensive repertoire a bit last year, too. While he very much picked his spots, he used timely drives and cuts to up his two-point percentage from 48 to 58. The player most often tasked with defending him in practice, freshman Isaiah Livers, mentioned that's been a point of emphasis:
"To guard someone who I consider the best shooter in the country, it’s tough, because he added that dribbling to his game. He pump-fakes you, because Coach wants us to run him off the line and make him dribble, so I practice doing that and make him better, and I have to recover and get back and he’s already doing his thing, he has a floater, so it’s tough, it’s definitely tough."
Robinson should at least be a very capable outside scorer whose occasional forays to the basket are efficient because he knows when to strike. He'll probably still have to be hidden on defense, which will prove problematic in certain matchups, but the presence of the next player in the starting lineup will hopefully alleviate that issue.
Measurables: 6'6", 200
Base Stats (Kentucky 2015-16): 10.3 MPG, 1.7 PPG, 46/25/41 2P/3P/FT%, 1.6 REB/G, 13 assists, 19 turnovers, 15 steals
Key Advanced Metrics: 13.0% usage, 9.5% shot, 92.7 ORating, 5.5 assist rate, 23.1 turnover rate, 10.2 offensive rebound %, 7.7 defensive rebound %, 2.4% steal rate, 65.4 FT rate
This was my initial interaction with Charles Matthews upon sitting down at his table on Media Day.
Me: “It sounds like rebounding is going to be one of the big things you bring to the team this year…”
Matthews: “It’s always something different. (laughs)”
Scoring. Shot creation. Rebounding. Defense. All of those came up when discussing the talented Kentucky transfer. Matthews came to Michigan last year following a disappointing freshman campaign in Lexington. It didn't take long for word of his scoring and athletic prowess to spread from the Crisler Center. Matthews acknowledges, however, that real game situations are an entirely different animal from starring on the scout team in practice:
“Scout team is completely different than playing in the actual, organized system. You’re sharing the ball much more, you’re playing with a lot of spacing. On scout team, it was more taking contested shots. I have great players around me now. Scout team, I’m not playing with people that’s playing major minutes. It’s taking time adjusting and getting comfortable within the schemes and playing with everybody but I feel that we’re moving along pretty well.”
Two notes of intrigue came up while I around Matthews. First, he said he feels healthy after undergoing surgery following his freshman season, which corrected an issue that he said had him tight in the hips. That may, at least in part, explain his first-year struggles, especially shooting the ball. That takes me to the next note—Beilein told the assembled press he wants Matthews to shoot the ball more:
“We’re really excited about [his development as a shooter]. He’s probably not shooting enough from three, because he’s really developed that. I think in one of our shooting drills he hit 65 out of 85 threes. So, yeah, do that when the lights are on now, but that was a high number for him. His numbers in some of our shooting drills are outstanding. Still a bit inconsistent, but I bet as the year goes on, he’s gonna get more comfortable every game at shooting. It’s pretty simple for him right now: shoot it when you’re open and pass it when you’re not, drive it if you see an alley. Sometimes he’s getting those mixed up a little bit.”
He looked very good in the exhibition, dropping a team-high 23 points. Most of that came on drives to the hoop, but he did make 1/3 threes and dish out a couple assists. He also had the monster block pictured above. His athleticism is a huge asset, especially since he'll have to take on a similar defensive role to Zak Irvin last year—guarding anyone from the two to the four depending on matchups—despite being about 15 pounds lighter.
Nobody really knows how Matthews will perform while playing significant in-game minutes for the first time since high school. The early returns, at least, are promising.
While not at highly ranked as Jordan Poole, Livers is the freshman with the best chance of carving out a major role. After DJ Wilson's departure, Livers is already locked in as the backup to Duncan Robinson, and he's the only traditional four on the roster.
While not as deadeye as Robinson, Livers has a promising offensive skill-set: a good outside shot, decent handles, and impressive court vision with above-average athleticism for a burlier 6'7" forward. He also knows that it's the other stuff that's going to get him on the court. From Media Day:
“You hear Coach [Beilein] talk about, to play for him, it’s defense and rebounding. I took that mindset. We have the stat sheet in the locker room, I think I’m leading rebounds right now, so I think I’m doing pretty good. I probably need to crash the glass a lot more, the offensive glass. In terms of defensively, it’s so different from high school. I have to be more active. I have to be help more. In high school you’re the man, so you can kinda get away with doing some stuff. At the college level, [points at table] you’ve got to be here. If you’re not here, you can lose a game in one second. It think it’s just more of staying focused and taking the learning process.”
Livers should be a better defender than Robinson from the outset, and if he gets more aggressive than he did in high school, he should also be a superior rebounding option. That won't be enough to unseat Robinson from a starting spot unless Livers also gets a remarkably quick handle on Beilein's system, but it wouldn't be surprising to see his role grow considerably as he gets more comfortable—he'll give Beilein much-needed lineup flexibility, especially when facing teams that make it difficult to hide Robinson on defense.
Measurables: 6'5", 200
Base Stats: 4.4 MPG, 1.3 PPG, 82/6/75 2P/3P/FT%, 0.4 REB/G, 1 assist, 3 turnovers, 2 steals
Key Advanced Metrics: 20.6% usage, 25.8% shot, 75.8 ORating, 12.5 defensive rebound %
Watson came to campus last year billed as an athletic shooter. In limited garbage-time minutes, he showed off that athleticism, making 9-of-11 twos, several of which were high-flying dunks. If there were any doubts about his bounce, he broke the Camp Sanderson vertical leap record this offseason with a 44.5-inch launch; not bad at a program that produced the last NBA slam dunk champion.
The shooting, though. Watson connected on just one of his 18 three-point attempts. To his credit, he never appeared to lose confidence in his shot—he took over 25% of the team's attempts when on the floor—but, well, 1-for-18. It's a tiny sample, thankfully. It's still a major concern, especially since Watson functioned as Just A Shooter™ and, like most freshmen, didn't look like an asset on defense.
While we'd mostly written him off, especially with Poole arriving on campus, it was Watson who got the backup shooting guard minutes in the exhibition. He responded with 8 points on 3/5 shooting, including a 1/2 mark from downtown. It's early yet to dismiss Watson's chances of emerging as a contributor. We've seen some unexpected one-year leaps from this program (look no further than DJ Wilson) and Watson has all the requisite physical ability to be a valuable scorer off the bench. Yes, it's admittedly hard to trust him after last year, but Watson wouldn't be the first freshman to be overwhelmed by Beilein's system before breaking out once the game slowed down.
Measurables: 6'4", 190
Recruiting profile (Hello post): Four-star, #19 SG, #92 overall
In a bit of a surprise, the highest-ranked incoming freshman was the only one not to get significant time in the exhibition. Poole could be in line for a redshirt after only seeing the floor in walk-on time.
That must mean Poole needs to round out his game, as he has an immediately translatable skill: he's considered one of the best shooters in the 2017 class, and he's already got NBA-level range. 247 named him one of the ten freshmen most likely to average double-digit points because of his catch-and-shoot ability.
If Watson can't take a step forward, there could still be a role for Poole, albeit one that could potentially be filled by two-PG lineups involving Eli Brooks if Poole is struggling with the system or doesn't have the defensive chops to stay on the floor. The early indication is he's headed for a redshirt, but with his marksmanship that could change in a hurry.