Bryan Fuller / MGoBlog
Michigan entered the season with an ostensibly high-powered “Big Three” – Caris LeVert had superstar potential and a dazzling arsenal of offensive skills; Derrick Walton was an aggressive, tough, and relentlessly driving point guard; Zak Irvin was a reliable artillery piece with plenty of room to grow. In hindsight, all fell short of expectations in their own way: Caris suffered under the burden of being an alpha dog, Derrick was perpetually nagged by a toe injury, and Zak’s shot abandoned him without an offsetting improvement elsewhere.
Eventually, injuries whittled the Wolverines down to just one of their three musketeers – Irvin. With all three, Zak often took an overly deferential role; without his running mates beside him and with Michigan’s season locked in firmly as a disappointment, he thrived and expanded his game, finding success with the ball in his hands and providing one of the brightest spots of a largely wasted year.
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A Rocky Position Switch
Judging Zak by his aggregate body of work as a sophomore provides a much different picture than evaluating his strengths near the end of the year. On the whole, he averaged 14.4 points, 1.5 assists, and 4.8 rebounds per game while shooting 45 / 35 / 69 (2P% / 3P% / FT%) – solid, albeit inefficient numbers. With his move from the four to the three, he assumed a much larger responsibility in Michigan’s offense: operating from the left side of the floor opened up dribble handoffs into the middle of the lane (as well as other opportunities driving with his dominant right hand) and offered a bigger role than the one he occupied in end-of-the-rotation minutes as a freshman.
He didn’t adjust well, especially at first. More so than most former threes in Beilein’s system, he still remained one-dimensional much like he was two years ago – though considerably less efficient. His playmaking – which was missing for the first several months of the season – was sorely needed after turf toe sapped Derrick Walton’s explosiveness and Michigan’s offense eventually contorted to put a nearly impossible amount of pressure on Caris LeVert to generate quality looks. Between uncertainty at the four and five spots (Kam Chatman, while playing, utterly wrecked Michigan’s spacing and the cast of inexperienced posts struggled to replicate Jordan Morgan’s pick-and-roll prowess), it was a mess – a stark departure from the two seasons prior.
Here’s how Zak compared to all of Michigan’s other starting three men (starting after Beilein’s messy first year):
Though it’s tough to compare a sophomore to some of Michigan’s better players in recent memory, Irvin was a five-star and did have an impressive and encouraging freshman season – one that suggested a possible breakout season as a sophomore. It didn’t happen. The two things that stand out most are his low assist rate and free throw rate (and percentage).
2011 Tim Hardaway and 2013 Nik Stauskas weren’t relied on to create offense because of the excellent passing of Darius Morris and Trey Burke, respectively – Zak wasn’t able to provide his teammates with enough quality looks and Michigan desperately needed that. Irvin’s low free throw rate is disappointing for a different reason: after a freshman year as Just a Shooter™, a natural development track and much more playing time might have made Irvin into a player who could attack the basket. Like his passing, his ability to drive and score improved over the course of the season, but on the whole, it was lacking. Because of his less effective outside shooting, a reliable way to score – from the free throw stripe – would have been ideal, but Irvin only averaged 2.4 free throw attempts in 36.2 minutes per game.
Even with the late surge, Irvin was too one-dimensional. In hindsight, expecting a Stauskasesque leap from spot-up shooter to all-around offensive menace was probably too much. Fortunately Zak did diversify his game and flashed signs of a well-rounded game on the offensive end, but Michigan’s season was effectively over at that point.
[Hit the JUMP for the rest of the analysis]
What Happened to Zak’s Shot?
The elephant in the room is Zak’s inexplicable regression as a three-point shooter. He shot 43% on a significant amount of attempts as a freshman and even though he was expected to take more (and tougher) outside shots, a drop to 35% was a significant disappointment. With data from Shot Analytics (which is missing a few attempts from each season), here’s what changed:
As expected, most of his shot attempts moved from the right side of the floor to the left side – indicative of his position change. The most perplexing and frustrating thing was Irvin’s regression from the corners: as a freshman, he hit 45% of those high-value shots (on 47 attempts) and as a sophomore, he hit just 25% (on 72 attempts). It’s too stark of a regression to dismiss as an anomaly, but I don’t have any answers as to why or how it happened. Regardless, Michigan’s offense – like most – considers generating an open catch-and-shoot corner three a successful possession, but Irvin wasn’t able to cash those in.
He’s a very good above-the-break shooter, which bodes well for his future with the ball in his hands more. He shot a combined 44% on right wing and top-of-the-key threes on a hearty 110 attempts – as Stauskas illustrated a year before, a reliable shooting threat off of the left-to-right ball-screens is extremely valuable. Zak did see a slight drop-off on the right wing – his sweet spot as a freshman – but he’ll continue to shoot much fewer attempts from there as long as he stays at the three.
Irvin did shot pretty much exactly the same from behind the arc after LeVert and Walton’s injuries, though his number of attempts varied significantly over the season:
My guess is that after an inconsistent – though high-volume – non-conference portion of the season, Irvin became more judicious with his shot selection, though he steadily increased his three-point attempts after LeVert’s injury.
Moving forward, Michigan will need Irvin to be a reliable outside shooter and – though it’s almost impossible to predict stuff like this without resorting to guesswork – I think he’ll improve next season after some time in the lab with Beilein and company. He probably won’t shoot 43% again, but improvement from the corners (particularly the right corner, which is where Nik made his money, especially as a freshman) would go a long way.
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It throws off the balance of the two pictures, but I had to include a shot of William Buford hitting a three that won Michigan a share of the Big Ten Championship. You’re my favorite Buckeye ever, buddy.
Player Similarity Analysis
While by no means perfect, my similarity score system – which incorporates 20 types of tempo-free stats and finds the most proximate statistical profiles of Big Ten players from 2008 to 2015 – is an interesting way to find names that could enhance our perception of a given player. Here are the ten player seasons most analogous to Zak Irvin’s sophomore season:
The common denominator is that all of the players were good-not-great Big Ten wings, none were the best players on their respective teams. Irvin gets William Buford’s disappointing senior season as his top comparison, followed by one of Drew Crawford’s better years – maybe Northwestern’s best bid at the NCAA Tournament ever – and Durrell Summers, another disappointing senior.
Three players appear twice in Zak’s top ten: Ohio State’s William Buford, Illinois’s D.J. Richardson, and Michigan’s own Tim Hardaway, Jr. (who played his first two years at the three before moving to the two). Buford and Hardaway in particular offer a potential road-map for Irvin’s career (at least in the short-term). Those two were secondary scoring options on very good teams and – if Caris LeVert decides to return to Michigan – Irvin could find himself in a similar situation if Michigan improves. Comparing Irvin’s sophomore year to the average of Buford’s four seasons and Hardaway’s three shows that the three are quite similar:
Click on image to enlarge
In 2015, Irvin was less efficient than the other two, mostly due to worse shooting – particularly at the free throw line. Hardaway’s average shooting splits (50 / 34 / 72) is remarkably close to Irvin’s sophomore splits (45 / 35 / 69). They both took close to the same amount of threes; the big difference in true shooting percentage and, consequently, efficiency comes from better finishing inside the arc and a higher free throw rate. Because Hardaway was able to get to the line much more than Irvin (31.1 FT Rate vs. 18.8), he was efficient enough to justify his high usage. Buford’s free throw rate was close to Irvin’s but Buford was better at each level – two-point, three-point, and free throw. None of the three turned it over – and corollary to that, nobody set up teammates for assists – and all hit the glass pretty well for a wing player.
It’s easy to see where Irvin – who’s currently slightly below average efficiency-wise for his level of usage* – can make improvements to get on the level of those All-Big Ten wings. Assuming that his three-point percentage will regress back to the mean, the slightest of upticks in free throw rate or finishing around the rim should be enough to get Zak there. Any significant improvement passing the ball – like the tantalizing glimpses he showed near the end of the year – and Zak would have an added dimension that Buford and Hardaway lacked.
*Irvin’s usage rate was 23.2 – the average offensive rating of the 109 Big Ten players with a usage rate within more or less than one percentage point of 23.2 is 103.1 (with a standard deviation of 9.8). Irvin’s offensive rating (101.0) is lower than that average.
Moving forward, Hardaway in particular will be a fascinating benchmark for Irvin’s performance. Ideally, their roles are similar (though Zak may have a more egalitarian split with Walton – if LeVert declares for the draft – than Hardaway ever did with his ball-dominant point guard running mates) and if Zak gets to the level of Timmy’s junior year – in which he was named to the All-Big Ten first team (somehow), and which he parlayed into a first-round selection in the NBA Draft – that will be a win. If he’s better, Michigan’s in very good shape to bounce back into the NCAA Tournament, assuming that Irvin’s cohorts hold up their end of the bargain.
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He’s Becoming Not Just a Shooter™
If it seems like I’ve been too critical, here’s where I become (perhaps irrationally) optimistic for Zak. As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention and the loss of Caris and Derrick had a trickle-down effect for the rest of the personnel: obviously the emergence of Aubrey Dawkins and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman as serviceable Big Ten rotation players was a big story, as was Spike Albrecht’s modest stint as a feasible starting point guard, but, to me, Zak Irvin’s maturation was the most important narrative in the embers of Michigan’s season.
These two charts show two very important dynamics for Zak in the wake of the injuries to Michigan’s other two key players:
Once a black hole on the offensive end, Zak managed to expand his vision, passing, and general playmaking abilities in a remarkable way down the stretch: he had three or more assists in just 9 of 32 games, but six of those games came in Michigan’s last six contests. Somehow, after Michigan’s embarrassing home blowout loss to Michigan State, Irvin became a plus passer for a three man in Michigan’s offense, which came as a shock to most everyone who has followed Michigan hoops closely. His assist rate as a freshman was impossibly low for a perimeter player (4.1) and the beginning of this past season was more of the same until the last three weeks of the season.
The opening-round Big Ten Tournament game against Illinois – probably Michigan’s best performance of the year – was a microcosm of that key offensive improvement: Zak scored 14 points on 15 field goal attempts (which isn’t very efficient), but his career-high six assists turned an average-at-best game into a very good one for him. It was surreal seeing Zak pick apart the Illini defense from the pick-and-roll, passing well not only to the roll man, but seeing to the next level of defensive alignment to make all five players a feasible scoring option. Reading the closed system between he, the roll man, and their two defenders is one thing, but sensing where the other three defenders are spatially and setting up wide-open looks on over-help is incredibly impressive. If not for a few hacks around the basket, he would have had more assists, and it still doesn’t seem like that tells the whole story. In that game, Zak was a legitimately great passer because of vision that, quite frankly, I didn’t know he had.
If his assist rate creeps up towards 20 next year – and I don’t see why it shouldn’t, based on his passing in those last six games – he’ll be an incredibly dangerous option with the ball in his hands, not only because he can create looks for others, but also because the defense will have to play him straight-up, enabling him to generate better looks for himself as well.
Less important – but another sign that Irvin’s developing into a well-rounded player – was his gradual increase in defensive rebounds over the course of the season, which spiked after Derrick Walton’s injury (as Walton is an elite rebounding point guard). For example, Michigan lost the last game of the season on the defensive glass, as Wisconsin rebounded a healthy 44% of their misses, but that wasn’t Zak’s fault, as he hauled in 11 of Michigan’s 15 defensive boards. Michigan seems to like having their guards and wings attack the defensive boards so they can key transition attempts themselves, and Zak’s newfound aggressiveness in that regard is just another asset.
Speaking of that Wisconsin game, Michigan held up admirably well – the Badgers romped through the Big Ten, upset goliath Kentucky, and were a few possessions away from a national title, but Michigan had the game tied with five minutes left. Spike Albrecht was key in opening up an early lead, but besides that, Irvin – and, incredibly, Ricky Doyle – carried the team on their shoulders. Irvin finished with a line of 21 points, 11 rebounds, 3 assists, and 3 steals, which was probably his best outside of the inflated numbers in the double OT loss to Northwestern. That the loss to Wisconsin was the end of the season was especially bitter because Zak was just showing flashes of what he could be, between his new pick-and-roll prowess and his excellent work on the glass.
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Patrick Barron / MGoBlog
Much like Michigan’s season as a whole, Zak Irvin’s sophomore slump wasn’t what we expected, but to call it an unequivocal disappointment or failure simply wouldn’t be fair. Just as the whole team saw new, valuable rotational pieces thrive in bigger roles, Irvin flashed signs of promise and even though it happened too late to affect the ultimate outcome of the season, he did exhibit the versatility that we expected, or at least hoped for, at the beginning of the season. As for his three-point shooting – Tim Hardaway is instructive as a comparison in this way as well: Timmy shot 37% from three as a freshman before slumping to 28% as a sophomore. Hopefully Zak can reprise Hardaway’s resurgence as a shooter next season: Tim shot 37% as a junior.
Near the end of the year, Irvin provided more than enough reason to be excited about his prospects as a junior. If LeVert leaves, Irvin could be a more than capable secondary ball-handler and distributor next to Derrick Walton, and if LeVert comes back (or Jaylen Brown somehow decides to commit to Michigan), he’ll be a luxury – one of the auxiliary weapons that power Beilein’s best offenses. There are obvious concerns: his outside shooting for one (though 35% isn’t that bad), but especially his lack of strength and finishing ability around the rim. Another year of physical maturation should help there, and even if he’s never a true destroyer attacking the hoop, having the ability to score inside and get to the line would help offset poor shooting nights.
Ultimately, the strides that he showed late in the year will be the enduring memory from the past season. Michigan fans – and players, probably – will be quick to forget this season for obvious reasons, but even though Irvin wasn’t particularly special as a sophomore, those tantalizing glimpses of his potential provide legitimate reasons for optimism and hope moving forward, as the former five-star Mr. Basketball from the state of Indiana will doubtlessly be a key piece in the next season or two in any scenario.