Every Play Counts: Zack Novak

Dylan Burkhardt

Zack Novak battles with Alex Oriahki

“Every Play Counts” is a feature that I discovered over at Basketball Prospectus designed to examine one player in a single game and attempt to analyze how and why the player succeeds or fails (it also has roots at NFL Fanhouse). Here’s an example where Kevin Pelton examines one of Brandon Jennings’ first games.

After watching Michigan’s game against Connecticut it was obvious that there was one player who needed the “every play counts” treatment: Zack Novak. Some of the most common clichés in basketball are thrown around about Novak, things like “glue guy”, “makes plays that don’t show up in the box score”, “grit and hustle”, etc. The thing is, in Novak’s case they tend to be true.

Note: All links are to videos which will play inline with the page. (I think they should be working now)

Novak began the game matched up with 6-foot-9 240 pound Alex Oriakhi. To compare, Novak is listed at 6-foot-5 210 pounds but there’s no way he is actually 6-foot-5. On the first possession of the game, UConn exploited the mismatch. With Novak attempting to front the post, UConn lobbed the ball inside to Oriakhi who missed a layup after Harris and Sims arrived with help. But UConn stole the outlet pass and Oriakhi followed up Jerome Dyson’s missed layup with an easy tip-dunk over Novak.

Throughout the game Novak guarded a number of UConn big men including Alex Oriakhi, Gavin Edwards, and Ater Majok, all listed over 6-foot-9. Michigan also switched screens quite a bit, leaving Novak to guard Stanley Robinson quite a bit as well. When Novak was switched onto one of UConn’s guards, he looked to switch with a guard as soon as possible to avoid being taken off the dribble.

On the offensive end, Novak is content to work the offense and move the ball. He doesn’t really look to create, especially early on, and it’s very seldom that Michigan attempts to run the offense through him. Novak notched his first basket when he pushed Ater Majok out of the way and wiggled his way to an offensive rebound and putback for Michigan’s first field goal of the game.

When Michigan does look for Novak on offense, they try to get him involved curling off of a screen. Early on, Novak got a decent look off a Sims downscreen that allowed him to pop out for a free throw line jumper but Majok’s length altered Novak’s shot, forcing him to shoot long and hit back iron.

image stanley-robinson-novak novak-edwards

Because of his size disadvantage, Novak was forced to front the post versus Connecticut’s taller and stronger power forwards. Novak did a great job of battling on defense and even knocked away a few entry passes.

Novak is also one of the best Michigan players at providing help defense. Here you can see Novak slide over to help Lucas-Perry, who was beat off a screen, and manage to block Beverly’s layup attempt. His court awareness is obvious on both sides of the ball but on defense he just has a nose for loose balls. Novak does a great job of using his lower body to play defense and getting just enough body on the opponent to alter their shot with his arms straight up, he even managed to block a shot without really leaving his feet.

There are other times when Novak is just completely overmatched on the glass. Gavin Edwards pulled down several rebounds right over Novak’s head. Other times Novak attempts to contest close range shots but his lack of size prevents him from affecting the bigger player, resulting in an easy basket (this tends to be especially painful against a guy like Mike Davis who loves the midrange jumpshot). These type of plays are unavoidable and the key for Michigan and Novak is to minimize these types of isolation situations.

One of the ways to minimize the mismatch is the double the ball in the post, something that Michigan did versus UConn. Michigan’s double team was relatively successful, UConn’s bigs didn’t do a great job passing the ball and there were very few times when Michigan was truly burned on the double team.

One issue that Novak has been dealing with is picking up cheap fouls. He has been called for 17 fouls in Big Ten play, 3.4 per game. The Connecticut game was no different as Zack picked up four on the day. The fouls limit playing time (11 first half minutes) and it’s not every day that Anthony Wright will pick up the slack and hit three triples off the bench. Novak’s relative lack of athleticism and aggressive style of play is always going to point toward more fouls but the longer he can stay on the court the better.

One other knock on Novak is that he can be a little overzealous in trying to a draw a charge. In the second half, Novak attempted to take a charge, falling out of the way while his original man picked up the easy offensive rebound for a layup. Finally, Novak’s worst moment of the game was a painful turnover on a lazy pass that led to an easy Jerome Dyson layup.

Novak’s rejection of Donnell Beverley’s alley oop attempt to Alex Oriahki was probably the play of the game. Novak busted his ass for the entire possession and managed to recover and jump just high enough to deflect the pass. His hustle on the ensuing offensive possession might have been even more impressive. Novak managed to sneak between Alex Oriakhi and Kemba Walker, rebounding Laval Lucas-Perry’s missed three pointer and laying the ball up between four UConn players (video above).

As I mentioned in my post-game, this sequence of plays is really the epitome of what Zack Novak brings to this team. Hustle plays are winning plays and despite his lack of size and limited athleticism, Novak has made 2 or 3 times as many hustle plays this year as anyone else on the team.

As mentioned earlier, when Michigan tries to get the ball to Novak they like to give it to him near the circles with the option to shoot or drive coming off of a screen. Novak isn’t a huge threat to take the ball all the way to the hole but he managed to draw a foul on Gavin Edwards the one time that he did try to take the ball to the tin.

It’s all about the little things. For example, on Sims’ basket with 3 minutes remaining, Novak sets a great pick on Gavin Edwards, getting just enough of him to free Peedi for a wide open layup on the opposite block.

Despite making so many positive plays for the first 38 minutes, Novak hadn’t been able to buy a three pointer all game long. He missed his first two attempts and also bobbled quite a few passes that could have led to good looks.

Luckily he picked the most opportune time to hit his first three of the game. With under two minutes to play Manny Harris drove the lane, forcing the defense to collapse, and found Novak wide open at the top of the key. Novak buried the three and Michigan never trailed again.

Novak’s final stat line was 10 points (3 of 6), 4 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, 1 block, and 1 turnover. It doesn’t look outstanding on paper but it’s hard to watch the game and not notice Novak’s impact on the game.

  • StopStormingTheCourt…I agree

    Most important player on the team. My favorite player. You know he will always try his hardest no matter what. CJ Lee was the same way last year. Its just so hard to find guys with that high motor and have incredible talent. Thats what makes the great ones great.

  • Benjamin

    Hmm, videos aren’t working for me Dylan.

  • Also, I am a huge Novak fan.

    You can tell he plays with everything he’s got. He makes you proud to be a Michigan fan.

  • Jason

    This is great analysis. Thanks for putting it together. I knew watching the game that Novak played his butt off, but it’s nice to have his effort so thoroughly reviewed.

  • Matt

    Open the videos in a new tab.

    The possession where Sims gets a baby hook from 3 feet away with the ball touching the floor once is just beautiful. I wish we could see that more often.

  • Dylan

    Yeah… Not working in Firefox. I’ll have to fix it later. Cntrl+click should open in a new tab as a work around for now. Or use chrome.

  • Loving the Blue

    Great write up on a great player. One thing of many that I like about this site is that it does not focus on just the star players (Manny and Sims), but everyone gets looked at and paise and credit are given out for the small things.

    Holding out hope for Wednesday night.

  • Tweeter

    Wow. watching the possession where Sims gets the baby hook after the screen from Novak, shows you the biggest difference between Beilein and Amaker. That is just terrific offense. Everyone moving with a purpose, the ball swings from side to side, and pretty solid screening and cutting throughout. I cant wait for the day when this program can combine that kind of organization with a little more talent.

  • Tweeter

    On another note, really hope Calhoun gets back soon from his leave. We could really use Uconn winning some games here. Not that it matters at all if UM doesnt take care of its business . . .

  • Jordan


  • Tweeter

    Nothing better to do before open run tonight, so I’ll just keep posting. Pat Forde has some Michigan comments in his most recent column, including us as one of four programs that have faded (dont know how you can fade after only one year of decent basketball, but alas):

    “Michigan (28). The Wolverines were reintroduced to expectations this season, and promptly fainted. They’ve taken questionable losses at home (Boston College, Northwestern), at neutral sites (Alabama) and on the road (Utah, Indiana). Beating UConn and Ohio State within a two-week span this month might signal that John Beilein’s team is now ready to make a move — but The Minutes must see it to believe it.”

    Other teams included in this section were Uconn, UNC and Washington. So not such bad company.


  • Drew

    I don’t know about you guys, but I’m having a difficult time not watching that last 3 ball over and over again. Crowd erupting and everything… gives me the chills.

  • I think the videos should be working now.

  • Favorite Wolverine hoopster since The Rose That Grew From Concrete.

  • AG2

    In light of Northwestern shooting a whopping 19(!)% percent vs. OSU in the first half, me and my friend from Purdue are having a nice big facepalm moment tonight.

  • timeout1993

    AG2, same thought here. Despite claims to the contrary, this Northwestern team is not good and they should not have won at Crisler. Evanston is not Madison and we have no excuse not to beat them next time.

  • maxwell’s demon

    I’m going to guarantee OSU beats WVU. Calhoun news is disappointing. Come on Bama make my night.

  • Kenny

    The experience helps, Novak is more confident and plays smarter than ever. Hope that I can say the same about Wright, although he just played his best game this season.

  • timeout1993

    Can I ask a dumb and somewhat off-topic question? Does all this talk about whether we need to be 10-8, 11-7, or 12-6 really depend, above all, on the performance of — and our performance against — the middle powers Illinois and Minnesota (and, to a lesser extent, NW?)

    I mean, of course we want to control our destiny and win a few against the conf big four, but since the B10 is strong this year (with the Pac10 and ACC notably weak), the conf is guaranteed at least six bids. So don’t we just have to be above .500 and top-6? Considering that there will be like 2 Pac10 teams in this year’s tournament, are there really that many at-large mid-majors likely to look more attractive than a 10-8 Michigan team?

  • The Big Ten is not guaranteed six bids. MSU, Purdue, Wisconin, and OSU look like tourney teams.

    Minnesota, Illinois, Northwestern are on the outside looking in right now.

    Big Ten’s RPI is 6th and although they had the preseason hype the non-conference was very disappointing across the board. Purdue and Wisconsin were really the only ones with quality wins.

    If Michigan wants to make it at 10-8.. that better include some huge wins. 11-7 they have a shot I think. 12-6 I would be comfortable with.

  • AG2

    Dylan is right. Michigan has some bad, bad losses. Remember Indiana is a sub-200 team. Ideally a bubble team won’t have any losses below the RPI 100.

    If anything getting an at large will be harder this year rather than easier, because even though the Pac-10 and ACC are pretty down its a banner year for the Atlantic 10 and the Mountain West is pretty good looking too. I don’t see much from the Missouri Valley or Conference USA, though and the WCC is still Gonzaga and the Seven Dwarfs no matter how much ESPN’s fetish for St. Mary’s Australian players says otherwise.

  • Tweeter

    No conference is ever guaranteed anything Timeout. The committee does not look at conferences when evaluating teams. They look at each individual team and who they played and who they beat. That is all. Conference strength is completely irrelevant except to the extent that it makes your own schedule look good. So UM would get no love for finishing well in a tough conference (if in fact the BT was tough this year).

    At this point UM would have to win at least 11 to have a shot unless they made a deep run in the BTT.

  • JB

    Novak might be our most consistent player, although he’s obviously limited compared to manny and peedi. gotta love the way he plays.

    the big ten is in fact very tough this year. no it’s not awesome or anything, but it’s as good as any conference this season. I don’t see northwestern keeping it going. i’m interested to see how we do in the minny series.

    I tend to run different scenarios through my mind, but it’s a lost cause at this point. the bottom line is it’s all up to how we play. we’re capable of making it, capable of not making it. I don’t think there’s any way we win 12 big ten games. …one game at a time though. i had uw chalked up as a certain loss, but the leuer injury gives us a chance. a win at wiscy would be HUGE.

    we already have a lot of bad losses. hopefully if we pick it up the second half of the season that will be considered.

  • fresh

    this team needs one of the next two away games, michigan state at home for anything to be possible……….this is there last real chance to get a solid road win against 2 teams they are capable of beating and then beating state at home would be the best win of the year or maybe purdue away

  • Tweeter

    Ok, maybe I miss read your comment fresh, but at first I thought you were saying that this week is their last chance to get a solid road win. Which I disagree with, obviously because they have to go to OSU and MSU still. But now I think you are saying that these are the last two chances to win a road game against a team that they can beat. That is probably what you meant, and I read it wrong.

    But, I do think that this team can go to OSU and win. I know last year they played poorly there early on, but I think I remember them making a run in the second half. It would be a tall task especially with Turner back and playing well, but I would not rule it out. As for winning at MSU, eh, they would have to have one of those on nights which just have not happenned yet. However, that is the great thing about this team, at some point they are due for a complete game shooting the ball. Maybe it happens in one of those venues?

    Either way, I feel good about tomorrow. I like how we match up with Wisky and I gotta believe this team realizes how important it is for them to start putting together some wins.

  • Azad

    I think the story with this team definitely is that we wouldn’t be surprised to lose or win any game.

    While I really like Novak, and if i were playing basketball, I’d love to have Novak on my team, we really NEED him to be more consistent with the outside shooting. Maybe after that 3 against UConn that’ll give him a little boost, but we have shot 3s horrendously this season and pretty much everyone is to blame.

    Given our general talent level, we obviously dont’ have a ton of margin for error. Now that we are back playing hard and getting things done, we just need the 3s to fall and we can really work our way back into this season. The onus is on the sophomores I think, Stu/LLP/Novak, just to give our guys some support early in games and be factors so that Manny and Deshawn don’t just get double teamed during 2nd halves.

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  • Joel

    You’re still my favorite player Zack, but for God sakes, MAKE YOUR STUPID LAY-UPS!!!!

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