Defining Positions

Dylan Burkhardt

Drew Cannon wrote a great piece at BasketballProspectus put together a unique look at basketball positions and how to make use of players that don’t fit into traditional positional roles. Cannon spent most of his time examining how basketball coaches could benefit from understanding one thing: players can play different roles offensively and defensively.

Cannon breaks everything down into five defensive positions and three offensive roles:

On defense, you need to be able to guard your opponents. This means you have to be ready for speeds and heights of all kinds. You need to have a player capable of guarding each of the five traditional C-PF-SF-SG-PG positions. We’ll call the players capable of defending each position “D1” through “D5,” respectively, with speed/athleticism on the x-axis and height/strength on the y-axis:


And on offense what do you need to be successful? You need to be able to make shots (from the field or free throw line), avoid turnovers, and clean up the offensive glass–at the very least to the point where you aren’t handing over points by doing the opposite. This means that you need someone who can take care of the ball, someone who can put it in the basket, someone who can get the ball to that guy, and someone who can get the ball back when someone misses. We’ll call these four characters the Handler, the Scorer, the Creator, and the Rebounder.

As any good basketball blogger would do, I decided to apply Cannon’s work to Michigan’s roster. To make things a little clearer, I’m going to add one offensive label to the mix – shooter. I am going to refer to scorers as guys that should be able to create their own offense while shooters need some help.

  • Darius Morris: D1 – Handler/Creator
  • Stu Douglass: D2 – Shooter
  • Tim Hardaway: D2/3? – Scorer
  • Zack Novak: D2/3/4 – Shooter/Rebounder and maybe Scorer?
  • Matt Vogrich: D? – Shooter
  • Evan Smotrycz – D4 – Scorer
  • Colton Christian – D3/4 – Rebounder
  • Jordan Morgan – D5 – Rebounder
  • Jon Horford – D4 – Rebounder [Potential Redshirt?]
  • Blake McLimans – D5 – Shooter/Rebounder

With so many newcomers, many of these roles are predictions rather than absolutes but running down the list helps provide a broad view of the roster. Here are some observations:

  • Michigan played most of last year with a D4 (Sims) trying to guard opposing fives and a D3 (or even 2) in Novak trying to guard opposing fours. This year Michigan will have legitimate D5s to guard the five (Morgan/McLimans) and also a solid D4 with Evan Smotrycz at a legit 6-9. We don’t know how strong of defenders Morgan, McLimans, and Smotrycz are but we do know that they are the right size. Horford is also another able defender with size if he is thrown into the mix.
  • Michigan is going to have to rely on freshmen to do some scoring. Judging by their skill-sets both Smotrycz and Hardaway fit this role. The problem is that we just aren’t sure how ready they are to produce at the college level. When freshmen have to be scorers, they are usually extremely inefficient.
  • As the only true ball handler/creator on the roster, Darius Morris needs to be ready to go. Many expected Morris to find instant success in Ann Arbor but his freshman campaign could be fairly labeled as a disappointment. Morris needs to give Michigan 30 minutes of productive, turnover free, offense while defending opposing lead guards.
  • Many hypothesized that last year would be the year that Zack Novak moved away from playing the four — it didn’t happen. I think that this year, with Smotrycz and Christian being closer to true D4s, is the year we finally see Novak slide down the lineup. Even if Novak isn’t guarding 4s, the question is who does he guard? He could be either a D2 or a D3.  Novak will get minutes but he could play in a lot of different positions.

We’ll start to get some insight into how these positional dynamics will play out this season when we get a glimpse of the box scores in Belgium. If I had to predict a starting line-up today it would be: Morris, Douglass, Novak, Smotrycz, and McLimans with Hardaway as the first guy off the bench.

So while I certainly don’t have all the answers I think this is definitely a solid framework to base a conversation on. Where do you see people fitting in? How would you build your line-up out of this roster?

This site is supported by donations

Like what you see? Click the button below to donate and access exclusive content.

  • AC1997

    Dylan – Have you put the word out to UM grads in Europe to see if we can get first hand impressions?

    I wish people wouldn’t sell Horford short and assume a redshirt. I started working on a blog piece that I never finished about how Chris Hunter and Epke Udoh were very similar size (ht/wt) and had similar recruiting rankings. Both were forced to play as freshmen due to inexperience on the roster and both did quite well. Even Maceo Baston, who was slightly higher rated, was a string bean who contributed a lot as a freshman.

    Horford has already added some weight and will be given a chance to earn minutes. McLimans seems to have the 5 locked up by default, but don’t assume that Horford will redshirt just because he’s skinny.

  • fresh

    i also think that vogrich might get the nod before hardaway………maybe not but a lot can change in a year or an off season…….i like vogrich

  • JayRich

    I’m not thinking Horford will redshirt because of his lack of bulk. I think it more will be about the kid not even being able to use his left hand in drills. He is in college now. He if he can’t use both hands in practice, how in the world will he do it in a game. Now obviously he probably won’t be called upon to give us much offense but he needs to be at least semi-reliable.

  • All of the press on how impressive Hardaway has been in practice makes it seem like Beilein knew what he was doing when he offered him a spot. Granted, this isn’t game time yet, but it is good to see him come in and impress people right off the bat. Hopefully Smotrycz can get healthy, stay away from the wiffle ball, and make an impact as well.

  • ZRL

    Good article, but I still don’t think you are fully applying Cannon’s thoughts. For example, I think Cannon would say that since Morris and Douglass both have the size to guard 1s and 2s, and Morris is more athletic then Douglass, Beilein should have Morris defend the other team’s more athletic guard and Douglass defend the other team’s less athletic guard instead of automatically having Morris defend the 1 and Dougalss defend the 2.

  • Mat

    Horford red-shirting shouldn’t be viewed as a negative. This team is already stocked with inexperienced freshman big man. It benefits the team to have at least one redshirt from the true freshman trio. To cluster them all into one class is a negative for roster management and scholarship allocation. If Smotrycz and Christian are more ready to contribute, Horford should be redshirted.

    More importantly, as individuals, many players benefit greatly from a year of practicing and transitioning to college life without having a spotlight on them, or additional responsibility placed on them. We shouldn’t view it as an indictment or a sign of a flaw, but rather a win-win situation for the school and the player.

  • ZRL: Good point. I guess I shouldn’t have used “lead guard” but yes Morris is a D1 I think so he’ll have to guard the quickest guy most likely.

    It will be interesting if Hardaway can develop into a D3 to guard a Will Buford type.

  • georgeesq.

    Horford’s high school coach was just let go after around 20 years coaching at Grand Ledge. I didn’t follow GL, but I saw them play a couple of times last season and couldn’t believe how poor Horford’s form was on his outside shots – grade school poor. And no left hand ability. How could the coach and his dad not correct some obvious flaws much sooner?

  • Section13Row15

    I don’t think it’s an indictment of his ability at this point but I think it would be beneficial to rotate Horford in this year and not redshirt him. A. he would get more experience and understand the level he needs to be at for the future, and B. if he doesn’t pan out, we don’t waste an additional scholarship on someone for 5 years instead of 4. The same can be said of Vogrich. I think he can become a decent player by his senior year, but he’s not a guy that I wish we had 4 more years with by any stretch. I think he learned more by being thrown into the fire and exposed for what he is last season (shooter with slow feet and no defensive capability to play in the big 10). I hope U-M plays more zone this year as they will have additional length…and quite frankly not all our guys can stay with their man in a m2m defense.

  • JayRich

    A 5th year is not guaranteed for Horford if he redshirts. Additionally, I would take a 5th year, 23 year old center over a center lacking some fundamentals who will play sparingly as a freshman.

  • fresh

    is there going to be more video footage from pratices before they leave for Europe?