If Mitch McGary’s grade is based solely on his final exam, he passed with flying colors. McGary’s NCAA tournament run was legendary and completely unexpected given his play over Michigan’s first 23 games. The jump in performance came after what could be described as nothing better than a learning year in the Big Ten.
McGary’s non-conference season was defined by limited flashes of brilliance. A great play always seemed to be followed by a poor decision or mental lapse. The burly freshman didn’t see the court for more than 20 minutes in any of Michigan’s non-conference games as John Beilein opted to bring him along slowly. In Big Ten, McGary regressed against better competition. He played more minutes, partly due to Jordan Morgan’s injury, but his rebounding and offensive efficiency declined.
Then came the NCAA tournament and the return to form that, frankly, nobody had seen since the summer AAU circuit in 2011. Averaging a double-double throughout six games, McGary played more minutes and carried the Wolverines to the NCAA Championship.
Looking back on the season, John Beilein deserves credit for bring McGary along slowly before unleashing him in March.
The numbers tell the story perfectly. John Beilein did’t take any shortcuts with McGary. He wasn’t able to avoid a couple trouble-spots here and there, but Beilein never rushed things. Michigan never relied on McGary until the NCAA tournament. He only started two games before the tournament and never felt the pressure of his high ranking. Every player’s learning curve is different and it’s up to the coaching staff to bring them along at the correct speed, John Beilein receives top marks for McGary’s development over the 39-game season.
- Rebounding: McGary’s defensive rebounding numbers regressed in Big Ten play but there’s no doubt that McGary is a game changing rebounder – on both ends of the floor. It’s no secret that Michigan has struggled on both backboards under John Beilein but under McGary there was a notable improvement – especially in non-conference and tournament play. He returns the best offensive rebounding and second best defensive rebounding percentage among Big Ten players. The NCAA tournament proved that McGary’s rebounding numbers weren’t inflated by sample size and he was quite capable of dominating the glass for 30 minutes per night. The lone caveat being that his defensive rebounding regressed in Big Ten play – something to improve on as a sophomore.
- Versatility: This is the area of Mitch’s game where he really just scratched the surface all season before breaking loose in the tournament. It’s also the area of Mitch’s game that everyone saw on the summer circuit when he soared up the recruiting rankings. McGary can score from all over the floor, he’s also a gifted passer (six assists against Syracuse should prove that), and he’s remarkably effective in transition for a 250-plus near 7-footer. McGary demonstrated this ability against Florida, against Syracuse, against VCU and against SDSU
- John Beilein has probably spent the entire summer thinking of ways to get McGary more involved in the offense. I suspect the majority of these will be around the high post and stretched to the perimeter. He proved a reliable spot up shooter – scoring 24 points on 16 possessions – in a limited sample as a freshman.
- Defense: McGary still has plenty of room to develop as a one-on-one post defender but his disruptiveness in the middle of the defense can change games. McGary tallied 12 steals and seven blocks in the NCAA tournament, both more than anyone else on the Michigan roster. He was second on Michigan’s roster for the season in steals despite ranking fifth in minutes played. Despite standing 6-foot-10, 255 pounds, McGary ranked sixth in the Big Ten in steal-percentage. How impressive is that feat? Derrick Nix was the only other player 6-foot-9 or taller to rank in the conference’s top-30 in that statistic.
Room For Improvement
- Consistency: This is obviously the true test. Is the Mitch McGary we saw in the NCAA tournament the real Mitch? Can he really play like that for 30-plus games? Can he play like that without Trey Burke? At this point it’s all conjecture. We’ve seen McGary go up-and-down throughout a season while finding his way, but we’ve also seen him dominate on the game’s biggest stage. By returning to school, Mitch believes he’s up for the challenge. If he is right then the Wolverines look like a team ready to play deep into March – or even April – once again.
- Post Offense: According to statistics from Synergy Sports, 76% of McGary’s offensive possessions came from put-backs (24%), pick and rolls (21%), cuts to the basket (20%) or in transition (11%). Just 5.7% of his offensive opportunities were post ups on the low block and he scored just eight points on 17 post up opportunities as a freshman. McGary can do a lot of other great things on the floor but it would be nice to see a true post game as a sophomore. McGary is probably never going to touch the ball eight or nine times per game on the low block because that’s just not how John Beilein operates. But at the very least, a go to move on the low block could boost his draft stock and give Michigan another option.
- Foul discipline, balance and control: I’m lumping a whole lot together in one bullet point but these are the things that will allow Mitch McGary to stay on the court and be productive. These are also the things where McGary made arguably the biggest leap in the NCAA tournament. McGary doesn’t have to lose the exuberance and energy but he has to be able to balance them with playing the game the right way.
McGary’s A+ in the NCAA tournament will stick with him (and Michigan fans) forever but his season long grade has to account the regular season as well. McGary reached double figures only five times in the Big Ten season and was never really able to find any hint of consistency. Playing physically dominant basketball in the NCAA tournament was impressive, but if McGary is able to impose his will on the nation’s most physical conference for a year that would be special.
NCAA tournament success isn’t always a barometer for success the next year. Durrell Summers is a great example of a player who managed to get hot in the NCAA tournament but could never quite seem to put together an entire season of dominant play.
The good news for McGary is that his explosion didn’t come after years of inconsistent play, it felt like he finally had the college game figured out. The even scarier thing is that there’s so much more untapped potential. McGary was dominating games in the NCAA tournament and was still scoring mostly off of drop off passes and pick-and-rolls. There’s a whole lot more that he can do on the floor and without Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. on the roster, John Beilein is going to have to explore those options.
McGary turned 21 in June which means his sophomore season will be critical for his NBA aspirations. His decision to return to school was a gamble given his age and just how high his stock was in April, so he’ll have plenty of proving to do. But the opportunity will be there and John Beilein made it quite clear that he’s not afraid to let McGary carry the load.