Early concerns with Michigan’s offense

Dylan Burkhardt

Michigan vs Houston Baptist_3Michigan will be better in February and March than it is right now.

I’ve said that since the first couple games of the season and others agree. Dan Hanner writes,“If you are looking for a coach whose team typically does get better later in the year, look no further than Michigan head coach John Beilein.” Seth Davis thinks the Wolverines have the pieces to make another NCAA tournament run, even if it takes “some time to bake this cake.”

Michigan is the 17th youngest team in Division I basketball and while we can agree that its better days are ahead, it’s time to take a closer look at where the Wolverines need to improve. We start with the offense, where Michigan has been pretty good (ranked 33rd in adjusted offensive efficiency) but far from great – and a long way off from last year’s team which was the most efficient offense in the country.  (Photo: Scott Mapes)

1. Glenn Robinson III is not getting to the rim

Glenn Robinson III has been arguably Michigan’s most disappointing player through nine games. The 6-foot-6 sophomore hasn’t shown much in the way of new abilities or improvements and his offensive efficiency has (understandably) taken a step back without Trey Burke feeding him the ball. Robinson is averaging 12 points and five rebounds per game but he’s looked like a nice role player, not a lottery draft pick.

Looking at Robinson’s stats, one thing jumps off the page right away: he isn’t getting nearly as many looks around the rim as he did last season.

Last year Robinson attempted 43.5% of his field goals at the rim and converted at a 78% rate. You remember those plays: Trey Burke penetrates and finds Robinson creeping along the baseline for an alley-oop or Robinson leaks out for an easy dunk in transition. Robinson was among the best finishers in the country a year and was the 10th most efficient offensive player in the country because of it.

This year, just 21.4% of Robinson’s field goal attempts have come at the rim. He’s finishing at an improved 88.9% rate but the opportunities aren’t nearly as plentiful. That’s a major problem because that’s what Robinson does best.

Robinson’s jump shooting numbers have also taken a step back. A year ago he shot an impressive 48.9% on 2-point jumpers, that number has regressed to 35.3% in early season play. His 3-point stroke wasn’t necessarily consistent last season but has fallen to 28.1%, down from 32.4% a season ago.

2. Michigan doesn’t get to the rim

I picked out Robinson specifically because he’s shown substantial individual regression but this is a team wide problem. Michigan is attempting about 5% fewer shots at the rim this season at 22.9%. That’s the fifth lowest ratio of shots at the rim in Division I and means that the Wolverines are essentially a jump-shooting team.

That’s not the end of the world. Last year’s group attempted 27.7% of its shots at the rim, still a very low ratio, but if you are going to shoot a lot of jump shots then you need to be a good jump-shooting team. Results are mixed for the Wolverines in that department.

Michigan ranks 150th in two-point jump-shooting efficiency and 53rd in three-point jump-shooting efficiency. Those are pretty good numbers but not spectacular by any measure. When the Wolverines do get to the rim, they almost always finish. The Wolverines are the fifth most efficient team in the country finishing at the rim.

Last year’s team ranked 2nd in efficiency at the rim, 25th in two point jumpers, and 17th in 3-point jumpers. That group was the most efficient offense in the country, so Michigan isn’t going to match their production but there’s obviously room for improvement.

3. Derrick Walton’s assists aren’t coming in the half court

Derrick Walton has 27 assists this season and only 18 of them have come in half court situations. That’s just two half court assists per game for Michigan’s young floor general and a big reason that Michigan isn’t getting nearly as many looks at the bucket.

Of Walton’s 27 assists (including transition), six were for attempts at the rim, 10 were 2-point jumpers and 11 were 3-point makes.

Similar stats weren’t available at hoop-math for last season but it’s safe to assume that Trey Burke had assisted more than six dunks and layups through nine games a year ago. He probably had single games where he assisted six dunks. Walton’s inability to create easy looks for his teammates at the rim is a big reason that the Wolverines haven’t been as effective scoring at the bucket this season.

His teammates haven’t been much better. Caris LeVert (10 of 22 assists) and Nik Stauskas (11 of 26 assists) lead the Wolverines in assists at the rim this season while Stauskas (20 of 26 assists) and Spike Albrecht (20 of 25 assists in about a third-fewer minutes) lead Michigan in half court assists.

Again, we don’t have Trey Burke’s numbers to compare but the inability to create baskets for others in the halfcourt is a serious problem.

4. Michigan is a terrible isolation team

Isolation offense has never been the bread and butter of John Beilein’s offense but Michigan’s offensive efficiency in isolation situations is putrid. The Wolverines have scored just 9 points on 26 isolation possessions: .346 points per possession (2nd percentile nationally).

A year ago the Wolverines scored .825 points per isolation possession (80th percentile) but relied heavily on Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., who accounted for well over half of their isolation production.

Isolation offense isn’t at the top of the concern list but it gets back to the point that Michigan doesn’t have a lot of weapons that can create something from nothing. Against Duke, Caris Levert was the only Wolverine to demonstrate that ability.

5. Michigan’s offense is balanced, but is that a strength or a weakness?

Last year Trey Burke used 29% of Michigan’s offensive possessions. Tim Hardaway Jr. used 22.3% and Mitch McGary used 21.5%, everyone else on the Wolverine roster used 17.5% or fewer possessions.

This year the Wolverines have more balance at the top, without an alpha dog. Nik Stauskas (22.8%), Mitch McGary (22.5%), Derrick Walton (21.3%), Glenn Robinson III (20.4%), Zak Irvin (19.5%) and Caris LeVert (18.4%) are all using a similar number of possessions in the 18-23% range. Some (Stauskas, LeVert) have been more efficient than others (Walton, McGary) but there’s more balance at the top.

Under John Beilein, Michigan has generally had two players that use at least 24% of its offensive possessions. Typically that would be one player in the 24-28% range (“significant contributor” per KenPom) and another in the 28% or more range (“go-to guy” per KenPom). Under that distribution, everyone knows their role.

Under Michigan’s current distribution, no one is quite sure. That provides a certain degree of versatility but it also provides a lot of questions that are difficult to answer. There are probably plenty of teams that have been successful without a prototypical go-to guy, but Michigan’s lack of a primary scorer illustrates its biggest weakness.

The Wolverines need an identity.

Statistics from Hoop-Math, Synergy Sports and Ken Pomeroy

  • wnymike

    that identity just might be caris levert.

    • Kam

      As an iso type player sure, but i don’t think he can be the whole team. Glenn needs to be more consistent from 3, Nik needs to continue to play well. Irvin needs to keep improve. Mitch has to keep this up. I also think its huge that when Jon and Morgan are in they can give solid minutes.

  • Dr_ZC

    Dylan hit the nail on the head with this analysis. I think points 1,2 and 3 are interconnected. We all thought that Walton was pass first and shoot next, which is partially true. Walton does not pass for the assist as efficiently as Burke. And yes, we are talking about PNR, penetrate and dish, alley oop etc. Perhaps he is worried too much about turnovers. When he develops a better vision and plays without worrying to turn the ball over, the team will get more opportunities at the rim and this will open the door wider for our 3-point shooters

    • Kam

      Ive seen flashes of his passes this year where his vision is better than burkes.. He is just young. hopefully the game slows down for him soon

    • mikey_mac

      Yeah, agree on Walton. Part of what I was wondering above in the comments was our ball handlers’ effectiveness at scoring in the lane. If they are effective, the help defense has to collapse more, which means GR3, et al., will be open for easy looks around the basket.
      And also as you say, Walton has played somewhat conservatively, most likely influenced by JB’s high value on avoiding turnovers, but also he’s trying to catch up to the speed of the game, which he has admitted.

  • Champswest

    We would all be better off if everyone would stop comparing freshman Walton to sophomore Burke. Compare him to Burke or Morris (or Brundidge) as freshmen.

    Robinson is who we thought he was (or should have thought he was), a complimentary player who is tremendous on the break or cutting to the hoop without the ball. He does need to shoot better from distance.

    Thai is a young team (again) with a freshman point guard surrounded by sophomores that have been set back by injuries. We will get better throughout the season.

    • brian coburn

      Compare him to Brundidge? Uhh, no. I don’t think I will even consider doing that. You shouldn’t either.

      • Champswest

        My point that I was trying to make (although, not well) about Brundidge was, although he was a 4 star recruit, he struggled mightily as a freshman In Beilein’s system. He seemed lost, even late in the year. Walton is far ahead of that.

    • It’s unfair to compare Walton to Burke, obviously as a sophomore and maybe even as a freshman. However… When you start examining why other guys who were so great last year have struggled… That stands out as the obvious reason.

  • Chezaroo

    Nice article Dylan. I think the most frustrating thing to me is the complete lack of “flow” to this offense. We seem to have no idea where the second pass is supposed to go, let alone the third, if applicable. I love our coaches track record on development of individual players, but the identification of roles is sorely lacking this year. It’s difficult to believe that we are going to be reduced to dribble drives that are predicated on an individual’s talents, while everyone else watches and waits for their turn. No consistent down screens, lack of any discernible back cuts ( was it surprising that Duke was going to zealously overplay denial D? ) and no identifiable end game as to who we are trying to set up for an open look. No cohesion right now, and at this stage that falls on the coaches no matter how young we are.

  • mikey_mac

    I think the biggest drop-off in efficiency comes from the lack of passes to the roll man in PNR sets. This is a hard thing to do, for sure, but Stauskas, LeVert and Walton have all shown very little willingness to look for the roll man after coming off a screen. Those are the types of interior looks that have been missing this season.

    • Fair point but I think it’s more the secondary action of the ball screen that’s lacking.

      Michigan is hitting the roll man on on 3.7% of its possessions (26 times compared to 94 ball screen shots).

      Last year they hit the roll man on 4.5% of their offensive possessions (131 poss compared to 431)

      22% of ball screens hitting the roll man compared to 23% last year.

      That doesn’t account for drop-offs and other things around the basket that are off of PNR action – something that GR3 feasted on off the weak side last year.

      • mikey_mac

        Do you know the % of possessions where the ball handler in a ball screen set takes a shot in the paint this year compared to last?

        • Nope. Just the % of possessions where the ball handler shoots.

          • mikey_mac

            OK. Well, it would follow that without Burke’s crazy floaters and THJ’s strong right hand drives this year, UM is finding fewer opps for the ball handler to find shots in the lane. Hard to know for sure, though, since Nik and Caris have actually been pretty good at at least drawing a foul, if not getting a shot off, on their takes.

          • jakelam2116

            Not to mention, one of Walton’s biggest struggles so far (understandably) has been finishing against bigger defenders on drives to the basket, many of them off the pick-and-roll. Burke’s ability to make those difficult shots was one of the attributes that made him so special. We’ll have to wait and see if Walton can develop a similar ability.

      • mikey_mac

        Re: the secondary action, yeah, I think it’s been pretty clear that Walton and Albrecht, in particular, are well more comfortable passing back out to the 3-pt line after driving, than dumping off inside in traffic.

        • This play isn’t off of a ball screen but it’s the sort of thing that Michigan is lacking.


          • mikey_mac

            Then the solution is simple: play against more zone!

          • :-) Michigan’s zone offense has been ridiculous.

            Scoring 1.48 PPP against the zone! compared to just .873 PPP against half court man to man.

            Last year’s group scoired .942 against man and 1.005 against zone

          • mikey_mac

            It has been absurd, but there is a little selection bias in this, since there seems to be a strong correlation between zone and sub-100 KenPom rankings among our opponents so far.

          • True. Not sure why some of these teams, which don’t even play zone all the time, have opted to go with predominantly zone defense though.

          • guestavo

            All the small school teams are running zone against good competition and it seems to make these games much closer. It evens the FT disparity etc

          • Mattski

            Hasn’t this been the case. . . since forever?

          • guestavo

            I don’t think so?

    • guestavo

      Do you really want them looking for Horford or Morgan?

      • guestavo

        I think McGary pick and pops should be implemented WAY more. A 2 man game with GR3 and Levert/Nik would be a nice wrinkle, as well. I still think GR3 post ups should be explored, as well.

        • Kam

          i think the GR3 thing would be interesting with the pick and roll but i still don’t think he could post up ANY big ten 4s or even most 3s. but i guess they could try haha

      • BballJunkie

        Yes I do want them looking for Horford and Morgan more. Their combined FG% is better than 75%. The problem with this team is fundamental rebounding and recognizing favorable match-ups (coaching)…

        • guestavo

          I don’t think they have the hands to finish imo. I do think we should pass it in the post and pass it out A LOT more as it will collapse the defense but I don’t want either of those guys taking many shots…

        • mikey_mac

          Yes, I also ALWAYS want layup/dunk opps. Sure, Morgan and Horford have been bad at finishing so far, but 1) those shots still make for great put-back opps, and 2) McGary is taking more and more of those minutes and opps anyway.

    • Kam

      Every time they dump it to morgan he gets blocked or missed it.. They do need to look for mitch a tad more

      • mikey_mac

        This is sadly more accurate than not, but it’s still a great shot opp, and Morgan really isn’t playing a whole lot of minutes anyway. I don’t think it’s really a problem to worry about going forward.

  • Indiana_Matt

    “Under Michigan’s current distribution, no one is quite sure.” This seems significantly problematic. Hope we define roles by the Big Ten season.

  • Kevin

    I know we are a “young” team, but I don’t buy “youth” as an acceptable excuse. The five sophomores who play have much more experience than your typical “sophomore”. They’ve played in hostile environments and the biggest stage imaginable. And all of them played! I would bet that the minutes our freshmen see are about on par with other high major teams.

    The excuse I do buy is losing two first rounders and players still settling into their role. However, this is different than our problems being because we’re so “young”.

    • AlwaysBlue

      And all of them played off Burke and Hardaway during the regular season. They are at a completely different place right now.

      • Kevin

        Yes they’re in a different place, but that’s not because of the team’s youth. Youth is not know how to play in a harsh environment, making silly turnovers, and missing defensive assignments.

        • AlwaysBlue

          To the extent youth is synonymous with inexperience I think my point stands. As you said, they are settling into new roles.

  • johnny9308

    All the Burke lovers, Trey was the POY in his So. yr. Burke freshmen yr didn’t start off good, if don’t think so look at his stats and compare to Walton. He is a freshmen that played in 9 games and to me is playing pretty good. Lets see what goes from here and March then judge. In Burke freshmen year, he didn’t heat up until the middle of the big10 season and March Madness.