A closer look at the emergence of Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman

Dylan Burkhardt
Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman played just 51 minutes in Michigan’s first 16 games.

He sat and watched Michigan’s loss to NJIT from the bench. He didn’t record his first career field goal until the next game in a loss to Eastern Michigan.

The 6-foot-4 guard played double-digit minutes just once over the first 16 games of the season (a 0 point, 0 of 4 shooting, 1 turnover, 2 foul showing against Nicholls State) and never looked like a major threat to contribute.

Suddenly, he’s been forced into a starting role due to injuries to Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton and he’s emerged as one of Michigan’s go-to options on the offensive end.

“It probably was a shock to his system to play two or three minutes (earlier this season),” John Beilein said on Tuesday. “He was not comfortable. Now that he knows he has playing time, he’s back to what we saw in high school and when we saw him in Europe.”

Production was never an issue for Abdur-Rahkman in high school. He scored a whopping 2,136 career points during his four years at Allentown Central Catholic, but still was being recruited primarily by lower-level Division I schools. A fateful call from Dave Rooney to John Beilein resulted in Abdur-Rahkman ending up in Ann Arbor, but no one expected this sort of ability, this soon, from the freshman guard.

“We saw a little bit in video when we recruited him,” Beilein said after the Michigan State game. “We saw (signs) in video, but we haven’t seen it in practice and games.”

The transformation has happened almost overnight. Abdur-Rahkman is averaging 8.7 points per game over Michigan’s last six games and set a career-high with 18 points in his first game at the Breslin Center on Sunday.


Perhaps the most impressive element of Abdur-Rahkman’s game is that he is one of the only Wolverines who can score consistently inside the arc.

Michigan is shooting 43.6% on twos in Big Ten games, only 11th best in the conference. Derrick Walton was shooting just 17% on twos in Big Ten games before sitting out the last two and Zak Irvin isn’t much better at 35.2%. Along with Aubrey Dawkins (61%), Ricky Doyle (58%) and Max Bielfeldt (55%),  Abdur-Rahkman (61%) is one of just four players on the roster to make more than half of their twos in league play.

Considering the degree of difficulty and how many of his shot attempts he has to create for himself, rather than catching and finishing around the rim, that’s a very impressive statistic. Here’s Abdur-Rahkman’s shot chart over the last six games, via Shot Analytics.


You can see there’s a decent spread to Abdur-Rahkman’s shots and effectiveness. He’s shooting an impressive 63% at the rim, where most of his attempts occur, as well as 56% in the midrange and 33% three during the last six games.

Where have his points been coming in the flow of Michigan’s offense? We broke down some of the film to focus on some of his strengths and weaknesses going forward.


Abdur-Rahkman’s primary ability is to take his man off the dribble in an isolation set. This was about all that we saw from Abdur-Rahkman at the prep level, so it’s no surprise that he’s most comfortable in this element.

I think back to a Beilein quote from last year after matchup with Penn State.

“He was just taking them,” Beilein said of Nittany Lion start DJ Newbill at the time. “I told you, Philly guys can get buckets.”

Beilein was talking about DJ Newbill schooling Nik Stauskas, and it’s not fair to compare Abdur-Rahkman to Newbill just yet. And I’m sure any Philadelphia native will tell you that Allentown isn’t really Philly, but Abdur-Rahkman has all of the makings of a classic ‘Philly guard’.

Abdur-Rahkman has the ability to just take guys off the dribble and score points. He’s not going to be able to do it every night and against every defender, but just watch the first clip above. There aren’t many guards that can go isolation one-on-one against Branden Dawson and score right through him.

These aren’t easy baskets. Many of them are challenging shots late in the shot clock against tough competition. Abdur-Rahkman’s poise to settle and finish around the basket and around defenders continues to impress.


Michigan’s offense was electric in transition last year with a bevy of three-point threats and Glenn Robinson III’s athleticism to finish at the rim. This year’s team has lacked the aggression, athletic ability and mentality to get out and excel in transition. Given the recent injuries, that transition game has become even more defunct.

Abdur-Rahkman is one exception to that rule. He has the requisite speed and he’s been able to find a few easy extra baskets for an otherwise struggling Michigan offense.

“I can remember when Randy Smith was with the Buffalo Braves — I’m really dating myself,” the Michigan coach explained after a win at Rutgers. “He’d just run by people. And people would try and get in front of him. You’d say, ‘How is he going by him?’ And he would just do it. [Abdur-Rahkman] just can run by people on the fast break. And he doesn’t even know what he’s doing yet.”

Pick & roll, off the dribble shooting

Michigan’s regression in the ball screen game is something we’ve covered quite a bit this season. Caris LeVert struggled to stick the mid-range shots required to make the ball screen game effective and Derrick Walton failed to find his niche.

The Wolverines are left with Zak Irvin and Spike Albrecht to be their primary ball screen creators and while Irvin lacks the ballhandling and passing ability to be a great pick and roll player, Albrecht lacks the size and athleticism to take the ball to the hole and finish.

It sounds crazy, but the guy who was sitting at the end of the bench all season is suddenly Michigan’s best option for a late pick and roll set.

Michigan isn’t going to dial up 10 to 15 ball screens for Abdur-Rahkman per game – yet, but he’s showing a lot of promise in this area of the game. Where he needs to improve is on his distribution out of ball screen sets, you can see one assist in this clip, but as defenses adjust and improve we’ll need to see increased vision from Abdur-Rahkman.

If you can’t hit a jumper off the dribble in the ball screen game, opposing defenses can cheat and eliminate every other option. Abdur-Rahkman has hit just enough off the dribble jumpers to keep defenses honest.

Catch and shoot

Abdur-Rahkman isn’t a knock down shooter yet, but he’s made 6 of 17 threes in Big Ten games and that’s good enough for a primary dribble drive threat. His 35.3% three-point shooting percentage in Big Ten play is better than Caris LeVert, Zak Irvin, Max Bielfeldt, Kameron Chatman, Mark Donnal and Spike Albrecht. Only Aubrey Dawkins (50%) and Derrick Walton (38%) have him beat.

Bottom Line

Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman’s breakout performances have been so critical because he fills so many of the niches that Michigan’s injured stars vacated. With Caris LeVert sidelined, Abdur-Rahkman provides a legitimate dribble drive threat for a Wolverine offense that was sorely lacking. Without Walton, Abdur-Rahkman has stepped in to provide some perimeter defense, ball handling and has even shown some lead guard abilities.

The sample size is still incredibly small and it’s impossible to overstate the effect that a couple big games can have on your opponents’ preparations. If Michigan played Iowa last week, Abdur-Rahkman would probably be near the bottom half of the scouting report, but on Thursday he’ll probably be at the top. Similar to Aubrey Dawkins, who went 0 of 2 from the floor after his 20 point explosion against Illinois, there will be some regression toward the mean and an adjustment period sooner than later for the 6-foot-4 guard.

But it’s clear that 16 games into the season, Michigan stumbled upon a quality player. His role will adapt and change going forward, but the Wolverines appear to have finally figured out how to utilize him appropriately within the offense.

  • gobluemd16

    Articles like this are why this site is the very best.


    The step back jumper when he recognized Kaminsky was guarding him is when I started thinking he has that “It” factor. Some have it and some don’t. In his mind he knew he wasn’t going to be stopped.

    • Yep. There are some big time plays whether they are that step back jumper, ISO move on Dawson, late clock plays. Those aren’t things you expect from a kid thrown into the mix after riding the pine.

    • itsjustaherb

      That spin move and step through against Valentine late in shot clock was pretty.

  • Fab 5 Legends

    another gem by Beilein. I expect him to be a pivotal part of the team in the next couple years…I can def see him as an nba prospect with couple years of development at UM.

  • Mattski

    Was thinking after the last game that a lot of his layups have been anything but easy ones. . . It really is fascinating to think about how and why a guy steps forward like he has. Would love to see things gell just a little for KamChat now.

  • terry

    Rahk is very similar to the Milwaukee Bucks’ Brandon Knight. Shooting guard with point guard skills and pesky defender. Same size and both quick as a hiccup.

    • Mattski

      I would love for it to be so. But I think Knight’s 94-foot time might be quicker. Guy is a darter.

  • GregGoBlue

    Man I love this site. Thanks for the breakdown Dylan.

  • Jason

    Saw this kid play in high school last year in state quarterfinal game. He had 25 PTS, 8 Rebs, 8 assist. I honestly remember him scoring 8 pts. He never forced anything and essentially controlled the whole game. Always made the right pass. Grabbed big rebounds. It was just awesome to watch and if you don’t watch or understand basketball, you would think he wasn’t “that good”. In an era where flash is everything, he was so refreshing to watch. Not a talker. Just played and within the game and literally controlled the game without looking like he was even trying. He’s going to be star for these reasons.

  • Wayman Britt

    I hope next year Dylan is writing a similar article about Kam Chatman. UM will need Kam to develop if they want to get into the polls.

  • MAZS

    A couple of Rahk observations. He has played with confidence even when he wasn’t playing much. At first, it seemed unwarranted to me–a little like Brundige–assuming things he did in high school would translate to the next level. But I was wrong; his confidence is what has allowed him to step up to big minutes. I suspect it may also have something to do with his being older.

    Rahk also arrived with a reputation for being able to get to the basket–but there were huge questions about his outside shooting (likely why is was under-recruited). However, he shot looks solid even from three-point range. I wonder the extent to which this is a product of our coaches. I guessing yes.

    • Doug Russell

      Nope. Not surprised at all by his success. This kid has all the talent and confidence needed to play at a high level in big time college ball. Watched him for four years of high school. I always felt he was the best player on the floor by a huge margin, even in the state tournaments against the best in the state. He put up 30 with guys hanging all over him and with very little help from his teammates against Neuman-Goretti (2014 PA state champs) in a loss. As good as a performance by a single player as I have ever seen at any level.

  • jemblue

    Great breakdown! Very informative.

  • Doug Russell

    Watched this kid play high school ball at Central for 4 years. He is a baller and was the best player on the court in every game he played hands down, including the state tournaments. He is a great kid as well. Michigan is lucky to have him