There was a point in the first half of Michigan’s game against Michigan State at the Breslin Center when a Spartan fan, bewildered by the player torching his team’s defense, stood up after yet another made basket and yelled at no one in particular:
Who on earth is that!?
The “who” was Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, and the fan’s confusion stemmed from the freshman’s breakout game, during which he tallied 18 points, reaching double-digits for the first time in his career.
Forced into a starting role due to Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton’s injuries, Abdur-Rahkman never quite developed into the consistent offensive weapon he teased fans with that Sunday afternoon, but he became a crucial part of the team nonetheless. Though that role was partly out of necessity, Abdur-Rahkman also established himself as a plus defender and earned his minutes.
Defense: According to John Beilein, Abdur-Rahkman’s offensive slump in the latter part of the season was a result of the guard’s focus on improving defensively. As the coach explained, “that can probably stagnate, temporarily, your improvement.” Abdur-Rahkman was usually assigned to guard the opponent’s best player, and he performed admirably given that challenge. One highlight came against Ohio State on Feb. 22, when Abdur-Rahkman pestered D’Angelo Russell into a 6-for-15 shooting performance and five turnovers.
Pick-and-roll: Part of Abdur-Rahkman’s upside this season was his age. As a 20-year-old freshman, he was supposed to be ahead of the curve, and maybe that played a role in his excelling at a staple of Beilein’s offense. When Abdur-Rahkman was incorporated in the pick-and-roll, Michigan scored 1.155 points per possession, per Synergy Sports. Though the freshman finished the season averaging less than an assist per game, the threat of him driving to the basket opened things up for Michigan’s other offensive weapons.
In transition: No surprise given his speed, but Abdur-Rahkman was solid in transition. When he had the ball on breaks, the Wolverines tallied 1.50 points per possession, per Synergy Sports. Given the freshman’s active defense, that ultimately made for easy points for Abdur-Rahkman and Michigan. And the guard generally did the scoring himself, as he was able to beat opponents down the floor.
Room for improvement
Shooting: Abdur-Rahkman didn’t play very much until Walton and LeVert’s injuries, and it’s not hard to see why. He began the season 0-for-9 from the field against the likes of Hillsdale, Bucknell and Nicholls State. He ultimately shot 41.9% from the floor, including 29.3% from deep. He surprised Michigan State and Iowa in early February with his ability to attack the basket, but once the scouting report got out, Abdur-Rahkman struggled to hit jumpers what that was what the defense gave him. His .906 points per possessions on jump shots ranked in just the 53rd percentile, per Synergy Sports.
Distribution: Given his ability to penetrate, finishing with just 0.9 assists per game — amounting to a 0.964 assist/turnover ratio — was somewhat of a letdown. It’s a difficult skill to acquire, especially as Abdur-Rahkman was finding his rhythm offensively and focusing on his defense, but Michigan could have used another distributor besides Spike Albrecht.
Getting to the free throw line: Abdur-Rahkman shot 93.3% from the charity stripe, but on just 15 attempts; his free throw rate was just 12%. The freshman certainly never seemed afraid to drive and draw contact, but that became more difficult when opponents realized his jumper was less of a threat. Attacking the basket is what Abdur-Rahkman does, but some added experience should help him draw more whistles
Abdur-Rahkman silences the Breslin Center
Beilein on Abdur-Rahkman attacking the basket: “He’s really got some speed, and coming in the door, he didn’t like to use it as much. He’s that north-south player. Now this is a bad comparison, but I can remember when Randy Smith was with the Buffalo Braves — I’m really dating myself. 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. He just can run by people on the fast break. And he doesn’t even know what he’s doing yet.”
This grade is a difficult one, because, while Abdur-Rahkman didn’t fill the stat sheet, did much more than was expected of him as a freshman. Ultimately, his defensive contributions made him vital, especially given inserting his backup, Andrew Dakich, meant matchup issues on both sides of the court. Abdur-Rahkman also kept Michigan in some games, including both meetings with the Spartans.
According to Beilein, Abdur-Rahkman’s offensive growth was stunted somewhat because of his defensive role. Shooting in particular must be an area of emphasis before next year, as should distribution. Both would create more opportunities to do what the guard does best — attack the basket and score at the rim. Near the end of the season, Abdur-Rahkman began looking more comfortable using screens to create open pick-and-pop looks, a promising sign for the future.
Abdur-Rahkman’s role next winter depends largely on Caris LeVert. If the shooting guard returns for his senior season, Abdur-Rahkman will earn his minutes off the bench behind an NBA-caliber player. If LeVert goes pro, Abdur-Rahkman should slide into a starting slot, creating a strong defensive backcourt alongside Walton.