For months, Michigan fans wondered when Zak Irvin would make the leap so many expected of him entering his sophomore campaign.
It took until the final weeks of the season to arrive, but the improvements were dramatic. Over the the team’s final six games, Irvin averaged 17.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.8 assists, finally establishing himself as the versatile player the Wolverines sorely needed.
Perhaps no moment exemplified that more than early in the second half of Michigan’s Big Ten tournament matchup against Wisconsin. In a minute and a half, Irvin grabbed a rebound, dropped an assist inside to Max Bielfeldt, used the pick-and-roll to free himself for an elbow jumper and then buried a catch-and-shoot jumper.
If Irvin’s freshman performance set high expectations, the final games of the 2014-15 season only intensified that for next winter.
Jump shooting: Yes, Irvin’s three-point shooting dropped from 42.5% to 35.5%, and that is cause for concern. That percentage is likely a disappointment for Irvin, coaches and fans, but it is also a product of a very different role along with a mid-season slump. From Dec. 6 to Feb. 5, Irvin was held to only one three-pointer in six different games. The forward was hot from deep in November, though, and he seemed to be regaining his rhythm come late February and March.
Irvin’s jump shot still has some funk to it, but he’s capable of a bounce back season shooting the ball — especially with a more versatile surrounding cast. He wouldn’t be the first sophomore wing to suffer a sophomore slump and bounce back either, Tim Hardaway Jr. shot just 28% as a sophomore while shooting 37% in his other two seasons.
Pick-and-roll offense: Irvin hadn’t shown the same signs of being a ball screen threat that we saw from Nik Stauskas a freshman, but as the season progressed he started to find his niche. Michigan scored 1.039 points per possession when Irvin was involved in the pick-and-roll, a number good for the 90th percentile nationally. Irvin passed in those situations about 42% of the time, per Synergy Sports, and the Wolverines scored 1.395 points per possession when he did. Early on in the season, Irvin would almost always shoot the long jumper off the dribble in pick-and-roll scenarios, but the gaudy 1.4 points per trip that Michigan scored off his passes were a sign that teams were over-playing him and he was finally spotting the open man.
Leadership: When the season began, Irvin was supposed to be part of a three-pronged attack alongside Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton, but injuries soon made the forward one of the lone veterans. Despite his struggles, Irvin remained Michigan’s emotional leader, and he also paced the team in points (456), minutes (1,160), three-pointers (77), rebounds (153) and steals (33) as a starter in all 32 games.
Room for improvement
Attacking the basket: Irvin should be able to use his shooting ability to get his defender off-balance and attack the basket, but he struggled to ever beat his man one-on-one. When the sophomore was in isolation, Michigan scored just 0.554 points per possession — in just the 12th percentile. He also shot just 51% at the rim, despite improving his athleticism as a sophomore. The frustration boiled over after for John Beilein following the Wolverines’ loss to Michigan State in East Lansing. “Your jump shot shouldn’t get blocked,” he said. “You should shot fake and go to the basket. Those types of things changed the momentum.”
Rebounding: Following the forward’s 11-board performance against Wisconsin, Beilein told a story of how, during one pickup game, the coach instructed Irvin not to worry about scoring or passing, but simply to grab a rebound. The sophomore made major strides by March, but he finished the year with just a 13.9% defensive rebounding rate. That was an improvement from 7.7% as a freshman, but there’s still a long way for Irvin to go on the glass. To his credit, he grabbed 33 defensive rebounds in Michigan’s final four games — more than he corralled in the entire month of February.
Vision: As Irvin himself admitted after the season, he was focusing on improving his utilization of ball screens and his passing. It certainly showed, as the forward matched and then set a career-high in assists during consecutive games in March. Irvin finished the year having assisted on 10.1% of Michigan’s baskets when he was on the floor — a number that could be much higher next year.
Irvin assist, dunk silence the Breslin Center
Max Bielfeldt on Irvin during the Big Ten tournament: “Zak, he’s a different player than he was last year. He’s really developed his game coming off ball screens and seeing the court. He’s always been a really good scorer, but he has that extra sense of seeing guys in his peripheral vision. It changes his game, because guys can’t focus as much on him, and he kicks to the right guy. And then next play, they have to stay close to their man, and Zak’s wide open.”
Let’s face it: Much more was expected from Irvin this year. As he made in-season adjustments to his jump shot, he often struggled to contribute in other capacities. Until his stellar finish, the forward was, in many ways, a disappointment.
Irvin was Michigan’s leader in most statistical categories, though, and he took over games for periods in March. If Irvin was receiving a grade for just that month, he might earn an A. As a result, his future remains incredibly promising. If he can regain consistency from three-point range and augment that with better vision, Irvin could become an elite offensive player.
Having started all 32 games this winter, Irvin projects to keep that role next year. And there’ll be plenty of depth on the opposite wing and also surrounding him, with Aubrey Dawkins, DJ Wilson, Duncan Robinson, Kameron Chatman and Moritz Wagner all vying for time. Not to mention adding Derrick Walton and potentially Caris LeVert back into the mix, making Irvin’s improved ball skills a luxury not a necessity.