Five takeaways from Michigan’s first practice

Dylan Burkhardt

Michigan opened the doors to the first hour of its first full practice of 2015-16 on Friday afternoon, providing media with a glimpse of this year’s team. Here are five thoughts on the upcoming season and this team’s offseason progress.

Great to see Derrick Walton, Caris LeVert healthy

Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton are both 100% healthy and cleared to play. Watching Michigan practice with those two on the floor after the painful finish to last season was an encouraging sight.

It was especially encouraging to see Derrick Walton bouncing around — clearly showing no ill effects of foot injury that ruined his sophomore season. It was also a reminder of just how limited Walton was after he injured his toe at the Barclays Center against Villanova. Walton battled through the pain, but it clearly affected his game last season — I’m willing to bet that he will never shoot just 41% on shots at the rim again.

When asked what the biggest difference in his game this year from a season ago was, he focused on his health.

“Just getting back to being able to jump off two feet and land comfortably was the first step,” he said.

Those aren’t things that a point guard should worry about and I think we’ll see a different Derrick Walton in 2015-16.

RELATED: Watch video from Michigan’s first practice

Aubrey Dawkins looks like a starter

We only saw 60 minutes of light drills and shooting, but I would be very surprised if Aubrey Dawkins isn’t in the starting lineup when the season tips off in October.

Dawkins has filled out his frame and we already know that he can out-leap anyone on the roster, but his presence in practice – he was with Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton in most drill work – has taken a new tune.

“(I’ve improved) my IQ, I believe, and slowing down,” Dawkins explained when asked how he’s improved. “Learning that you don’t need to rush. Coming in as a freshman I kind of was a deer in the headlights and was just shocked (when I got on the floor) and played as fast I could. It’s slowing down and making smart plays is where I’ve improved the most.”

Dawkins has an obvious opportunity with Zak Irvin sidelined in camp, but if he can make noticeable improvements in his rebounding and ball handling then he can be an impact player on this team even when Irvin is back in the mix.

Duncan Robinson’s shooting ability as advertised

Duncan Robinson can shoot the ball and there’s no reason to think otherwise.

“It’s just different when he shoots,” Walton said on Friday. “You’re surprised when he misses.”

There are still questions about Robinson’s quickness and how he’ll defend at this level, but his shooting ability is legitimate. John Beilein will find minutes for him somewhere, even if he’s not sure of what position he’ll play just yet.  Robinson’s size should help unlock a number of lineup possibilities and help make up for some of his lack of quickness defensively.

“It’s just different when he shoots,” Walton said on Friday. “You’re surprised when he misses.”

DJ Wilson is this team’s x-factor

DJ Wilson added significant weight and looks like a different player from a season ago. He looked comfortable in post-up drills and his ability to move his feet defensively could really open up a lot of options for Michigan.

He can shoot it better than your average big man, but he’s not going to be bombing threes anytime soon. It is his length and versatility that are unique to Michigan’s roster and I can envision a situation where he ends up playing minutes at the five this season. John Beilein succinctly described Wilson’s predicament as he enters this season.

“‘I used to be a string bean and people used to push me around, so I didn’t like physical play. Well now I weight 20 or 30 pounds more and have to learn how to embrace physical play,'” Beilein said. “Every day that’s what they’re going to see.”

He’s far from a traditional center — and he definitely has the potential to play the four at some point in his career — but if Wilson can hold his own down low and on the glass at 240 pounds, he could be an important answer for the biggest question facing this team: the center position.

Beilein won’t use his bench just to use it

John Beilein wants to play his best guys and he wants to play them a lot of minutes. He doesn’t care if his next best guys are still pretty good. Expect him to find an 8 or 9 man rotation and stick to it.

“I want players to play through mistakes and get better through them,” Beilein said on Friday. “And I want our best players on the court as much as we can get them out there. You want your best players out there and they have to have a rhythm.”

There are some names that you can pencil into the rotation like Derrick Walton, Caris LeVert, Spike Albrecht and Zak Irvin — Michigan’s ‘core four’ — but there are also plenty of spots that are up for grabs.

Outside of that group, Aubrey Dawkins, Kameron Chatman, Duncan Robinson, Ricky Doyle, Mark Donnal, DJ Wilson and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman are presumably battling for the other four or five spots in the rotation.

One player I worry might get lost in the shuffle is Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman.

I love what Abdur-Rahkman brought to the table late last year and think he’s critical to some of Michigan’s backcourt flexibility in the future, but I’m having a hard time seeing how he finds the floor. He’s pigeonholed into the off guard position and he’s going to be battling Caris LeVert for primary minutes there with Spike Albrecht and Derrick Walton as additional options in a two-point guard lineup.

Other notes

  • Moritz Wagner has a smooth stroke and legitimate height at 6-foot-10 and change, but his game is still very raw. That’s to be expected for a young German prospect in his first full Division I practice, but John Beilein has relentlessly praised his IQ and feel for the game. Either way, he’s going to be a very nice piece down the line when he starts to put things together.
  • Spike Albrecht was a full participant in drills, but he’s still limited from doing lower body lifting and some other activities. Zak Irvin was on the floor in uniform, but didn’t participate in drills.
  • Ricky Doyle continues to make improvements in his frame as he’s up to 250 pounds with far less body fat. He looked to be moving well and I think conditioning is the biggest worry with Doyle as he’s really Michigan’s only true post that has the body to bang in the paint.
  • UMHoopsFan

    Nice write up. Dawkins looking great is good, if not unexpected, news and sounds like we probably should expect him to start at the 3/4 regardless of Irvin’s status. Either way, between Dawkins, Chatman, Robinson, small-ball lineup with the “core four,” and Rahkman, I’m confident they’ll get good play out of the “fourth guard” spot. Getting quality out of the 5 is the big question, which makes it all the more likely that Wilson will play there this year even if only to have another option. Between all the options, we should be able to get some production, but hopefully we’ll see consistency.

    • Chillax

      Agree. I don’t think I’ve bought the Ricky Kool-aide. We saw him go against some decent, taller 5’s and he just got manhandled. I feel like he’s just a little too small and doesn’t elevate himself when he tries to finish at the basket(he’s definitely got the motor though). I think he was the best option we had available last year, but I’m really hoping Wilson can take over or hopefully Donnal has shown some significant improvement. I just don’t see us getting it done with Ricky.

      • Gtfomycourt

        I did not read any negative commentary in Umhoopsfan’s comment, rather, I thought he just meant that there is a question mark at center that does not exist at 1-4. Will Doyle build off his Freshman successes? I think so. Will Wilson be able to match or exceed Doyle’s effectiveness at the center position even though it is not his natural position? I think so. I think we all know one center is not enough. We need at least two bigs to be solid at center. My guess is it will be Doyle and Wilson.

        • Chillax

          I didn’t mean to imply UMHoopsFan had any negative commentary on Ricky (sorry if it was worded awkwardly). I’m saying I think I see a lot of weakness in his game which I’m not sure he can correct quickly and I could see DJ easily replacing him if he is somewhat decent. Or if Mark steps up and plays more physical and confident I could see Ricky still getting replaced. Again great motor on Ricky, I just don’t know if he has all the assets, but I guess we’ll find out when the season comes around. I think I remember reading he also got heavier so I’m not anticipating him being able to jump much higher. The practice footage didn’t exactly make him look like a stud.

          • GTFOmycourt

            He definitely has some weaknesses but one of the things that is so exciting about Doyle is he is still so young compared to other Sophmores. Hopefully his strength and conditioning work pays off soon!

          • Corperryale

            I look to Doyle to have a Jordan Morgan-like emergence this year. He’s not lacking for confidence, toughness, or effort. My hope would be that Doyle makes progress as a screener and defensive rebounder and that Wilson is first off the bench and that he can block a few shots. Even if Donnal could shoot 60% from three, we have plenty of shooters already and need a strong, physical presence down low and on the boards.

          • Chillax

            I hope so. I can definitely see him fitting that role more. But even that took Morgan a while to get into true form (was it his junior year when he hit on all cylinders and got in real shape and put on muscle?). I don’t see Ricky being much of an offensive impact (a la Trey Burke dump to Morgan off the screen), but I’m also worried about his defense when he gets the 6-10 and 6-11 guys. Especially now that he is apparently measuring shorter than last year, which I was suspecting when watching him play against other bigs.

          • GTFOmycourt

            After re-reading your comment I think we might be mostly in agreement. I think Wilson could be very very good and could end up with slightly more playing time than Doyle. I suspect Doyle and Wilson will both tire quickly because they are undersized and neither have naturally powerful lower body types. I know Doyle seemed to get exhausted quickly last season. So my underlying assumption (I might be wrong here) has always been that Doyle and Wilson-regardless of how far along they are– will only play about 20 minutes a game each. It could turn out that Wilson is the more effective player and like you I am not saying that as a knock to Doyle at all. I am excited about both of them as potentially very good players.

        • If I had to bet on two bigs on the roster right now, it would probably be Ricky and DJ. Both have their concerns, but I think they have a higher floor (Doyle) and ceiling (DJ) than Donnal right now.

      • Kenny

        I bet $100 that Ricky starts every game when he is healthy. He was more than competent as a true freshman and i don’t see any reason that he does not get better in year 2. On the other hand, none of other bigs is natural center.

        • Chillax

          If he starts every game are you assuming he gets the most minutes as well? I think he will start every game too just because he has a high motor and gets people out of that weird funk and gets the tempo goin, but I could see him losing minutes to DJ (just based on body type right now as I haven’t seen him play). Obviously this is barring any injury to Ricky, but it felt like he was sick all the time last year.

  • MChem83

    I would add Doyle and Dawkins to the guys who are locks to be in the regular rotation. I would expect that Wagner and Donnal won’t. Leaving Robinson, Chatman, Wilson and MAAR to vie for the other spots. With all the quality we have at the 3/4, I’d be very surprised if we had more than 2 bigs in the regular group, and if Wilson is healthy and any good at all, I expect him to get most of the minutes that Doyle doesn’t. Of the four guys left, I agree that MAAR is probably going to be the one left out, despite his potential, but it’s nice to know we’ve got him in our back pocket. I would be very surprised if we end up with more than 9 guys in the regular rotation when everything shakes out, and I don’t even think it’s guaranteed than both Robinson and Chatman get in there.

  • Champswest

    The solution for Robinson’s defense is simple, play zone. That would also be a good time to get Wilson and Rahk on the floor. We could put a huge zone on the floor.

  • geoffclarke

    Trying to be completely objective, I would put Abdur-Rahkman above Chatman in what they can contribute to the team. Taking the 5 position out of the equation (which I would guess would be covered by Doyle and Wilson – sorry, Donnal and Wagner), here’s how I would rank our players (much room for debate):
    1. LeVert
    2. Irvin
    3. Walton
    4. Dawkins
    5. Albrecht
    6. Robinson (provides that elite shooter off the bench, assuming it translates to DI games)
    7. Abdur-Rahkman (best perimeter defender, excellent at rim)
    8. Chatman (unique set of skills at 3/4 assuming the game can slow down for him)

    so if we’re doing an 8-man rotation, the cut-off is after Robinson, 9-man after Abdur-Rahkman, 10-man rotation includes Chatman assuming 2 bigs.

    Now if Robinson struggles at all shooting, then Chatman could swap places for him and bring a different look off the bench. We’d still have pretty good shooters at the 1,2,3.

    • Gtfomycourt

      I agree that the fight for minutes will be between Robinson, MAAR, and Chatman. I also agree that those three are probably ranked in that order right now, which highlights this teams depth.

    • UMHoopsFan

      One problem with this analysis is that Caris will be playing the 2 and JB has basically said that Rahkman will be limited to playing backup two minutes. Chatman will see minutes at the 4. Now, if JB really thought he had to get Rahkman on the floor he could run LeVert at the 3 and Irvin at the 4, but Dawkins needs his minutes too, and I don’t think Rahkman is going to be so good that JB re-positions everyone else.

      The other problem is that I don’t think it accurately reflects what those two “can contribute to the team.” Chatman’s defensive rebounding % was one of the best on the team, his assist % was basically the same as Rakhman’s and he seemed to be a more natural passer. They both shot the ball pretty poorly from distance, but Chatman is almost certainly a better shooter from the 4 than Rakhman is from the 2. Who knows how they came back after the summer, but remember that Chatman is almost two years younger than Rahkman — I’d bet more on the former making a leap that the latter.

      Also, Rahkman’s strengths (defense, attacking the rim), are pretty duplicative of what LeVert (and Walton) give. If — and it’s a big if — Chatman improved himself over the summer/game slowed down, etc., he can offer much more and really something that might not come from anywhere else on the roster: a perfect “Beilein 4,” lefthanded, pretty big, but good passer, decent shooter, etc.

      • Corperryale

        Where I think (and hope) Rahkman gets some minutes is instead of the 2 PG lineup that JB sometimes favors. Agree that he will only see time backing up LeVert, but hopefully all those scraps of time are his — and his alone.

        • That would mean playing MAAR ahead of Spike, which again I have a hard time seeing happening often. Certainly in certain matchups its a nice benefit to have.

          • Corperryale

            I am not a coach or a compiler of depth charts, but I see Spike getting ~12 min backing Walton and MAAR getting ~7 backing up Caris. Playing two 6′ point guards alongside an undersized center when Michigan has so much length and athleticism seems like a poor use of resources given the current roster makeup.

          • Last year Spike played fewer than 20 minutes just twice. Now obviously the situation changed in the second half of the year, but he was playing major minutes early as well 35 vs Oregon, 27 vs Villanova, 32 vs Nicholls State, 27 vs Syracuse, etc.

            Just have a hard time seeing him playing something like 12 minutes per game as a senior that Beilein really trusts.

          • Corperryale

            I hear you, Dylan, but at the same time MAAR played a huge role after the LeVert and Walton injuries and it’s just hard to see him taking a huge step back either. I really believe that Beilein allows his players to compete for their playing time, rather than just rewarding experience — a good thing in my view. (Matta’s unfailing loyalty to his upperclassmen is probably a big reason why his talent-loaded teams consistently underachieve.) Obviously Spike is a great player — I have previously taken a lot of flack for suggesting his importance to the team is comparable to Walton’s — but I also think MAAR’s defensive upside and aggressive slashing gives us a special edge we otherwise lack. I guess we will have to agree to disagree on this.

          • I don’t disagree with you about what MAAR brings to the table, sort of what I was hinting at in this post. I just have a hard time seeing how he is going to fit.

            In many ways, Michigan needs him to play very well in tight spots (defensive situations, foul trouble, etc.) this year and then basically be a starting or rotation two guard next year after LeVert/Albrecht are gone from the equation.

            I think you have to find him minutes at some point, but it is going to be tricky because you just know Beilein’s gut is going to be to go with Albrecht off the bench just out of instinct.

            Something to watch for sure.

          • Fresh

            spike gOt so much run early last year because the freshman didn’t know enough to warrant playing time……..hoping this year if different

            I really enjoy watching spike but i hate the idea of having him and Derrick playing together or having spike in the starting lineup. It takes away from one or the other having the ball in their hands and being able to create and make plays. And neither is even close to being a good option for the 2.

            Spike is a luxury to have off the bench but there is so much more potential with others that it will be disappointing to see spike getting 20 + mins a game

          • MChem83

            I tend to agree..I like Spike a lot as a player, but he does have a ceiling in terms of athleticism, rebounding and defense. With him as our backup PG, we’re golden, but if his minutes are up around 20-25, with the other talent we have, then it becomes less and less of an advantage. I know Beilein likes the combo of Walton and Albrecht, but if everyone is healthy this year, I just don’t see that having them both out there at the same time is going to be the best lineup for us in very many instances. Maybe in end of game ball-handling situations, or if we’re playing a team that puts on a strong press all game long, but otherwise, as someone pointed out, it’s not the best use of our size.

          • swinawer

            The depth on the wing means fewer minutes for the backup guards this season. We’re probably looking at 15-20 minutes a game max, Caris isn’t going to spend much time at the 3, at least not when Irvin is healthy.

          • jskippy

            Okay im sorry but Spike is a better point guard then Walton and how people still don’t see that i don’t understand. The guy has great vision as a passer and really calms the offense when it starts to spiral out of control. Also the guy hits big shots when its needed i wish he looked to score more when Irvan couldn’t hit, Levert and Walton were sidelined with injury and all freshman were playing. I’ve honestly played against both and when spike is at point he makes players better and i don see that as much with Walton. Spike put that team on his back and did the best that he could with what he had cause Irvan didn’t come into his own ill about the end of the season. Just my perspective. GO BLUE

        • Gtfomycourt

          I wish JB would just do a platoon substation. B team is Spike, MAAR, Robinson, Chatman and Wilson. I want to see MAAR, Chatman, and Robinson play!

          • MAZS

            Gawd, I hope not.

          • Gtfomycourt

            How would you feel if it was a 30 minute and 10 minute split? Doyle would probably need to rest more than ten a game….

  • bobohle

    Much too early to speculate anything besides the core 4 after seeing clips from the first hr of the first practice. If Chatman becomes what he was supposed to be last year,I don’t know how he could not start. I’d also believe Spike Albrecht will get a ton of minutes this year completely healthy.

  • Wayman Britt

    Dylan – we all know Duncan can shoot, but from what you saw and heard will he be able to get his shot off? Especially in the Big Ten, where there are no secrets and we all know certain coaches will face guard him and never leave him open on the perimeter.

  • True Michigan Fan

    You guys on this site is a trip lol….so after one hour of practice people have already declared that MO Wagner is weak and slow . People are counting out Chatman and Donnel just from one practice lol…. everyone wants to be a player guru now like unhoops greatest Matt D…not enough lateral quickness, not a game changer ect… lol…Geez at least wait to see them actually play.

  • MikeMichelle Haggerson

    A great discussion by a great group of guys.