Versatility was a common theme among Michigan coaches and players before the first practice of 2015-16.
Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton both noted how many different Wolverines can play two or three positions on the roster and marveled at the sort of possibilities that could be unlocked. John Beilein said his primary job is figuring out how to find a way to fit everything together without over-complicating his system.
“We’re testing a lot of things right now including making our offense and our defense extremely versatile, even more versatile than ever,” Beilein said. “In order to do that everybody has to be able to pass it and see and guard multiple positions.”
In one sense, versatility is nothing new for the Wolverines. We’ve documented how many of Michigan’s offensive sets are so effective because its four-guard look spaces the floor and the Wolverines have been essentially playing a guard at the four position since Beilein arrived in Ann Arbor.
For all intents and purposes, Michigan’s offense and defense were already almost simplified to three positions: two guards, two wings and one center.
The three and four positions in the U-M offense have been playing the same role on opposite sides of the floor and while the point guard has some additional duties, Beilein’s ‘two-guard’ offense was originally designed to mitigate the need for a true point guard. But with one of his deepest rosters to date, Beilein wants to become even more flexible.
“How many different positions can some guys play?” he continued. “And how can our offense and our defense work so that doesn’t take a lot of brain power to get that done.”
So how will Michigan become more versatile? My first reaction is that it is a product of John Beilein making a point to be a learner rather than just a teacher this offseason. Beilein spoke about new ideas like morning walkthroughs before afternoon practices — apparently one that he borrowed from Jim Harbaugh — as well as a coach’s retreat for his staff and he’s also stopped by Pistons, 76ers, Jazz, Bucks and Hawks practices this fall.
When we use the word versatility, the concept of small ball comes to mind immediately to the modern basketball fan. Michigan has been emphasizing size and spacing for years, but now the concept is in fashion in the NBA. The Golden State Warriors just won the NBA Championship by making the adjustment to play Draymond Green – all 6-foot-7 of him – at the center position for stretches of the NBA Finals. The move worked so brilliantly that NBA general managers, coaches, media and players are all falling over themselves to come up with new smallball possibilities.
It wouldn’t be any change for Michigan to play small ball this season because we’ve come to expect it, but the Wolverines could certainly make some tweaks.
In my mind, it takes three things to be able to play (successful) small ball: spacing, shooting and a unique frontcourt player that can create mismatches. Under John Beilein, the first two have basically been a given at Michigan. Beilein preaches spacing and shooting and is one of the best offensive minds in the college game.
But the Wolverines haven’t always had game changers or unique playmakers to make small ball work. When they have — like Glenn Robinson III or Mitch McGary — everything starts clicking. So why could Michigan be even more versatile than ever this year? The Wolverines add three players to the mix: a 6-foot-8 deadeye shooter, a 6-foot-10 hybrid big man with over a 7-foot wingspan and a 6-foot-10 stretch German big man with a smooth jumper.
On a sheer talent basis, no one is quite sure how impactful any one of those three will be. Duncan Robinson last played at the Division III level, Moritz Wagner last played in Germany arrived in Ann Arbor weighing 210 pounds, and DJ Wilson was sidelined throughout last season due to injury. But there’s no questioning that their skill sets can make smallball work.
The offensive flexibility and versatility is exciting, but the million dollar question is whether Michigan can play these intriguing small ball possibilities and survive defensively. There are plenty of reasons why Michigan could get away with playing smaller lineups defensively, but there are also reasons why they could backfire.
Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton should help as two of the best rebounding guards in the conference. DJ Wilson’s length could provide one of the best shot blocking threats that Michigan has had in years. His mobility could also the Wolverines’ pick-and-roll defense, but he could also get pushed around on the interior by bigger and stronger opponents. Aubrey Dawkins has the athleticism to make a difference, but he struggled defensive and on the glass last season.
The opportunities are there for this to be a bounce back year offensively for Michigan, but for a team that has ranked outside of the top-100 defensively in each of the last two seasons the results on the other side of the floor might be the most important.