Through the first week of Big Ten play, Mark Donnal is ranked fourth in scoring and fourth in rebounding.
The 6-foot-10 junior has scored 42 points in Michigan’s last two games, nearly matching his non-conference scoring total of 43 points in just two games. Last year, Donnal managed only 36 points total in 20 Big Ten games.
Donnal’s production has been unexpected as just a few weeks back John Beilein had moved him out of the starting lineup and down the rotation, noting that they would revisit his playing time in a few weeks. Now back in the starting lineup, Donnal’s unexpected production has elevated Michigan to a 2-0 Big Ten start.
The beauty of the majority of Donnal’s production is that it comes from the rest of the offense working as designed. Donnal is dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s on plays that just need to be finished. He’s not doing the majority of the heavy lifting, he’s just keeping things simple and finishing the opportunities that present themselves.
The pick-and-roll has been a staple in Michigan’s offense for the last few seasons and this year has been no exception. Michigan’s ability to create easy baskets for the roll man in the high ball screen game has been hit-or-miss since Jordan Morgan graduated. Last year Michigan shot just 47% on two-point attempts and a lack of a quality ball screen finisher was a major reason why.
Sophomore big man Ricky Doyle has shown flashes in the ball screen game, but his hands have consistently plagued him. Moritz Wagner also showed signs of promise in the Bahamas with his smooth ability to catch and finish, but he’s lacked consistency in other areas of the game. With the help of LaVall Jordan, John Beilein realized that Michigan was missing chances for easy opportunities around the rim.
“I was looking over the SMU tape and I had missed a lot of the opportunities.” Beilein said. “I was looking at execution and not how open our big men were. We really have been emphasizing since then… (Zak Irvin and Duncan Robinson) did a great job.”
Most recently, it has been Donnal that has looked best in the ball screen game, appearing to have a great chemistry with Zak Irvin. But it’s not just the ball screen game where Donnal has been getting touches. He’s also doing a good job of drifting into open space off of Caris LeVert’s penetration.
“He’s playing off of leverage. We’ve found out who our team is and trying to put them in schemes that they are comfortable in seeing him,” Beilein explained. “You can run a lot of things, but they have to be comfortable. Some of our guys can make certain passes and some can’t, so we scheme to say how can we get this guy in this position and get Mark an easy basket.”
Spacing and cutting
Being in the right spot at the right time is far more difficult than it sounds. In his third-year in the program, Donnal is figuring out where to be and how to create a target for his teammates.
Over the last two games he’s done a good job of running the floor in transition opportunities and his teammates have rewarded him with easy looks. Michigan’s transition three-point threats make it possible for Donnal to waltz down the lane with relatively little opposition.
“When you have four people out there that all can shoot the ball — and they’re usually all out there. First of all it’s a big man’s dream,” Beilein said. “Because he’s in single coverage and leverage a lot. Second of all, they are becoming a much better passing team and they are passing it where people can see the basket and have good balance.”
If you watch this video closely, you can see that the majority of Donnal’s layups cutting to the rim are generated by a shooting threat somewhere else on the floor. Look at these three snap shots and focus on how many defenders are in the paint and how many are focused on Duncan Robinson.
Shot blocking and rebounding
Donnal has 12 offensive rebounds in the last three games, that’s more than anyone else on the roster other than Ricky Doyle (19) has all season. He’s also been active defensively with four blocks and two steals.
The newly discovered aggressiveness on the glass and on defense may be the most encouraging element of Donnal’s hot start. He’s not just grabbing soft rebounds below the rim, he’s going up and getting the ball and making a play. He’s also going back up strong whether it be the simple tap-in or a catch and finish like his half hook shot at Illinois.
Donnal has also shown dramatic improvement in his ability to rotate defensively, help on drivers and even block the occasional shot. Michigan’s defense has held its opponent below a point per possession in its first two games — the best defensive performance against Illinois this season and the third-best against Penn State. It’s not time to proclaim that the Wolverines are a great defensive team yet, but there’s been definite progress on that end of the floor.
If Bryant and Northern Kentucky were open-book practice tests, Illinois and Penn State were more like quizzes. Thursday’s game at Purdue is equivalent to a final exam. The Boilermakers are dominant everywhere that Michigan isn’t. They have the No. 1 eFG% defense in the country and only allow opponents to shoot 37.6% on twos — for comparison Michigan has made 56.5% of its twos in Big Ten play. Purdue is also a dominant rebounding team on both ends of the floor and consistently throws the ball in the post, where it has an array of bigger and stronger players that it can throw at Donnal.
Mark Donnal — and Michigan’s entire frontcourt — will be facing an entirely different challenge when they take the floor in West Lafayette. Last year at Mackey Arena, Michigan made just 7-of-27 two-point attempts (26%) and allowed Purdue to rebound 38% of its missed shots. The Boilers are bigger and better this year, so Michigan will have its work cut out.
There are going to be hiccups along the way, but if Donnal can continue to play physically defensively and on the glass, then the rest will take care of itself. His offensive production is very much a product of Michigan’s offense working as it was designed. If the Wolverines can keep getting open and knocking down threes, the looks inside will continue.