A closer look at Mark Donnal’s hot start

Dylan Burkhardt

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.

Pick-and-roll offense

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.

duncan3 duncan2 duncan1

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.

What’s next

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.

  • FrenchWolverine

    Quick edit 2/27 is not 26% I assume it’s 7/27
    Would be interesting to compare Doyle/Wagner on similar plays? I think Doyle is catching less and slower to shoot, Mo probably isn’t at the right spot. At Purdue the centers will be longer and likely be able to recover faster/bother passing lanes with their length

  • rlcBlue

    Can’t help noticing that there are no dunks among those makes. There’s no difference between a dunk and a lay-up – until there is. I’m pretty sure how the message board will react the first time one of Donnal’s lay-ups is blocked – but how will Mark react?

    With that in mind, I’m curious about Donnal’s 2 point misses during his hot streak – there are only 8(!) in the last five games. Has he had any shots blocked? He didn’t face much height against NKU or Bryant, and Illinois doesn’t feature rim protection, but Penn State certainly does. Mark shows some nice ability to finish with either hand, use the rim for protection, and even throw in a hook shot – all good techniques for getting a shot off – but will he be able to choose the right technique and execute it against Purdue and Maryland and Iowa? I hope so.

    • Beilein actually praised him after the game Saturday for not trying to do too much and dunking it, and keep the ball high and tight and scoring efficiently with layups.

      • rlcBlue

        Hard to argue with 25 for 33 and just 4 turnovers. He’s been doing a really good job of shooting quickly without rushing. Like I say, I’m hoping he can read and react and keep that efficiency against the big boys.

        I also hope he can knock down some 3s – I don’t think Haas/Hammons and Swanigan are built to defend a 5-out offense…

    • He does a nice job protecting the ball by going to the backside of the rim, but its real likely he’s gonna eat one or two against Purdue. And that’s regardless of whether he’s laying it in or trying for the jam.

  • David DeMember

    His emergence loosely reminds me of McGary’s tournament games… Obviously not the same scale, but we’re finally getting the performance we wanted when he was a 4 star recruit almost overnight mid-season. He’s only starting his 3rd year and this is a typical year for a big man to start hitting his potential… A more similar example might be Frank Kaminsky (again, comparing at scale of improvement and not apples to apples).

    • I’d go more with some of Jordan Morgan’s big games with Darius Morris. It’s more a revelation in the Michigan offense than Mark Donnal. McGary’s emergence had to do with the Michigan offense, but also McGary doing some incredible things. Not sure we’ve seen the incredible individual moments from Mark quite yet.

  • urbanachiever

    This game Thursday has so much intrigue because the teams are polar opposites particularly when UM has the ball. The Xs/Os are going to be fascinating to watch if UM is able to hit some outside shots and possibly force Purdue’s bigs away from the basket or make Painter go smaller. You see this effect (albeit to the absolute max) when Golden State plays and Draymond Green forces 7 footers to the bench because they are getting bombed on the defensive side, even though they might be producing offensively.

    On the other hand, if UM can’t make shots this game could get out of hand fast. It feels like a game where the first 10 minutes, if they go poorly, could put the game out of reach, but if they go well could instill faith that UM can force their style and really make life difficult for Purdue’s bigs.

  • Zach Irvin is really passing well. Those simple looking little two handed lobs into Donnell are way tougher than they look. Donnell ain’t playing above the rim, so Irvin has to lay them in there with just enough pace and trajectory to make it there and then fall to Donnell. He sends some extraordinarily sweet balls to Donnell in that first clip.

  • JJ3ball

    Great write up!
    I agree with others, Irvin’s slick passing really stands out. That combination looks to have staying power.
    I too like how Donnal is keeping the ball high, getting rid of it quickly, and using the glass and the rim. Plus of course, he’s doing a good job of catching the ball

  • Champswest

    Everybody seems to be implying that Donnal won’t be as effective against Purdue’s bigs. Well, he most likely won’t be. Then again, you can probably say the same thing for every other team’s bigs when they face Purdue.

  • DavZ

    He shouts “AND 1!” in the first clip, nice to see him being more aggressive in a number of ways!

  • Chris De Sana

    Just wondering if his start doesn’t have more to do with those around him seeing he has the ability to finish and hit the pick and pop. So essentially yes his confidence is up but the same can be said for those he shares the court in his ability to deliver.