Notebook: Three-point defense, Simpson’s improvement

Andrew Kahn

Michigan’s three-point defense this season has been awful (only six teams in the country have defended the three worse) and that was case again yesterday in a 77-70 home loss to Maryland. The Terrapins hit 10 of 15 from downtown. Jared Nickens came off the bench and drained all four of his long-range attempts.

Yes, as John Beilein and Zak Irvin pointed out after the game, Nickens entered the game shooting just 26 percent (11 for 42) from three on the season. But he was much better than that in his previous two college seasons and, after he hit two in the first half, there was no excuse for leaving him.

On Nickens’ first triple, Duncan Robinson got caught up in a staggered screen. The shot was deep, but Nickens had time to set his feet. The second was an apparent miscommunication between Robinson and Zak Irvin. This was one was even deeper, but the contest was way too late.

“The first two he made in the first half, we were OK with that,” Irvin said. “But then he made the two in the second half, which were tough. We talked about at halftime we had to be able to get in him after he made two.”

Nickens’ second-half threes came after Michigan had cut the deficit to one possession. One was the same play as his first three. The final came after a high ball screen for Melo Trimble. With neither defender guarding the action in great position, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman had to come from the wing to help, leaving Nickens open in the corner.

“They were runaway threes at the NBA line,” Beilein said of Nickens’ shots. “There’s not too many people that can defend a guy running away at 26 feet [who] rises up and shoots it. You can either go through the screen or chase it. We decided to chase the rest of the time, but we didn’t chase it on that last one.”

Of Maryland’s six other three-pointers, two were one-on-one, off-the-dribble daggers as the shot clock was running down (one by Trimble, one by Anthony Cowan). Sharpshooter Kevin Huerter was wide open for two; he was lost on a secondary break and was the beneficiary of good ball movement. He used a shot fake and dribble to get Trimble and open look as well. You could see why Beilein recruited him hard. Justin Jackson (a 43 percent three-point shooter) was not given proper respect on his lone attempt.

Right now, Michigan would love to play offense against itself. That’s not good. The players and coaches are certainly aware of the problems.

Said Irvin: “We’ve just got to be able to back it up now. We do a lot of talking how we want to get stops, want to do this, want to do that, and it’s not showing. It didn’t show this afternoon. That’s why we lost.”

Remember that—usually—a team is never as bad as it looks after a game like this. But given Michigan’s defensive stats through 16 games, Maryland’s shooting wasn’t an anomaly either.

The X factor

Freshman point guard Xavier Simpson looked as comfortable as he had all season on Wednesday against Penn State, and it carried over to yesterday’s game. In the first half, he drove baseline and found Robinson for a corner three and, shortly after, drew a push-off foul on Trimble.

As Simpson came off the court for a media timeout, Beilein gave him a hug. Simpson finished with two assists in nine minutes. He is still learning scouting reports—who to do what against in ball screen coverage, for example—but his defensive skills are solid.

“He made some things happen,” Beilein said. “That’s why he’s out there. He’s made the progress in practice. It’s good to be able to allow Derrick [Walton] to have a little more rest. We’ve got to find a way to maybe have Derrick play some off-guard at times, or just have those guys…sub for each other.”

Walton was nonexistent at times against Maryland, but it will take more than one bad game for Simpson to seriously cut into the senior’s playing time.

More from Abdur-Rahkman

Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman scored 12 points on 6 of 11 shooting from tw0-point range. He missed his only three-point attempt, as he continues to struggle with his outside shot.

“We are trying to encourage him to get to the foul line, to go downhill,” Beilein said. “Trying to make sure he…gets two feet in the paint.”

Irvin echoed his coach’s sentiments: “For him to be able to get downhill like that was huge. He can get in the paint with the best of them in the Big Ten…He’s tough to stay in front of; he’s so quick and fast.

“He kept us in it, especially at the beginning of the second half. He gave us that spark to be able to start that comeback. That’s something we need going forward.”

Abdur-Rahkman is still searching for his role on both ends of the court. Beilein wants him to be a defensive stopper and while, for the most part, he handled Trimble well yesterday, he’s not there yet.

The junior finding consistency will be key to Michigan improving this season. When he’s picking his spots to drive and knocking down open shots, he gives the Wolverines another reliable offensive option. In this case, he’s remembering how to attack the rim, but anything outside of 10 or 11 feet has been a struggle.

  • MAZS

    Rather than bad luck, perhaps th resaon Nickens was only shooting 26% from 3 was because, prior to yesterday, opponents were (let me think) actually defending him rather than assuming he was simply a poor 3-point shooter (which he is not).

    • Obviously it’s some of both. There were defensive breakdowns on several of those plays, but you don’t expect him to go 4-of-4 like he’s Bryn Forbes last year or something like that. You don’t go into the game with a whole scheme to defend him from three, you tell Duncan or whoever that he’s a volume shooter and that they run him off a lot of off ball screens.

      I’m sure there were plenty of teams on Maryland’s (relatively easy) non-conference schedule that blew assignments en route to Nickens’ low shooting numbers.

      Coincidentally, Nickens was 0-of-4 last year from three and missed some good looks. A big reason that U-M won that game.

      • MAZS

        just play defense, and FWIW, it’s not like he didn’t come into college with a rep as a 3 point shooter.

        • Sure, I’m not arguing that Michigan’s defense was awful and needs to be much better. I’m saying that Nickens has probably had a lot of open shots this year and he was still at 28% entering the game. He still went through last year’s Big Ten slate under 30%.

          Not sure who is saying it is bad luck either, defensive breakdowns on basically all of his threes. On another day, maybe he makes half of them and then who knows where the game is at.

          • Merlin50

            I feel sorry for SMU-they got Waltons only great game. They must feel quite unlucky as well. Walton has to play better but obviously he is suffering with confidence issues and the effects of injuries that have severely slowed him over the years. I think its time to give Simpson more minutes he passes better than Walton and defends better than Walton and neither seem to be able to shoot. Next year might we might have a better team if Simpson gets action in the BIg Ten.

            In contrast I think Irvin is playing well for his team. Sometimes it comes down to him at crunch time and he has cut the hero ball to a minimum. He is the leader the team looks to and though he is not an NBA player he is filling the senior role. Lets hope Rahkman is on an upward trajectory we really need him to be good.

  • Wayman Britt

    Nice article, like I mentioned on an earlier post, maybe it’s time Simpson got a few more minutes. He definitely can defend and he does bring some spark off the bench. This team needs someone or something to get it going – maybe the X factor is Simpson.

  • robpollard

    Good overall article, but one major quibble.

    “Walton was nonexistent at times against Maryland, but it will take more than one bad game for Simpson to seriously cut into the senior’s playing time.”

    Dylan, you seem to be having a hard time internalizing how consistently poor Walton is playing. I would argue he has had precisely one *good* game – SMU, where he was very good – against a Top 100 team. He’s had some good portions of games, e.g., the end of Penn State, but overall, it was still not a good game (3-10 and only 2 assists).

    He stunk or was below acceptable against Maryland, UCLA, Texas, SC and Marquette. He was OK against Iowa (still, only 5-13 and only 3 assists, but he did have 5 Rebs) and VA Tech (still, only 2-6, but he did have 6 Rebs and 5 assists and only 1 TO).

    If you have 8 games against Top 100 opponents and you have only 1 good game, something needs to be fixed. I would hope Beilein is certainly looking to cut into Walton’s time. Perhaps not a lot, at first, but evidence shows you’re not going to lose a whole lot by going with X, even on offense, which should be Walton’s specialty. Defense, it can’t get much worse. And Walton’s not even rebounding that well (for him).

    Walton’s play is surprising to me (and I assume you) and I keep hoping he will snap out of it, but we’re half way through the season and we just moved the season from Defcon 3 to Defcon 2 — time to (at least) implement the idea Beilein talked about at the beginning of the year: X at the PG and Walton at SG (maybe not being the PG 35 min a game will allow Walton to clear his head) for at least 8-10 minutes a game.

    • First things first… I didn’t write the article, but thanks for letting me know what I’m having a hard time internalizing.

      Walton hasn’t been great this year, no major disagreement from me. The last two games he’s been basically absent for long stretches. That’s not what you want. I’d say he has had three terrible games this year (ORtg well under 100): Maryland, Texas and Marquette. He also ended up winning the PSU game for Michigan.

      Overall his assist numbers are down, but all of his other numbers are almost identical to last year’s. (Not necessarily a good thing, but is what it is).

      If you think this would be a better team with X playing 30 minutes and Walton playing 10, maybe you are right, but I don’t think so and it’s pretty clear that Beilein doesn’t think so. X has made 5 shots this year and turned the ball over 11 times. He still has a long way to go.

      He’s improving and I’m all for playing him a bit more, but I’m not sure this is some secret bullet that is going to fix Michigan. There’s a much, much better chance of Michigan being better if Walton gets some confidence back and plays better. Not sure how you get that out of him right now, but we’ll see.

      • robpollard

        Pardon me…I should have looked more closely at the byline; my mistake. That actually makes more sense, as I thought you had come around (from previous recaps) to the idea that Walton’s struggles were longer term.

        So Andrew Kahn…shape up! ;)

        Regarding X playing more, it is certainly not a secret bullet — we have too many other issues, even with our players who are succeeding overall (e.g., Moe is giving us basically all we could expect, and a bit more, but he still picks up silly fouls, can be stronger around the basket, etc). But it is just one example of a change, to me, that makes sense for this year and also helps with next year. As I said, I hope it can help not just X continue to improve, but Walton as well by lightening his load a bit — and overall, that should help the team.

        • I did not mean to suggest this was Walton’s only bad game. I meant that it will take more than this one bad game for serious playing time changes to occur. That being said, I included the quote from Beilein for a reason: adjustments are at least being considered right now.

          • robpollard

            Hmmm…it certainly did read as just one bad game (“…it will take more than one bad game for Simpson to seriously cut into the senior’s playing time.”) but thanks for the reply and clarifying what you meant. I appreciate it.

    • tom48160

      I believe that many folks need to internalize (couldn’t resist) that Walton is not your prototypical PG, dominating and distributing the ball on offense, penetrating with hard finishes or kicking out to open shooters. He is the shooter that other distributors kick out to. He doesn’t run the PnR, which wasn’t a problem when Caris was here and healthy. At this point, Walton is a D and 3 guy, which most folks don’t expect out of your shortest player on the court. Brace yourselves, because if X can’t run the PnR and doesn’t have the confidence to drive and finish, when a lane’s available he might end up playing a similar style at the point.

      • GTFOmycourt

        If Walton wasn’t a pretty damn good 3point shooter I doubt he would play much.

        The PnR candidates for next year are:


        I am very curious how this plays out.

  • A2MIKE

    Disagree that this was one bad game for Walton. His conference only offensive rating is 93.7, which is putrid. He has 6 assists to 5 turnovers in conference play. The following point guards have a better conference only offensive rating than Walton: Glynn Watson (127.1); Bronson Koenig (122); Nate Mason (124.5); Jordan Bohannon (120.3); Jaquan Lyle (110.9); McIntosh (99.2).

    Trimble, Winston, and Walton were all really close around 93-97. Small sample sizes apply.

    However, it would not be far fetched to say that Walton is the 9th best point guard in the league. Koenig and Walton are the only seniors amongst this group. They need Walton to be better offensively and defensively if they are going to make the tournament. Where would you rank Walton amongst the group above?

  • NbobBis

    The thing about Walton and Irvin. with Walton, if his shooting is off, he’s still not turning the ball over, he still rebounds, he still hits his foul shots. with Irvin everything is affected