By the numbers: Examining Zak Irvin’s slump

Dylan Burkhardt

It’s no secret that Zak Irvin is struggling. He’s scored 13 points total in the last four games and has made just 4 of his last 31 shot attempts.

We know that Irvin was battling the flu in the loss in East Lansing and that he has never been the most consistent shooter, but that still doesn’t explain away one of the worst four game stretches of his career.

What’s wrong with Irvin? What can Michigan do to fix the problem? Here’s a closer look.

1. Decrease in usage

Irvin can’t seem to make a shot, but he isn’t taking as many either. His dip in form has coincided with Derrick Walton’s explosion and Michigan has redistributed its offense at the same time.

I can’t remember quite as dramatic of an in-season shift in offensive usage under John Beilein. Midway through the season, Irvin was the the primary option and he usage rate was increasing, then everything flipped as Walton took control.

Here’s a look at their rolling three-game averages in usage rate over the course of the season.

Walton is playing too well (50% on twos, 48% on threes, 89% on free throws) to not see an increase in usage, but this graph clearly illustrates the difference in offensive distribution over the last two or three weeks.

2. Shot selection

Irvin is taking fewer shots and I’d argue better shots of late. He’s also missing them, usually pretty badly. The shots that he usually loves — mid-range pull-up jumpers and catch-and-shoot threes — just aren’t falling at the same rate as they were earlier in the year.

Irvin has always been a tough shot taker and maker throughout much of his career, but he needs to regain some of that confidence.

Near the end of non-conference play, I broke down some of Irvin’s shooting splits and the consensus was that he was best shooting mid-range shots dribbling to his right and catch-and-shoot threes. As a refresher, here’s Irvin’s non-conference shot chart compared to his Big Ten-only shot chart courtesy of Krossover.

The percentage differences are obviously jarring, but he’s also taking roughly the same distribution of shot attempts. He’s just not making them. If you eliminated the color from both charts and focused only on where and how many shots Irvin was taking, you probably couldn’t distinguish.

Irvin posted a 64 eFG% on catch-and-shoot jumpers in non-conference play, but that number is down to just 25% eFG% in league games. He missed all four catch-and-shoot attempts on Sunday even though several were fairly good looks.

Here’s a look at back Irvin’s shot attempts vs. Indiana. He missed everything away from the rim, but for the most part it is clear why Beilein repeated on Monday that he had no problem with Irvin’s shot selection. These are some of his go-to shots: three-pointers off the catch, elbow pull-ups — we’ve seen him make them before.

His late transition three-point attempt certainly wasn’t the smartest (and it earned him a quick 30 seconds on the bench), but given the flow of the game I didn’t have a huge problem with his other attempts.

3. Keep attacking

Irvin is still effective driving to the rim and finishing. He had a drive and finish through contact at Indiana and was fouled on another. The ability to drive to the hoop wasn’t always a strong suit for Irvin, but right now it is the only thing that has remained mostly effective in Big Ten play.

The bad news is that that ability has also regressed over his four game slump. Irvin has made only 2 of his last 7 shots at the rim including some frustrating misses over the last four games.

That reel isn’t all that encouraging, but those are the shots that Irvin needs to strive for. If he can get those kind of looks 4 or 5 times per game, he might be able to build a bit of confidence.

4. Other impact

At one point I would have said that Zak Irvin without his jumpshot is worthless as a player. In the final months of his career, he’s developed to a point for that to no longer be the case.

Irvin has developed as a defender, passer and rebounder to the point where he can help the team even when his jumper is missing in action.

“We need it. For Zak to say, ‘How can I help the team?’ When the game comes, don’t press,” Beilein explained on Sunday. “Today he did on defense — great job on Robert Johnson. That’s what we need from him right now. Rebound, talk, use your experience that way, and let the other stuff come forward.”

Irvin is a better defensive option than Duncan Robinson and knows more of the offense than Xavier Simpson. He can communicate and lead, but sooner or later Michigan needs him to score too.

5. Options

So what are the solutions? I’m not sure if anyone can figure out what’s going on with Irvin’s shot other than Irvin and John Beilein is convinced that the shots will start falling eventually.

“He’s just one or two shots away from changing this thing,” Beilein said after Sunday’s win. “We got to continue to look at the big data, the big body of work with him. So when you watch him shoot drills, you know nothing is broken. But he’s just got to continue to go. It could be like in baseball, this bloop single to right field that gets him off the slide. Something’s gonna happen good for him and it’s really going to help our team.”

First things first, Zak Irvin is not coming off the bench. Duncan Robinson has settled in nicely to his bench role and the last thing on earth that could fix Irvin’s struggles would be to take him out of the starting lineup when you can count the number of games remaining in his career on both hands.

That being said, Michigan has already made some adjustments. As noted above, the Wolverines are running offense through Derrick Walton, they are also playing Xavier Simpson more minutes. That hasn’t significantly cut into Irvin’s time as he’s still averaging well over 30 minutes per game, but he only played 32 in the last two contests.

What else could the Wolverines do beyond that? I’m not sure they have many more legitimate options.

You could try to give Duncan Robinson more minutes, but he’s generally been more of a comeback option. Robinson is averaging 23 minutes per game in losses and just 18 in wins. You could also stretch Xavier Simpson closer to 15 or 16 minutes per game with two point guard looks, but it’s not like there are other options on the bench.

Irvin’s versatility to play three positions (two, three and four) also makes it increasingly difficult to construct creative lineups without him on the floor. If DJ Wilson or Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman gets into foul trouble, Irvin generally slides up or down in the lineup and Robinson fills the gap.

Two point guard lineups give Beilein perhaps the most realistic option — combining any pair of Wilson, Abdur-Rahkman and Robinson at wings — but it also might be a little too early to fully invest in Xavier Simpson stock even after two strong 12 minute performances.

At the end of the day, Irvin is too important to what this team is at its core to go another direction completely. The light clicked on for Derrick Walton and at this point Michigan would probably be just fine with a flicker from Irvin down the stretch.

  • CTG

    We all know he’s a streaky shooter. Also, he has proven to be good when he gets hot. That being said, how does a shooter miss so badly on wide open shots? In the Indiana game, most of his shots didn’t even catch rim. However, his shot selection has improved the past few games (even if he is missing). The more frustrating part is when he gets in a funk with poor decisions (TOs) and falling asleep on defense.

    • NbobBis

      i agree.. there’s more to the story than misses and makes… a guy could have a run of tough luck misses that are in- and out…. but they still count as misses in the boxscore… Irvin’s misses had no chance from the moment they left his hand

  • Nick

    He looks sluggish to me. I don’t know if he has denied it but you have to wonder if he is still dealing with an illness.

  • AC1997

    I don’t know the ins and outs of coaching enough to say if these are stupid ideas……but what about these ideas:

    1 – have him play the Duncan Robinson role more. Duncan is able to generate 5-6 shots per game around the perimeter that are pretty wide open thanks to passes or the pump fake. Maybe Irvin needs to play the “wait-for-the-pass” jump shooter like he did as a freshman.

    2 – Is there a scenario where he could be the screener and either get some rolls to the hoop or pick-and-pop options like Wilson/Wagner get? Dylan pointed out how DJ was the screener from the 4 spot, why not a couple plays for Irvin to get offense? (My guess is that his man would just switch on Walton, but probably not if Nigel Hayes is guarding him.)

  • Jeff S

    Irvin took pride in being the go-to player and taking the big shot. I feel like he’s lost mentally now that Walton has that role. He should watch film of how Levert and Stauskas played well together in 13/14 and take on that Levert role as a #2 option. I’ve given Irvin a lot of crap over the past few years, but we need him, and can be really dangerous with him scoring 11-12 points a game.

  • NbobBis

    it may not happen until the last half of the last game, but he’ll start to realize his career is nearing an end and then the lid will come off the basket for him

  • robpollard

    Boy, we must be watching different tape regarding his 3 attempts. His first three was atrocious – at least 3 feet behind the line, if not more; not surprisingly, he barely hit rim. His next (missed) three attempt was not off the catch, but off the dribble. Then there was his transition 3.

    He’s not a good 3-pt shooter — he wasn’t last year and isn’t this year; this is not just 2-3 games. The solution is simple — unless it is an open, catch and shoot 3-pointer, he should be working to get his elbow jumper or attack the basket to either shoot it or pass it.

    As you noted, he can still meaningfully contribute; more importantly, there is no better option with this roster and this point in the season. Still, unless the game really falls a certain way, he’s essentially the 4th option behind Walton, DJ and Moe — all of whom shoot an easily higher percentage. Irvin should focus on trying to get a line of 10-5-5 every game, with good defense and shooting 50% — do that, and we’ll likely make the tourney.

    • ZRL

      Agreed. JB has always excused defensive lapses by Zak/DWalt by saying it’s hard to play at such a high level defensively when they have to carry so much of the offense. Maybe settling into a lower usage role will improve Zak’s D. He has the potential to be a good low usage jack of trades type player, as you mentioned. Do that, and this team’s potential is much higher than just making the tourney.

  • GTFOmycourt

    Out of the five 3 pointers Irvin attempted, only 2 of those shots were shots Irvin should have taken, in my opinion.

    At times, Irvin is the worst three point shooter that we have on the floor for our team.

    • We’ve been debating this on the forum… I really didn’t have a big problem with the shots he took. Transition/unsettled threes are generally pretty good shots. The one was deep but he stepped into it and was wide open. I don’t know, I tend to side with Beilein here.

      • MTung

        Zak’s shot mechanics have always been a train wreck, but he can get streaky hot. Watching him lately, however, it doesn’t even appear as though he’s focusing on his target. Plus, his follow through is pure mystery. Dylan, please take him into a gym and shag a 1000 jumpers and never let him take his eye off the target. Not even once.

  • Chris De Sana

    Good write up.

    My preference is to find a way to get him the ball moving towards the rim either via back screens or coming off the curl. If JB is as good as a coach as many say design up some plays that allow him to get to the rim.

    Also it seems in the past that Zak making a big play on defense has fueled his offense so keep up the defensive encouragement for sure.

  • No Walmart Fan Here.

    I know that people on this board don’t care but I do- the lady Wolverines are ranked in the top 20 and they are balling!!! Great job. Our recruits are playing very well !!!! Man it feels good to be a wolverine !!! Let pull out this stretch!

    FyI: I believe that wack will return to form sooner than later. He will show up when we need him.

    • bobohle

      I follow each game women’s game that’s on tv and at least check out the box score of the games not televised.

  • Harry Huntoon

    You picked an irrelevant stat to make the point that Duncan shouldn’t take some of Zak’s minutes…In Big Ten play, both Zak and MAAR average more minutes in loses than in wins. Why not choose this stat: Duncan is # 3 on the team behind Walton and Wagner in points/min?

    • Meant to be more of a look into Beilein’s thought process in the sense that Irvin is the steadier player defensively, Duncan is definitely the instant offense type.

      Wasn’t trying to say that Duncan shouldn’t play more minutes, but you are giving things up defensively the more he plays. Ideally he gives you around 20 minutes and a few threes per game.

      • Harry Huntoon

        He seems to have stabilized his defense lately, in fact, the whole team has. They’re going to need his quick strike capability down the stretch, and it would be a shame to have him on the bench when they do…I’m not encouraged when I saw them go through that that 7+ minute stretch around the half without scoring against Indiana, and he was kept on the bench the whole time…That was strange.

  • Fab 5 Legends

    Glad that Walton is our go-to guy, have been saying that a long time – he needs the ball in his hands…as much as possible to create and score…Irvin is a good role-player at best…streaky shooter, questionable shot taker (some shots he decides to take are really tough) Beilein system needs run through a ball handler…Burke, Morris, Stauskas, Walton