MBB: Michigan Is Ready For A Final Four Run
With the return of Hunter Dickinson and the addition of DeVante' Jones, the final pieces fall into place for a deep March run
The men’s basketball program received great, if anticipated, news this week when both All-American center Hunter Dickinson and transfer point guard DeVante’ Jones withdrew from the NBA Draft. Is the now-finalized roster a national championship contender? Spoiler alert: yes.
[Photo: Marc-Grégor Campredon/MGoBlog]
A lot of the offseason focus has been on how Dickinson can improve upon his freshman year, so it’s worth starting with this point: Michigan can be the Big Ten favorite and a Final Four-caliber team even if Dickinson is the exact same player he was last season. He averaged 14 points and eight rebounds in the conference with the best center play in the country top-to-bottom. That’s a hell of a starting point.
There’s good reason to believe he’ll build on it. The regionally famous workout video doesn’t seem to be a fluke.
At least, that’s how I’m choosing to read this quote from Dickinson about the feedback he received from the draft process [emphasis mine]:
“All the teams pretty much said the same thing — they wanted to see me shoot the ball how I did in my workouts for an entire NCAA season. They wanted to see more reps from me out there and to continue the ability to push on ball screens and stuff like that. Continue to use my right hand would probably be the top three things that I heard.”
I’m not expecting Dickinson to become Moe Wagner. My deep dive into big man three-point shooting leaps from earlier this offseason indicates he’s more likely to attempt 2-3 three-pointers per game than the 7.9 Wagner hoisted in his breakout year. That’s fine! If Dickinson forces defenses to keep another threat in mind, that’ll be more than enough to raise the ceiling of the offense.
There are plenty of other areas Dickinson can improve: strength and conditioning, explosiveness, post moves (yes, with the right hand, yes, he’s working on it), reducing turnovers, defensive awareness—there’s a reason big men tend to take time. Combine Dickinson’s motivation to go in the first round of next year’s draft, a full offseason mostly unaffected by COVID, and the usual freshman-to-sophomore progression; it’s hard to see him not being a better player in multiple aspects.
To illustrate this point, I checked Bart Torvik’s database for the 30 best seasons by high-major freshmen listed at 6’10 or taller since 2008. My statistical metric of choice is PORPAGATU! (Points Over Replacement Per Adjusted Game At That Usage), a scarily long name for a stat that is simple at its core—it uses a player’s offensive rating and usage rate to estimate the number of points they add on offense per game over a hypothetical replacement-level player.
Dickinson ranks 23rd among a distinguished group that’s comprised of more NBA lottery picks than not. Of the top 30, he’s one of only ten players to return for a sophomore season, and that includes another 2021 freshman, Marquette’s Dawson Garcia (who transferred to UNC this offseason). The other eight:
Indiana’s Cody Zeller
Oklahoma’s Blake Griffin
Georgetown’s Greg Monroe
Vanderbilt’s A.J. Ogilvy
Cal’s Ivan Rabb
Illinois’s Kofi Cockburn
Indiana’s Thomas Bryant
Iowa’s Luka Garza
The two least impressive names on there are Ogilvy, an Aussie import who stagnated in college before a long, successful overseas career, and Rabb, a five-star coached by Cuonzo Martin—who’s not exactly noted for his player development. Everyone else on that list was somewhere between extremely good and Blake Freakin’ Griffin.
What Jones Adds
While Jones is transferring up from a lesser conference, a lot of his game translates to high-major play. He owns one of the best floaters in college ball, going 25/51 on runners last season (80th percentile efficiency on high volume, per Synergy):
There are a lot of defenses willing to allow those attempts; Michigan’s is one of them. Jones should be a quality shot creator and a solid late-clock scoring option.
Jones had to carry a significant load at Coastal Carolina, which resulted in a shot selection he won’t have at Michigan. He only shot 32% from three at Coastal but could develop much like Mike Smith, whose three-point shooting went up eight percentage points on fewer average attempts after going from Columbia to Michigan. Both players came to Ann Arbor with excellent career free-throw numbers and solid spot-up three-point shooting splits. A more discerning shot selection should get Jones into the 35%+ range from beyond the arc.
Both based on the film and the numbers, I believe Jones has high potential as a pick-and-roll ballhandler at the Big Ten level. That aspect of his game evidently stands out to scouts, as well. In a welcome surprise for an up-transfer, NBA types also believe he’s a high-level defender after his performance at the G League Elite Camp.
If Givony says Jones can be an All-Big Ten player (conservatively!), I’m not going to argue. He should be an upgrade on Smith, particularly on defense, and that’s not a low bar to clear.
Hunter Dickinson For Alro Steel, Please
College athletes suddenly being allowed to profit (above board) on their Name Image and Likeness rights isn’t merely a step in the right direction for basic labor rights. It’s also beneficial to—you’re not gonna believe this—the NCAA. It turns out top players are more inclined to return to school when they can make some money.
While Dickinson didn’t say NIL was the primary reason he returned, it factored into his decision:
For sure. That’s something that I thought of. Being able to make money off your name, image and likeness is definitely an added bonus for me. With the kind of caliber of player that I am, with the kind of notoriety I have — and the school, alumni and the brand of Michigan itself — I felt like I’m in a really good position and I have a really good opportunity ahead of me to benefit and capitalize on a lot of stuff.
Let’s hear it for doing the bare minimum when all other options have been eliminated!
I gave it away earlier: Michigan is cemented as your Big Ten favorites, Purdue’s experience be damned, and they’re a preseason top-five team nationally. (This isn’t just a homer opinion.) The talent level and potential in Ann Arbor is a cut above the rest of the conference.
The number of viable contributors is impressive in this era of college hoops, too. Here’s a stab at the depth chart for the expected rotation:
There’s a lot of lineup flexibility that adds functional depth Michigan may not even need. It’s going to be difficult to distribute minutes; I don’t envy Juwan Howard’s job in that regard. That’s a great problem to have.
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Excited to follow you on this journey Ace
Great stuff as always