Free Press sports writer Orion Sang looks at the five biggest questions facing Michigan basketball:
Does Franz Wagner make the leap?
It should be no surprise that Franz Wagner led all players with 26 points on 11-for-18 shooting in Michigan’s intrasquad scrimmage Friday. The sophomore wing should be the Wolverines’ focal point on offense this season. As a freshman, he averaged 11.6 points and only got better as the season went on. He can get to the basket and score, he rebounds well, he disrupts passing lanes with his length and he generally seems to know where to be on the court. Michigan’s ceiling will be dictated by Wagner’s improvement between Year 1 and 2. One area of improvement: Outside shooting, as Wagner averaged 31% on 3s last season (a percentage that could have been affected by a fractured right wrist he suffered in October at the dawn of the season). If Wagner can improve his 3-point shooting (he was a very good shooter while playing professional basketball in Germany), he could contend for first team All-Big Ten honors.
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Michigan’s Franz Wagner dribbles against Wisconsin during the second half Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020 at the Crisler Center in Ann Arbor.
How will the backcourt replace Zavier Simpson?
There’s no way to replace Zavier Simpson — especially on offense, where he was the maestro of Michigan’s ball-screen attack last season. Simpson’s blend of ball-handling, passing and finishing was so unique (remember the sky hooks?) that I’m not sure we’ll ever see a player like him again in Ann Arbor. Michigan must find a way to replace his production, as he accounted for 12.9 points and 7.9 assists per game last season. Wagner, Isaiah Livers and Chaundee Brown should be capable scorers. But the Wolverines still need someone to play at Simpson’s vacated point guard position. The options include grad transfer guard Mike Smith, who starred at Columbia but is now facing much tougher competition, and Eli Brooks, who mostly played off the ball at shooting guard last winter. Smith and Brooks profile as above average shooters, but will they be able to replicate Simpson’s assist rate and run the offense as efficiently as he did?
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Who will play at center?
In the offseason, Michigan bid goodbye to center Jon Teske, who started all 69 games the past two seasons and exhausted his eligibility, and it also lost center Colin Castleton, who transferred to Florida. That leaves the Wolverines with two scholarship big men: Fifth-year senior Austin Davis and freshman Hunter Dickinson. Dickinson is still adjusting to the speed and physicality of college basketball, but Michigan will still need him to play a major role, as he offers high-level passing for a player his size. Davis, last season’s backup, will play a lot, too, although there still are questions about whether he can offer the defense and rim protection Teske provided. The potential X-factor is Brandon Johns Jr., who has mostly played at the 4-position but was given a chance as a small-ball center during the preseason. Playing Johns at center could unlock some unique lineups, with the potential to switch screens and make life difficult for opposing defenses.
Michigan forward Brandon Johns Jr. rebounds against Wisconsin forward Aleem Ford during the first half Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020 at the Crisler Center in Ann Arbor.
Can the three wings play at the same time?
Michigan’s three best players entering the season are Wagner, Livers and Brown, in no particular order. All three have shown they can be good offensive players against Power 5 competition. Yet, no one knows whether they can be as good playing alongside each other. Wagner manned the 3-position last season, and Livers was the 4. When the Wolverines bumped them down a spot in the lineup against Wisconsin (due to Eli Brooks missing the game with an injury), it took a toll on the defense. Part of that was due to Wisconsin’s unique three-guard lineup; still, playing Wagner-Livers-Brown at the same time likely will require at least two of them to guard smaller, quicker players, unless Livers somehow plays as a small-ball center, which is improbable. If all three are on the court next to a conventional center such as Dickinson or Davis, it would leave the Wolverines with just one true guard in the lineup. It’ll be fascinating to see how Juwan Howard handles the lineups and rotation this season.
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How well can Michigan shoot from 3?
Michigan’s offense relied heavily on 3-point shooting last season, with 3s comprising 39.1% of all field-goal attempts. As a team, the Wolverines made 33.9% of their 3s, which was above average and pretty good for a team that shot as many 3s as they did. But there also was a significant drop off during Big Ten play, when Michigan shot just 30.6% on 3s — second-worst in the Big Ten.
The Wolverines brought back their top two shooters (both in accuracy and volume) in Livers (40.2%) and Brooks (36.4%) and added two players in Smith and Brown who profile as good 3-point shooters. Meanwhile, there’s reason to expect a better shooting performance from Wagner based on what he did in Germany. On paper, Michigan has the potential to be a better shooting team than it was last season. At the same time, no one knows what the offense will look like without Simpson, who was responsible for creating many of Michigan’s 3-point shots. So the question of how well the Wolverines shoot the ball will be tied to the question of how they replace Simpson’s offense.
Contact Orion Sang at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @orion_sang. Read more on the Michigan Wolverines and sign up for our Wolverines newsletter.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan basketball in 2020: Answering 5 make-or-break questions
Published: 2020-11-23 11:03:27
Tags: #good #Franz #Wagner