Last season, with the Player of the Year at point guard and a first-round NBA draft pick at shooting guard, Michigan’s offense was one of the Big Ten’s best: the Wolverines ranked second in offensive efficiency, first in effective field goal percentage and first in 2-point field goal percentage.
This season, after losing Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr. to the NBA, and Mitch McGary to a back injury, Michigan finds itself among the best offenses in the Big Ten once again. The Wolverines are ranked second in offensive efficiency (119.8), first in effective field goal percentage (60.8) and first in 2-point field goal percentage (64.4).
After losing arguably two of its most important offensive weapons to the draft, not to mention its best offensive big man, Michigan was expected to, at best, take a small step backward in offensive production. Instead, four games into the Big Ten season, the Wolverines find themselves in a very similar position offensively as they did last year.
How has Michigan accomplished this despite its heavy losses entering this season? Mostly, it’s because the Wolverines share the ball more — and more effectively — than any other team in the conference.
Of Michigan’s made field goals thus far in Big Ten play, 62.5 percent of them are assisted — that’s the best in the conference.
At no point in the season was this more starkly displayed than in the first half of Michigan’s 80-67 victory over Penn State at the Crisler Center on Tuesday. The Wolverines made 14 field goals in the first half, 12 of them assisted.
Even John Beilein seemed impressed with his offense during his post-game presser.
“I’m proud of our guys — six turnovers, all those assists on all those baskets,” Beilein said. “We only took 50-some shots and scored 80 points. That’s an efficient offense.”
Three players have had the biggest hand in distributing the ball for Michigan in Big Ten play: Nik Stauskas, Derrick Walton and Caris LeVert. This trio of guards is responsible for the majority of Michigan’s assists and has improved steadily from the non-conference season up to this point.
That’s a major difference from last year when Trey Burke accounted for nearly half of Michigan’s assists. Michigan’s offense has become much more balanced without Burke and Hardaway in the mix. Borrowing a concept from Sports Illustrated’s Luke Winn, the following graphs show the distribution of offensive possessions (5 game running average) over the last two seasons.
Last season, roles were clear. Trey Burke was No. 1, Tim Hardaway Jr. was No. 2, Nik Stauskas was No. 3 and Glenn Robinson III was No. 4. Mitch McGary would fit somewhere in the middle of everyone until he went on his NCAA tournament tear and emerged as Michigan’s No. 2 option.
This year’s graph shows more bunching and more variability. Nik Stauskas has been Michigan’s primary option for the most part but Caris LeVert (earlier in the season) and Glenn Robinson III (currently) have both been very involved. Walton has settled in as a lower usage option for most of the season.
The Wolverines don’t have established roles. Instead, Michigan’s balanced approach has resulted in a number of players hovering around 20 to 25 percent usage rates. The balanced offense has allowed Michigan’s off guards, Caris LeVert and Nik Stauskas, to make a more significant contribution when it comes to spreading the ball around.
Over Michigan’s 4-0 start to the Big Ten season, Michigan’s three guards have combined to average 11.8 assists per game.
Walton and LeVert each have extensive experience playing in the lead guard spot, with LeVert playing for much of high school and it being the only position Walton has ever known. But for Stauskas, the transformation from being a spot-up shooter last year to a player carrying the assist load for his team has been something to behold.
“If you look at (Stauskas’) assist numbers right now, after a 5 (assists)-0 (turnover) day, he’s showing he can really play the guard position,” Beilein said. “Because of his height, because of his shooting, because of his feel. His improvement has been good for us.”
Five assists sounds impressive, but it’s par for the course for Michigan’s sophomore guard. Stauskas is averaging five assists per game in conference play, the second best per-game average in the Big Ten.
Beilein also mentioned seeing improvement in LeVert’s passing ability after the game.
“I’ve seen Caris find people,” Beilein said. “Earlier in the season, he would get in the lane but didn’t find people, but he is now. That’s cut down his scoring numbers, but our efficiency has gone up. There are a lot of things out there that allow us to continue to improve our offense.”
This season’s Michigan team — down a Player of the Year, a first-round draft pick and its biggest star in the post — has been nearly able to keep pace with last season’s Final Four team on the offensive side of the ball. But these Wolverines know as well as anyone that they are coming up on the meat of what will be an exceedingly challenging Big Ten season.
Michigan is 4-0 in conference play and playing as well as it ever has offensively. But with three games upcoming against Wisconsin on the road, Iowa at home and Michigan State on the road, this group will soon find out just how good they are.
“We’re going to find out a little bit about where we are and what we need to do to get better,” Beilein said. “It’s going to be over this game, the next game and next game. It’s going to be a very difficult stretch. … There are going to be three games where it’s just going to be very difficult. If you can get wins in any of those games, it’s a big step.”