Basketball season is around the corner and over the next several weeks we’ll rundown some of the biggest storylines facing the 2014-15 Michigan Wolverines. In this edition we look at sophomore wing forward Zak Irvin and whether he’s ready to make the leap in John Beilein’s offense. (Photo: Dustin Johnston)
Zak Irvin only played more than 20 minutes six times as a freshman, but he still had plenty of big games. Irvin knocked down 43 percent of his triples and always seemed to give Michigan an offensive jolt off the bench.
But after an impressive freshman season, the game that best defines Irvin as a player might have been his worst of the season. In Irvin’s sixth college game, he was thrown into the fire after Glenn Robinson III was sidelined in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off Championship. He responded by doing what he does best: shooting. Irvin played 26 minutes during the loss, scoring 8 points and going just 3-of-14 from the floor.
“Here’s what I like,” Beilein said after the game. “I like that Zak Irvin didn’t stop shooting even though he couldn’t make a shot. Because he had a huge one for us late and a huge one in the first half.”
It wasn’t just Irvin that had an off day, literally everything went wrong for the Wolverines in Coliseo Roberto Clemente as they played their worst game of the season. The game defined Irvin because it proved his temperament is a shooter, he would always keep shooting. Irvin missed his first eight shots of the game hitting a three with 21 seconds to play in the first half. He continued to struggle with his shot in the second before burying a three with 38 seconds left to give Michigan a chance down the stretch. His confidence never faltered.
Kobe Bryant told Sports Illustrated that he “would go 0-30 before I would go 0-9. 0-9 means you beat yourself, you psyched yourself out of the game.”
Irvin is already wired in that fashion. He’s not scared to go 0-for-30 and he’s going to shoot until he starts making shots.
It sounds silly, but shooters gotta shoot. Zak Irvin is a shooter and that game was affirmation that Irvin has the selective consciousness of a great shooter. He left Puerto Rico with a 27% three-point shooting percentage before promptly making six triples in Michigan’s next game. By year’s end, he had 62 makes from long distance and was shooting well over 40%.
Michigan lost the majority of its key contributors for last year, but when Irvin was on the floor he shot the ball more often than anyone else on Michigan’s roster. Irvin accounted for 25.9% of Michigan’s shots when he was on the floor — more than Nik Stauskas (23.1), Glenn Robinson III (23.5) and Caris LeVert (22.2). The ball finds Irvin and he knows what to do with it.
Irvin is the second best returning shooter in the Big Ten (trailing only Yogi Ferrell). Adjusting last year’s Big Ten stats on a per-40 minute basis illustrates just how productive Irvin was with the three-point shot last season.
Only Minnesota’s Malik Smith averaged more three-point attempts per 40 minutes and only six players in the conference shot a higher percentage than Irvin — regardless of attempts. Irvin attempted 146 threes while playing just 15 minutes per game. It wouldn’t be surprising if he threatens Michigan’s 3-point attempt single season record of 222 attempts (Robbie Reid) as a sophomore when his playing time doubles.
Early returns overseas pointed toward Irvin doing just that. The 6-foot-6 wing led Michigan in scoring and shot 67% from long distance during Michigan’s four-game Italian tour.
Despite Irvin’s three-point prowess as a freshman, he was still very one-dimensional as a freshman. Three-quarters of Irvin’s field goal attempts were threes and his free throw rate was the lowest among Michigan’s rotation players.
“I really think so,” John Beilein said this spring when asked if Irvin could make a big leap entering his sophomore year. “The culture that’s been set here is we work really hard in the offseason. There’s no other culture right now. If you aren’t into that culture, your teammates are not going to allow it.”
The focus on Irvin will be whether he can grow as a scorer more than just a shooter. Can he attack the basket off the bounce? Is he effective using the pick-and-roll? It will also be whether he can develop into a rebounder and an improved defender.
“Zak is taking the ball to the basket better, he’s rebounding more — he did not rebound last year, and he’s becoming a defensive stopper,” Beilein said in August. “He has some ability to do that. I don’t think he’s proven that in games yet, but most freshmen don’t.”
Beilein’s statement that Irvin ‘did not rebound last year’ sounds harsh, but it’s also accurate. Irvin’s defensive rebounding rate of 7.7 percent was the lowest among Michigan’s rotation players, meaning that Irvin grabbed fewer defensive rebounds than Spike Albrecht (8.0), Nik Stauskas (8.8) and Derrick Walton (12.4). Considering that he played the majority of his minutes at the four last season – that’s not okay.
Irvin needs to rebound and he’s shown signs that he’ll be able to in his sophomore season. He added 5 inches to his vertical jump and he’s up to 215 pounds. Likely to split time between the three and four positions (left and right side wings), Irvin will need his added strength to battle in the Big Ten. During Michigan’s Italian tour, Irvin grabbed 29 rebounds, second only to freshman big man Ricky Doyle.
Irvin has lofty expectations to live up to given the recent trend of sophomore improvement in Ann Arbor. Trey Burke, Nik Stauskas and Caris LeVert have set a standard that’s almost unfair to those in their wake. That being said, the stars appear to be aligning properly for Irvin to have a monster sophomore season.
Even if the more diverse offensive elements of Irvin’s game take a while to mature, he’s almost certain to put up huge scoring numbers with increased playing time. Caris LeVert is likely to be Michigan’s go-to player and No. 1 option on offense and Derrick Walton should have a big year at the point guard spot, but given Irvin’s pure scoring ability it wouldn’t surprise to see him lead the Wolverines in the scoring column more often than not.