During Big Ten Media Day in October, Spike Albrecht seemed content with being Michigan’s most experienced backup. But his role changed quickly, as injuries to Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton made the junior the team’s only healthy veteran in the backcourt.
Albrecht made 18 starts and played in 31 games, averaging 7.5 points and 3.9 assists. And it was his distribution that quickly became his biggest forte. He had a season-high nine assists against Syracuse in December — including a behind-the-back dish for a Ricky Doyle dunk — and polished off the evening with a go-ahead three-pointer in the final minute.
Then there was his near-perfect game against Ohio State at Crisler Arena — which featured five assists to no turnovers, 16 points scored and two crucial steals — and the jaw-dropping behind the head to Aubrey Dawkins in transition during the Big Ten tournament.
But Albrecht has always been able to pass the ball. This year was a transformation in his game from bit role player to every game starter. By the end of January, Albrecht was playing about as close to 40 minutes per game as you can get, and he looked increasingly comfortable in that role as the season progressed.
In his first 19 games, he averaged just 4.7 points and 3.2 assists per game with a 45 eFG% in 27.8 minutes. After Derrick Walton was sidelined, Albrecht averaged 38.6 minutes, 12 points and five assists per game, shooting 42% on threes for a 54% eFG%.
It was an impressive showing for the Crown Point, Indiana native, especially considering he played through a hip injury all winter.
- Pick-and-roll offense: One of Albrecht’s biggest weaknesses last year became a strength, as the junior improved mightily at a staple of Michigan’s offense. John Beilein commented sometime in February that Albrecht was never recruited to be a guard that you give the ball to and let him run ball screens every possession, but that’s what Michigan’s offense turned into by the end of the season. Michigan scored 1.092 points per ball screen with Albrecht at the helm, good for the 93rd percentile nationally according to Synergy Sports.
- Shooting off the dribble: Albrecht continues to be a very good jump shooter off the dribble. He excelled shooting the ball above the break (41% on those attempts per Shot Analytics) and after slumping early in the season, he found his groove down the stretch. He also started to develop a reliable pull-up jumper from the elbow, a shot that helped expand his arsenal of moves in the pick and roll game.
- Distribution: John Beilein lamented Michigan’s lack of passers throughout the season, but Albrecht was the exception. His 4.4 assists per game in Big Ten play ranked 6th in the conference and he continued to keep his turnover numbers respectable despite an exponential increase in work load.
Room for improvement
- Attacking zone defenses: As John Beilein noted after Michigan’s loss to Iowa, Albrecht seemed to struggle against the 2-3 zone, in part because of his size. The numbers support that observation. Facing zone defenses, Albrecht scored just 0.628 points per possession, in the 17% percentile nationally. (Compare that to his .908 points per possession against man-to-man defense.) Beilein said Albrecht needs to improve his positioning and his vision when attacking the zone, and that’ll surely be a point of emphasis during the offseason.
- Defense: One of Albrecht’s biggest issues has been on the defensive end of the floor. Albrecht struggles to keep quicker point guards out of the lane and that meant that Derrick Walton, Caris LeVert, and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman were tasked with guarding the opponent’s best player. Albrecht is savvy and experienced enough to make a few steals — his game-clinching steal against D’Angelo Russell comes to mind — or x-out a screen-the-screener set but defense continues to be a weakness.
- Getting to the free throw line: Albrecht shot 91.3% from the charity stripe, but he didn’t get to the line often — just 46 times in 31 games. That put him fifth on the team, behind both LeVert and Walton. His free throw rate was just 24% and, while Albrecht doesn’t have the size to necessarily drive for contact regularly, it would be a way to improve on his poor finishing around the basket (37.8 FG%, and 11th percentile nationally).
Ohio State coach Thad Matta, after Albrecht’s dominant performance against his team at the Crisler Center, said of the guard: “We were telling our guys going in, ‘He’s playing with house money.’ He’s out there having the time of his life, and he made some tremendous plays, some tremendous reads.”
Albrecht, on his steal of D’Angelo Russell: “I was just thinking, ‘Man, he’s a lot more athletic than me, and he’s going to beat me down the court. So I was like, ‘Man, I’m tired, so I’m going for the steal.”
Trey Burke-esque steal seals Michigan win over Ohio State
Once known just for his National Championship performance, Albrecht progressed from a luxurious backup early in the season to an every day, double-digit scoring point guard running Michigan’s offense for the last month of the season. He developed into Michigan’s leader and had a knack for hitting big shots in the clutch, even if Michigan came up short more often than it would have liked.
Albrecht still won’t be an elite defender next year and while there are still outstanding variables, namely Caris LeVert’s NBA decision, there’s a real chance that he’ll find himself coming off the bench as a senior. He’s probably never going to play 35+ minutes per game again in Ann Arbor, but that doesn’t take away from what he was able to accomplish down the stretch this season.
In a year that featured the decimation of the backcourt due to injury, the junior did enough on both ends of the court to keep Michigan competitive, proving in the process that he could remain effective as his role expanded.