In his freshman season, Zak Irvin knew his role on the Michigan basketball team.
With four NBA-caliber players around him and a Big Ten title on the line, the now-junior forward was not asked to do anything but shoot and score. His contributions were as minimal as they were simple.
“I really had one mindset, and that was just to be a sparkplug off the bench,” Irvin said. “So I really wasn’t trying to play defense.”
Added Michigan coach John Beilein: “He knew his job, and that was to go shoot the ball. For most players with a prolific high school career like he did, (scoring is) the first thing they look at. … They don’t really look at anything else.”
Defense was an afterthought for Irvin, and his offense was one-dimensional too. In 35 games, Irvin mustered just 14 assists and 49 rebounds and 76% of his field goal attempts were threes. Even as a sophomore, his 14.3 points per game were often overshadowed by inconsistent defense and a lack of rebounding and passing ability. He finally discovered how to pass the ball late in the season, amassing 23 assists in his last six games — just shy of half of his season total.
But today, as a junior that has gone through a back injury, lost and re-captured his shooting ability and is leading the team on purpose and not by default, Irvin is rounding into form as a complete player, and could make a case as Michigan’s top weapon.
“It’s great to see, he’s kind of evolving in front of our very eyes,” said sophomore guard Aubrey Dawkins. “It’s happening in practice, and now you’re seeing it in games. It’s special.”
Of course, it’s hard to discuss Irvin’s evolution without mentioning last season. With Derrick Walton Jr. and Caris LeVert out with injury, Irvin took over the team by default for the final half of the Big Ten season. His numbers improved in the expanded role, but the team’s success didn’t follow.
This year, the Wolverines return more weapons, and after a slow start following offseason back surgery, Irvin has returned to form. In seven Big Ten games, six without LeVert, Irvin is averaging 13.0 points, 4.86 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game.
He is also shooting 46.9 percent from 3-point range in the stretch, dispelling any concerns from his 20-percent clip in non-conference play.
Not bad for a guy who was once so much of a shooting specialist that Beilein was hesitant to teach him anything else. But according to Walton, the offensive prowess is only a fraction of the strides he’s made this season.
“This year, I think he’s more so on top of things,” Walton said. “He’s gotten to a level where he’s able to do his job and help other guys do their job.”
“He’s gotten to a level where he’s able to do his job and help other guys do their job.”
Both Walton and Dawkins noted that Irvin is more vocal in practice this season, and is becoming more proactive instead of reactive in running the team and making other players better.
One of the most obvious areas of such a progression is defense.
Through seven Big Ten games, starters primarily guarded by Irvin are averaging just 9.9 points per game, while those same players are averaging a collective 13.4 points per game this season.
Irvin isn’t defending those players the entire game and has plenty of help, but the 26-percent dropoff in scoring by players that are usually larger than him is no coincidence, either.
“He’s really competitive, and if you score on him, he really takes it personally,” Walton said. “I think that really plays a big factor into why he’s so successful against the dynamic guys we play against.
“I’m always joking and saying ‘Man, I don’t know if you can stop this guy today, he’s kind of a handful, stuff like that. … He hates getting doubted, so anything I can do to fire him up and get him going.”
Irvin’s progress was made loud and clear in Lincoln, Neb. on Saturday afternoon. Guarding forward Shavon Shields — who was averaging over 16 points per game entering the matchup and had scored 28 in an upset win at Michigan State earlier that week — was a tough task, but Irvin was up to it.
Shields mustered just 11 points on 4-of-11 shooting and coughed up five turnovers in an 81-68 Michigan win.
Irvin oftentimes isn’t just guarding great players, he’s guarding bigger players. Standing just 6-foot-6, 215 pounds Irvin is being forced to stand in and battle players like 6-foot-9, 250 pound freshman Caleb Swanigan, who totaled 7 points and three turnovers on 6 shot attempts against Michigan, while still creating on the offensive end is a tough task.
“Hopefully with every player, is they grow, and as they see schemes and they see work and they see scouting reports and they’re just like ‘Oh, okay,” and it just slows down for them,” Beilein said. “(if that happens) they can be one step ahead of their opponents, and that’s what he had to be with Shields.”
LeVert’s absence has hurt the Wolverines, but Irvin has minimized the impact of the blow by becoming a shutdown defender. His versatility has also allowed him to create mismatch problems for opposing defenses as there aren’t many power forwards that can chase Irvin around the perimeter and guard a ball screen.
Now as a junior with a broader skill set, Irvin has a new job on the court: Lead the team to victory, whatever it takes.
“The players I’ve been matched up on, they’ve been some of the best players in the conference,” Irvin said. “I just take pride in trying to do my best against them and doing whatever it takes to win.”