Team 102

DJ Wilson’s smart decision leaves Michigan searching for answers at the four (again)

For our Patreon subscribers, here’s a closer look at DJ Wilson’s decision and what Michigan can do to fill the void left behind from his production — both on the current roster and on the market. (Patreon)

For our Patreon subscribers, here’s a closer look at DJ Wilson’s decision and what Michigan can do to fill the void left behind from his production — both on the current roster and on the market.

Read the full column on Patreon or on our subscriber forum.

The four position at Michigan should be the dream for any stretch forward with a shooting stroke.

John Beilein’s two-guard offense is designed such that the three and the four positions have what amounts to the same role on opposite sides of the floor. For the price of guarding opposing power forwards, Michigan’s ‘power forwards’ get to play like a guard. Handle the ball a bit, catch alley-oops and get a green light to shoot from three-point range. Not a bad trade off in this day and age of modern hoops.

It took DJ Wilson two seasons, but he finally realized his potential in that role. Play just a little bit of defense and you can showcase everything that NBA scouts want to see out of a versatile prospect with length.

Wilson’s emergence seemed to go under the radar, even to NBA scouts, but a couple big performances in March left everyone wondering where the hell did this guy come from?

Teams view DJ Wilson as a late first round pick and there are rumors that he has a guarantee from the Utah Jazz — who pick at No. 24 and No. 30. If that’s the case, then Wilson absolutely made the correct decision to remain in the NBA Draft. If somehow he slips to the first few picks of the second round, he probably still made the right choice.

He is already 21 years old and it’s hard to get picked as a stretch forward ‘with potential’ when you have been in college for four years and are 22 going on 23 years old. Not to mention that Wilson has played only one full season of healthy basketball with consistent minutes during his three years in Ann Arbor, and battled a serious back injury in high school.

It would have taken an incredibly special season to boost Wilson’s stock significantly higher for the simple fact that four-year college players rarely get drafted in the lottery. The top 10 picks in the latest Draft Express mock are freshmen and there’s one junior (Justin Jackson) projected in the first round.

Would it have been possible? After watching Wilson develop from rotational afterthought on a team that wasn’t expected to have any pros to fringe first round pick in 12 months, I would never say impossible, but it just doesn’t feel like the safe bet. ‘Consistent production’ isn’t as high on Wilson’s scouting report as potential, length, athleticism and offensive skill — traits that tend to diminish with age. At some point you have to shoot your shot and Wilson seems to be taking his chance at as good of a time as any.

So John Beilein just produced an NBA four-man and has sent more players into the NBA Draft early than any other program in the Big Ten since 2010. That should be a badge of honor, but instead he hasn’t been able to consistently recruit the four position.

The players who have manned the four-spot under Beilein include Zack Novak, Glenn Robinson III, Zak Irvin and DJ Wilson. One of them (Wilson) was over 6-foot-6. The theme has always been: wing guards playing up a a few spots.

Kameron Chatman arrived in Ann Arbor in 2014 with five stars next to his name and was supposed to be the answer as a natural lefty with size. Instead he played spot minutes throughout his two-year career before transferring. DJ Wilson seemed like a perfect fit on paper, but never came close to showing the ability during his first two seasons in Ann Arbor.

The never-ending battle to find a consistent finisher with a bit of versatility and rim protection at that spot has crippled some Michigan teams, but Wilson seized that role and was one of the most effective four men that Michigan has had under Beilein. He blocked more shots than any Beilein-coached Wolverine other than Ekpe Udoh, he made 41 threes and he shot 63% on twos with a number of statement dunks that no one else on the team could provide.

In year nine, John Beilein finally had his four man. After a few brilliant games in March, he was off to the NBA and leaving Beilein spending the summer summer months plotting out potential replacements.

There are two ways to look at the task of ‘replacing’ DJ Wilson. First is filling the actual minutes at the four position, then there’s replacing the production in all of the different areas where Wilson contributed. Looking at the roster there isn’t one natural fit to replace all of that in one package, but perhaps the Wolverines can piece together different parts.

  • Duncan Robinson: Robinson is listed at what seems like a generous 6-foot-8 and hasn’t really proven that he has the ability to guard any position on the floor consistently. He blocked just 9 shots in 38 games last year, but makes a big impact on the game by forcing other forwards to guard him (most don’t want to chase a three-point shooter all night). While many are penciling Robinson into the starting four spot, it is important to note that Zak Irvin often guarded fours last year when Robinson was on the floor. Robinson has the experience, but he really only replaces one element of Wilson’s game: perimeter shooting.
  • Charles Matthews: At first glance, it is easy to look at Charles Matthews and compare him to Glenn Robinson III at the four and say that he’s a natural fit. Matthews isn’t a great shooter, but is an elite athlete who can rebound. When Michigan signed him, I immediately did just that and penciled him into the 4. On the contrary, he’s only listed at 190 pounds which is 20lbs less than Robinson weighed as a freshman. John Beilein has consistently compared Matthews to Tim Hardaway Jr. and Caris LeVert, not Robinson, and those are guys who played the two or three in a very different way. No matter what happens, Michigan will need Matthews to contribute with his length and athleticism to replace some of Wilson’s defensive production, but if he’s guarding fours every night it might be a long season.
  • Moritz Wagner: I might discount this more than some, but there’s the potential of Wagner sliding down to the four and playing next to Austin Davis or Jon Teske. Is Wagner capable of playing that spot for stretches? Yes, but he’s far more likely to create mismatches at the five position and Michigan’s offense becomes less versatile with Wagner next to a traditional big. There are also more ready-to-play options in the backcourt than in the frontcourt. (Losing the possibility of a small ball five man lineup with a rim protector (Wilson) might be the biggest loss in all of this as that was one of Michigan’s most effective lineups down the stretch.)
  • Isaiah Livers: Livers projects naturally to the four spot at 6-foot-8 with good athleticism and a shooting stroke, but how ready is he to contribute at the college level? He has an incredible opportunity now and should have every chance to crack the rotation as he is physically the most able to defend the spot. On the flip side, Michigan hasn’t had a freshman play over 21 minutes per game since Derrick Walton in 2014.

There’s also the chance that the Wolverine head man could make one more late roster move. The pickings may be slim, but Beilein would be remiss if he didn’t look at every potential option the table — a move he appears to be more ready to do after adding Ohio grad transfer Jaaron Simmons at point guard. Here are a few potential options:

  • Ignas Brazdeikis (2017/2018): A 6-foot-7 forward from Canada, Brazdeikis is one of Michigan’s top targets in the class of 2018 but he also has the potential option to reclassify to 2017. He could provide a bit of size, shooting and wing play from the spot that would be an immediate boost to Michigan’s roster. He’s a left-handed player (perfect for the right-sided wing position) and he can get to the rim and step out and shoot the three. He’s averaging an impressive 25 points and 8 rebounds per game in the Nike EYBL and has spoken highly of Michigan in the past and hasn’t closed the door on being a 2017 prospect as of last night.
  • MiKyle McIntosh (Graduate transfer, Illinois State): McIntosh fits the bill statistically. At 6-foot-7, 234 pounds, McIntosh shot 44% on twos and 36% on threes last season at Illinois State. He appears to be a good rebounder on both sides of the ball and a capable shot blocker. McIntosh pulled out of the NBA Draft yesterday and will graduate transfer, but the downside is that Wisconsin recently hired former Illinois State assistant coach Dean Oliver — a move which could give them the inside track.
  • Cam Johnson (Graduate transfer, Pittsburgh): Michigan kicked the tires early on with Johnson — who will play two years without having to sit — but the 6-foot-8 shooter trimmed his list to include other suitors (Arizona, Kentucky, Ohio State, Oregon, UCLA, TCU). Now with some of those top options filling up, Johnson added North Carolina but drew a transfer-block within conference. Could he look at more schools? Rumors are that Indiana may take a look and it would make sense for Michigan to at least try to take another shot.
  • Something else? The best graduate transfers seem to be discovered out of sight — just look at the Jaaron Simmons commitment — so there’s always the potential for something else to come up. Michigan certainly could leave the 13th scholarship open, and that is probably preferred to taking a flier on a relatively unknown four-year player, but there’s always the chance that graduate transfer situations can arise at any point in the summer.

Michigan’s inability to fill the four spot consistently has probably been John Beilein’s biggest flaw on the recruiting trail to date, but the head man appears dead set on fixing it. The 2018 recruiting board is littered with players who have the potential to play there, not just Brazdeikis but also Jerome Hunter, Pete Nance, Brandon Johns, Cole Swider, Hunter Tyson and others.

The pitch is obvious, and reaffirmed by DJ Wilson’s development, but it is time for the Wolverines to capitalize on it.

To Top