Team 102

Five key questions facing Michigan basketball in 2017-18

Michigan will play its first public exhibition on Friday evening and the regular season is around the corner. Here’s a look at some of the biggest questions that could have significant impact on the 2017-18 season.

1. Is Moritz Wagner ready to be a star?

Moritz Wagner was in a position battle entering last season, now he’s the face of Michigan’s program. Thinking back on last year, it is easy to remember Wagner’s flashes of brilliance.

We all remember the big March performances against Louisville or Minnesota, but forget that Wagner was held to single digit scoring (on 11 of 34 shooting) in Michigan’s other five postseason games. (A deep dive into the numbers serves as a reminder that DJ Wilson at the five was perhaps Michigan’s secret sauce in the postseason).

Wagner is incredibly talented offensively and is back on campus to prove he belongs in the NBA after an up-and-down summer. He’s quite clearly an elite scorer on his good days, but Michigan will need his good days to be every day and is relying on him to be an All-Big Ten player.  That means that Wagner can’t have those road games where he just doesn’t show up and can’t let a couple of early misses derail a performance.

The more exciting part of this equation is that John Beilein will have an offseason to draw up even more ways to get Wagner involved in the offense. A shooting big man is one of the most versatile chess pieces for a coach to work with. It will be interesting to see if Wagner isolation plays are introduced as late shot clock options for Michigan, a role that has almost always been reserved for a guard or wing under Beilein.

2. Who will start at point guard?

In a somewhat surprising development, Zavier Simpson appears to be leading the race to start at the point guard position. Ohio graduate transfer Jaaron Simmons was expected to grab that spot by many, including myself, but Simpson started both Michigan’s open practice and Sunday’s secret scrimmage at Toledo.

The question here isn’t so much whether Simpson, Simmons (or Eli Brooks) starts at the point guard spot. The question is what production can Michigan get out of a position that has been so solid and so important to the offense for so many years.

There were times in Derrick Walton’s career where fans might have grown frustrated to take that next step from elite complementary player to superstar. Then he flipped the switch over the final two months of his career and it feels almost impossible to replace his production. Walton wasn’t just Michigan’s best pick and roll threat, he was also an elite catch and shoot weapon.

Neither Simmons, Simpson or Brooks is going to be able to provide that — probably not even in aggregate — but Michigan needs to figure out a way to combine the options here into something like two-thirds of Walton’s production from a season ago.

3. Can Charles Matthews hit the three?

All signs point to Charles Matthews starting at the three for Michigan this season — and they have for the last year. I still am not sure what exactly that is going to look like when the first game of the season rolls around next week.

I envision some of the action that we saw with Glenn Robinson III flashing to the opposite post and going to work. Some of the Manny Harris side ball screen action to allow Matthews to slash to the rim. Matthews has some impressive physical tools and Michigan will try to figure out how to maximize them, but his game is different than many other recent Wolverine wings.

For me, it all comes down to one thing. If Charles Matthews can hit the three-point shot at a 35% clip or better, then he’s going to be a very effective player in this offense. On the contrary, if he can’t make that shot consistently then Michigan is going to need that three-point production to come from somewhere else on the floor and there might be some early growing pains on that side of the ball.

4. Is Isaiah Livers ready to play?

No freshman is more important to Michigan’s immediate success than Isaiah Livers. The Wolverines desperately need an alternate look at the four position because there will be times when Duncan Robinson is overmatched defensively against bigger forwards.

Livers looks to be a fit for that role, but until we see it on the floor it is tough to gauge. The Wolverines haven’t had a four man arrive on campus ready to play since Glenn Robinson III. Kam Chatman was supposed to be, but ended up losing his starting role. DJ Wilson was a pro, but it took him two years to get there.

Livers has his work cut out for him and while he appears to have no trouble getting to open shots, his ability to make them looked inconsistent in limited practice time. Michigan needs a guy who can check in and defend combo forwards, hit open threes and box out. That’s not an easy ask for any freshman at the Division I level.

If Livers struggles, then it leaves Michigan in a tricky spot. I think Charles Matthews will already have a lot of responsibilities guarding opposing fours and you start to wonder if Michigan could look down in the lineup for more depth. Perhaps leaning on Ibi Watson to provide some athleticism on the wing and play next to Matthews. Moritz Wagner could slide down to the four, but that would mean that Jon Teske or Austin Davis are greatly exceeding expectations — something that doesn’t seem to be the case just yet.

5. Is Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman ever going to be a go-to guy?

Here’s what we know about Abdur-Rahkman: he’s great at putting his head down and getting a basket when no one else will. He’s also developed into an extremely efficient spot-up scorer. I wrote about this more extensively at The Athletic, but we just don’t know yet if he has that extra gear to be a go-to scorer and creator for the Wolverines.

His pick and roll numbers were mediocre last season (although his isolation numbers were great) and he struggled to shoot the ball off the dribble. It’s tough to excel as the primary creator in this system if you can’t hit that dribble pull-up jumper from the elbows and out to the three-point line. Walton struggled with that shot for years, then he started making it and Michigan’s season took off.

I’m not sure that there’s anyone on the roster who is more capable of making that shot than Abdur-Rahkman, even with his struggles, so he may very well get his chance. I’ll be watching closely to see if he’s still a player who uses 16% of Michigan’s offensive possessions once again — essentially a role player — or if he seizes his opportunity and pushes that number into the 20s.

There’s no more next year for Abdur-Rahkman, it is now or never.

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