Tuesday, December 8, 2015

SMU vs. Michigan

SMU can't play in the post-season because of NCAA sanctions due to one player having coursework done for him in one class (while UNC somehow has still not been punished for giving out fake degrees for 20+ years) so nationally televised games against Big Ten powers like Michigan are as big as it gets for them. They ran Michigan out of the gym and looked like one of the best teams in the country in the process - it has to physically pain Larry Brown (who can't be associated with the program in any way for the first nine games) to have a team this good and not be able to do anything with it. John Beilein couln't have been more complementary in the post-game presser, saying they were as good as any team in the country and comparing it to going to play at Duke.

SMU lost star big man Markus Kennedy to a sprained ankle in the first minute of the game and didn't even miss a beat. It might have even worked to their advantage because it allowed them to play smaller and faster and spread out the Michigan defense because it's not like Michigan had the big men to punish them the other way. SMU is a great combination of new school and old school - they play a bunch of wings and spread the floor but still run a lot of offense by playing inside-out and running cutters out of the high post.

From an NBA draft perspective, the big story was Caris LeVert, who couldn't get anything going against an aggressive SMU defense that didn't give him any breathing room on the perimeter. Levert was averaging 19/5/4 on 52% shooting coming into the game and he wound up with 5 points and 3 assists on 1-13 (!!) shooting. It had to be one of the worst games of his NCAA career.

  • The first key for SMU was they were playing 4-5 wings for most of the game and switching almost every screen-roll. Michigan gets most of their offense from spreading the floor and exploiting cracks in the defense from getting defenders in the two-man game but SMU had the length and the athletes to switch everything and never give LeVert any room.
  • The guy who got the assignment on LeVert was Keith Frazier and he did a phenomenal job. At 6'5 190, Frazier doesn't have a great wingspan (6'6) but he's an elite athlete whose much faster and much quicker side to side than LeVert and he got right into LeVert's dribble and stayed in his jersey all night. Frazier is a real character - he was doing the Money Manziel finger signs after every made basket and he eventually got T'd up for talking in LeVert's face in the 2nd half. It's hard to blame him, though, when he so thoroughly whipped a future NBA first-round pick on both sides of the ball. He definitely made  himself some money tonight although it didn't seem like the NBA scouts in attendance really appreciated the extra-curriculars.
  • You kind of saw the limitations in LeVert's game tonight. He just doesn't have a lot of burst off the dribble and he struggles to create separation when elite athletes press up on him in defense. It reminded me a lot of a game he had last season against Arizona when Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson hounded him all over the floor. The good news for him is that he's not going to be a primary option at the next level so he won't see that type of defense and he won't face other team's best perimeter defenders all that often.
  • One thing I was wondering while watching this is whether he would be most effective as a 6'7 off-ball PG in the NBA and using his size advantage to post up smaller guards and create an all-switching defensive line-up. He could be like a post knee surgery Shaun Livingston with a much better 3-point shot. While he doesn't have great athleticism or quickness, the sheer amount of length he has means that faster guys probably won't be able to exploit him too much even at the next level. 
  • LeVert is a fundamentally sound player whose a great shooter and a good passer with a solid handle and a 7'1 wingspan so he's going to be a good NBA player for a long time regardless. He will be a pretty safe first-round pick but I think his only real chance to be a high-level NBA player is as a super-sized PG.
The problem for Michigan is they don't really have anything else when LeVert isn't going. Zak Irvin and Duncan Robinson are good 6'8 shooters who can attack a close-out but they aren't primary creators against elite defenses. Beilein plays 4-out basketball with the idea of moving the ball and attacking defenders in space but that can only be so effective when you don't have the athletic advantage at any position on the floor. They really missed Derrick Walton tonight.

The other problem is they don't really have any big men. The guys they have aren't quick enough to guard on the perimeter, not big enough to control the paint and not skilled enough to punish teams for going small against them. I'm not sure what they are going to do against guys like AJ Hammons and Nigel Hays in Big Ten play. LeVert and all their shooters should be able to get them into the Tourney but it's hard to see them making much noise if they can't find a 2nd option or a guy with a pulse on their front-line.

SMU doesn't have a definite NBA guy like LeVert but they've got a few maybe guys.
  • I'm fairly confident that Frazier is an NBA player but the scouts haven't really come around on him yet and he's not quite statistically productive enough to make up for some of the red flags that have crept up around him off the court. He's a fan favorite at SMU but he's also a hot head whose academic issues nearly sank the entire program. What he has in his favor is that he's got NBA size, he's super quick, he can shoot off the dribble with a quick release with a soft touch and he has become a much more intelligent and much more skilled player in his three seasons with Larry Brown. It's kind of amazing to see how much he has grown since his freshman season when he came in playing like a bootleg Gerald Green. He knows how to read the defense and he knows how to find the open man on the move and make the correct pass. I expect him to have a huge senior season that moves him up NBA draft boards pretty quickly.
  • Ben Moore is the other guy with the chance to play at the next level. He's a 6'8 combo forward whose a pretty great small-ball 4 at the NCAA level and his game fits perfectly with how the league is going. He's fast enough to switch screens, long enough to survive on the boards and he's a fantastic passer who can dissect a defense from the high post. The key for him is going to be stretching out his shot to the 3-point line because he's not going to be a primary option at the next level and secondary options in the modern NBA have to be able to shoot 3's if they aren't 6'10+ C's.
They lose Nic Moore and the fifth-year senior big man tandem of Markus Kennedy and Jordan Tolbert but they have enough pieces coming back to where I expect them to be a Top 15 team anyway. The heart of the team will be three senior wings - Moore, Frazier and Sterling Brown - who can spread the floor, move the ball, put it on the ground and defend multiple positions. They have two more freshman wings - Shake Milton and Jarrey Foster - who look pretty good and Milton has a chance to be a real player. He's a 6'4 PG with a well-rounded game who was recruited by just about every school in the country. They can run out a line-up that goes 6'4 - 6'5 - 6'5 - 6'6 - 6'8 and switch everything, basically an NCAA version of the Warriors.

Moore isn't quite as thick as Draymond so they will need some extra beef on the frontline, whether that comes as a freshman or a graduate transfer. If they can find just one 6'10+ guy who will allow them to survive against bigger frontlines and give them more depth upfront, they could be as good as any team in the country next season too. Larry Brown ain't dead yet, let's just put it that way.


  1. Great stuff as always Mr. Tjarks.

    I watch Michigan very closely and your takes are spot on.

    Caris Levert is arguably Michigan's best pro prospect since Jamal Crawford. While he's a very good athlete you are right in that he's not QUITE explosive enough to blow past NBA caliber defenders. But few are. Johnson and RHJ are playing in the NBA right now largely because of their defense, physical maturity, and athleticism. Caris' athleticism is good enough for the NBA but his best attribute is versatility. He's unselfish, he can shoot, dribble, drive, pass, etc. There's a good chance he's one of those guys who is a better NBA player than college player (e.g., Tobias Harris).

    The reason for that is his teammates are lacking right now. Compare who Stauskas played beside (McGary, Robinson, LeVert, Walton, a senior version of role-player extraordinaire Jordan Morgan). The supporting cast at Michigan has dropped off dramatically in the last two seasons due to NBA attrition, poor recruiting, inexperience, and string of poor health. Caris has had to bear the brunt of defenses in a way that Hardaway, Burke, Stauskas, etc. never had to.

    What will make or break Caris as an NBA player is his defense (which is also true of the other recent Michigan draft picks.) His length and athleticism (and potential improvements in strength) make him a tantalizing prospect defensively but his performance on that end has been disappointing. His steal rate is there in college but the consistency in keeping his man in front of him is not. With all his length he should be blocking some shots too.

    For all his offensive wizadry and player development resume, Beilein has never done a great job developing defensive skills. There's a few examples of success but it was mostly 5th year senior types who evolved into stoppers. Guys like Glenn Robinson Junior and Tim Hardaway - who have the athleticism to be GREAT defenders - didn't get better in 2 or 3 years at Michigan. Robinson's showing some flashes in Indiana but Hardaway continues to be a defensive liability in the NBA and some of that is on Beilein, IMO.

    As for this year's Michigan team - Walton will return healthy to give Caris an excellent partner. Spike Albrecht would be an adequate fill-in too but he's not healthy either. Zak Irvin was actually projected by Kevin Pelton to be a lottery pick-level talent after his freshman year (on the strength of a small sample size shooting percentages and steal rate) but he struggled last year in a bigger role. "Caris and a bunch of shooters" is accurate for this team, once Walton is healthy.

    The obvious problem spot for Michigan is the big men. Beilein's been a miracle worker in recruiting and developing guard talent (e.g., Caris LeVert and Trey Burke were very lightly recruited) but that hasn't been the case for bigs. He either attempts to use offensively skilled 4s at the 5 (Evan Smotrycz, DeShawn Sims, now Moritz Wagner) or ends up with mid-major caliber centers that take a while to develop (Jordan Morgan, Jon Horford, Max Bielfeldt, now Ricky Doyle) and are physically overmatched regularly. This is his achilles heel as a coach. The one exception was the recruiting coup in landing 5-star Mitch McGary. No coincidence that Michigan's greatest success came when the talented McGary and a senior version of Morgan were Michigan's centers.

    Beilein needs an intervention in big man recruiting. Luckily, he seems to recognize the need and for the first time I can remember has taken TWO legitimate center prospects in the next recruiting class including a shot-blocker pushing 7 feet.

    1. Beilein's poor recruiting over the last few seasons has really surprised me considering how much he boosted the draft stocks of guys like Burke, Stauskas and Levert. If I remember correctly, GR3 and THJ weren't huge recruits either. That might be a symptom of him coming up as a low-major coach and not being as comfortable playing the game, either though that sounds like that is changing with this recruiting class.

      His two big gets were Irvin (5-star) and Walton (4-star) and it feels like the ceiling of this team will depend on those guys taking a big step forward in Big Ten play. The concern going forward is they are both juniors already and there doesn't seem to be a ton of individual talent in this year's freshmen and sophomore classes.

  2. As for SMU - what impressed me more than anything was their passing. They were really whipping the ball around finding open people all night. Some of that was incompetence by Michigan, to be sure, but they deserve credit for playing really well on defense and unselfishly and intelligently on offense. A veteran, well coached team. Larry Brown -- a legend.

    I'll have to keep an eye on Frazier. Caris two worst game of his career have come against SMU. Last year he was 1-8 and got only 4 points and Frazier was on him then too.

    As for Caris as an NBA PG -- he's not a good enough passer to manage that role on offense, but he can absolutely play beside a score-first PG or ball dominant wing like Harden or James. Caris has had good offensive games against NBA-caliber players before (MSU with Valentine and Harris, Duke with Hood and Parker) but yeah, he's not a transcendent offensive talent that can be a one-man scoring machine. Robin, not Batman. Batum, not DeRozan.

    That means he'll probably fall out of the lottery and potentially make some team drafting in the late teens very fortunate.

    Again, the issue (at the NBA level) is getting his defense up to the caliber that is necessary for a complementary offensive player to draw minutes. He needs to (continue to) add strength and focus his efforts on guarding with more determination on the ball and playing smarter within the context of team defense.

    1. What I really like about Caris as an off-ball PG is the idea of an all-switching line-up that his 7'1 wingspan provides. That's probably the only way to guard the Warriors and it seems like that's the way defense has to go given the impossibility of guarding the two-man game in a spread floor with any type of rotation. The ball just moves too fast for the defense to get back to its men. Everybody just has to stay at home and have the length and athleticism to stay in front of their man and the versatility to guard other positions.

  3. SMU is a very good team. Milton is a real player, what are your thoughts on his pro prospects, obviously his shooting will come down to earth and I would guess it hinges on whether he becomes a good full-time point guard next year who can also shoot or a 2 guard with some backup point in him. Either way he looks very good early. I know you didn't mention Nic Moore and while he is not really on the NBA radar I do think he is good enough to be a third pg in the league and he is a much better shooter than people think. What do you think about him going forward.

    1. I really like Milton but it's hard to know his ceiling given how much he is playing off the ball this season. He could be a real big-time player and I'd take him over a lot of the more highly heralded guards from his class.

      JJ Barea gives Nic Moore a chance of making it but the odds are still stacked against him and it will depend on him winding up in the perfect situation early in his career to establish himself at the NBA level.