The best story that emerged from Michigan's 77-53 rout of Bucknell in the Legends Classic Ann Arbor Regional was the career night of the often-overlooked Max Bielfeldt, who poured in 18 points in 16 minutes last night after tallying only 38 points in 195 career minutes the previous two seasons, but the best development for Michigan early this season has been the elevated play of Zak Irvin.
Last season, as a true freshman, Irvin had little responsibility, little pressure. He was not a starter, sitting behind Big Ten Player of the Year Nik Stauskas, All-Big Ten second-team selection Caris LeVert, and all-world athlete Glenn Robinson III. Instead, Irvin was asked to provide a spark off the bench and do one job: shoot.
And, boy, did Irvin have no problem doing that.
Irvin averaged just a tad more than 15 minutes per game last season, but it was sufficient time for him to hoist up almost four three-pointers per game -- firing almost triple as many three-pointers total (146) as two-pointers (50). Irvin was quite adept at bombing the basketball from beyond the arc, too, draining an excellent 42.5 percent of them, which was the eighth-best among all Big Ten players with at least 25 three-point attempts. So Irvin did his job, even if it meant that he was doing little else on the hardwood, like getting to the rim and the free-throw line.
But Irvin has a new job this season.
After the departure of Stauskas, Robinson III, and Mitch McGary to the NBA this past summer, Michigan could no longer afford Irvin just being a shooter that provides a boost off the bench. Rather, it was time for Irvin to step into the spotlight because the Wolverines needed him to be an all-around scorer, a player that could score in a variety of ways, whether it be around the tin, from mid-range, at the charity stripe, or beyond the three-point line, while handling an increased workload and double the minutes.
Michigan Basketball Back
Michigan 77, Bucknell 53: The Max Bielfeldt Show
•Maize n BrewAfter a shaky start on Saturday, Michigan left no doubt about what the final outcome would be tonight against the visiting Bucknell Bison thanks to an unexpected career-high 18 points in 16 minutes from Max Bielfeldt.
Michigan Basketball Back
Thus far, the results have been excellent.
Irvin has opened his sophomore season by scoring at least 20 points in his first two games, dropping 21 points against Hillsdale before taking Bucknell to town for a game-high 23 points. For context, last season, the only two Wolverines that scored 20-plus points in consecutive games were Stauskas, who accomplished the feat a staggering eight times, and LeVert, who managed to do it once.
What's even more impressive about Irvin's achievement is that he didn't need to jack up a heap of shots to reach 20 points in either game. He registered 21 points on 13 shot-equivalents against Hillsdale, and his 23 points against the Bison originated from 14 shot-equivalents. Combine this with the fact that his effective field-goal percentage is 78 percent, which is extraordinary for any player, but particularly a wing, it's safe to say that Irvin's efficiency has been off the charts to start the season.
And, as I mentioned earlier, Irvin has been able to do all of this while fulfilling his new duties as an all-around scorer. Sure, he still has no problem chucking shots from deep, where he has made 7-of-11 threes (63.6 pct.), but he has found other ways to put the basketball through the hoop this season. He's demonstrated a few times that he can work his way to the elbow for a manageable mid-range jumper and flashed improved athleticism and ball handling when attacking the cup in transition. Although Irvin still must prove he can penetrate into the paint in half-court sets, which will help him up his still-low free-throw rate, his propensity to shoot threes has fallen off a cliff, as his 3PA/FGA rate has declined from 74.5 percent last season to 44 percent this season.
This is what Irvin needs to continue to do as the season progresses. There's no doubt that his efficiency will fall some, especially when Michigan faces tougher competition, starting next week in the Legends Classic against Oregon and either Villanova or VCU, because the level he's currently at after two games is unsustainable. But, if Irvin can prove that he can be the all-around scorer that Michigan needs and shine in the spotlight, then Michigan will shine in the spotlight, too.