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2015-16 Michigan Basketball Position Preview: Guards

We dive into how Michigan's guards will perform in 2015-16, and one of them will have the breakout season he was supposed to have last year.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, Maize n Brew kicked off its 2015-16 Michigan basketball season preview, detailing how the Wolverines have received a rare mulligan after a disastrous campaign last season. For the rest of this week, we will preview each Michigan position and project how each Wolverine will perform this season before we discuss Michigan's place in the Big Ten next week. Today, we begin by taking a look at the guards: Derrick Walton, Jr., Spike Albrecht, and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman.

Derrick Walton, Jr.

Basic Info: #10 | Junior | 6-1 | 190 lbs. | Detroit, Mich.
2014-15 Stats: 19 GP | 33.3 MPG | 10.7 PPG | 4.7 RPG | 3.0 APG | 32.4 2P% | 33.8 3P%

Like Darius Morris and Trey Burke before him, Derrick Walton was primed to have a breakout sophomore season as Michigan's point guard. From my 2014-15 review of him:

We saw glimpses of such a leap in the opening weeks of the season. In Walton's first four games, he was an all-around scorer for Michigan. He averaged 14.8 points per game, and he did it in a variety of ways. Not only was he sniping from downtown where he made 54.5 percent of his threes, he was utilizing his quickness and excellent vertical to finish at the rim where he converted 66.7 percent of his shots and earn trips to the free-throw line -- he attempted 28 free throws to 30 field goals in those first four games. Further, despite being listed at six feet, Walton was an asset on the defensive glass and had one of the best rebounding rates among Big Ten guards. He appeared to have taken the next big step.

However, in the fifth game against Villanova, Walton injured his toe. At the time, it wasn't expected to be serious, and his absence against Nicholls State was thought to be only a precaution. But Walton wasn't the same player in his next 14 games, during which he averaged 9.6 points per game and posted an offensive rating better than 100 only five times. The injured toe had robbed him of his explosiveness. He struggled to maneuver his way into the paint, and, when he did, he lacked the vertical to finish above the trees. In those 14 games, he converted only 15-of-54 (27.8 pct.) of his twos. Unable to penetrate, Walton resorted to being a spot-up shooter, but he wasn't great there either (32.8 3P%).

The toe had rendered Walton ineffective on offense, and, as weeks passed, it was clear that his toe wasn't healing. In fact, it was worsening. By mid-January, Walton noticeably was limping up and down the court. You had to admire his guts, but playing him wasn't doing anyone favors. John Beilein realized it and shut him down for the rest of the year.

The right toe didn't require surgery, but Walton was forced to stay off of it until it healed. He then rehabbed it during the offseason, and, by all accounts, Walton's now 100 percent.

Walton should be the player that he looked like in his first four games as a sophomore. He will be a lethal three-point shooter, hovering around 40 percent, and make defenses pay for leaving him alone in the corners or cheating underneath screens. Further, he'll be more adept at driving to the rim and earning trips to the line. His finishing rate won't be exceptional because he still will be just a 6-foot-1 point guard crashing into defenders at least seven inches taller than him, but it won't be one of the worst in the nation either. And don't expect him to be a primary creator on offense -- Caris LeVert and Zak Irvin will fill that role -- but he'll push the pace and find his teammates for shots in transition.

He'll also lead the break in transition because he'll be one of Michigan's best defensive rebounders. Last season, Michigan had its bigs box out and its guards swoop in for the rebound. Walton benefited from this, but he also fought for his fair share of rebounds against bigger opponents, too. The result was that he had a defensive rebounding rate (16.7 pct.) that was second on the team only to Max Bielfeldt's. How many point guards can say that? Michigan should use that same strategy again this season, and Walton will reap the rewards. And, speaking of defense, Walton will be the better perimeter defender between he and Spike Albrecht, who has trouble keeping up with faster, quicker guards.

Walton won't be the best player on the team nor will he be in line for top All-Big Ten honors with Maryland's Melo Trimble and Indiana's Yogi Ferrell around, but he'll be a key cog for Michigan. We saw what happened to this team once his sprained toe struck last season. Michigan needs him, so he'll start and average about 30 minutes per game.

Spike Albrecht

Basic Info: #2 | Senior | 5-11 | 175 lbs. | Crown Point, Ind.
2014-15 Stats: 31 GP | 32.0 MPG | 7.5 PPG | 3.9 APG | 2.3 RPG | 44.6 2P% | 37.2 3P%

Spike Albrecht no longer should be known only as the diminutive freshman that stepped off a bench and poured in 17 first-half points against Louisville in the 2013 national title game. Last season, when Derrick Walton missed the final 12 games with a sprained toe, Albrecht proved that he can play like an above-average Big Ten starting point guard:

And, in the final 11 games of the season, Albrecht demonstrated that he could be one of the leaders of a group that had no business taking upper-tier Big Ten teams down to the wire. In that stretch, he was Michigan's second-leading scorer, averaging 12.5 points and scoring in double digits in nine games, and a model of efficiency, topping an offensive rating of 100 in all but one game. He regained his lethal stroke from deep, draining 42.6 percent of his threes. He was automatic from the line, knocking down 90.6 percent of his freebies. He orchestrated the offense to the tune of 4.8 assists per game as his Big Ten-only assist rate (28.6 pct.) finished as the sixth-best.

And what's even more impressive is that Albrecht did that with two bad hips.

Michigan won't ask Albrecht to handle that sort of burden with Walton back. Once he recovers from his two hip surgeries -- he should be 100 percent near the start of the season -- Albrecht will be one of the best reserve point guards in the Big Ten. He'll be a sharpshooter from downtown (40.7 career 3P%), where he can drill shots off the pass and off the dribble. He also will run more of the offense than Walton will. Albrecht is an excellent distributor and has moments when he transforms into a poor man's Steve Nash. He'll penetrate into the paint, dribble around in circles, and find an open teammate with a no-look pass. It's a surprise that it is so effective because Albrecht rarely looks to shoot when he has the ball around the rim barring the occasional one-handed scoop layup.

Albrecht does have his shortcomings, though. He's undersized at a generously listed 5-foot-11 and doesn't have the athleticism to compensate. This affects his ability to finish around the rim -- he made only 44 percent of his shots there last season -- and defend shifty Big Ten guards on the perimeter. He also doesn't gather boards like Walton does.

But Albrecht solidifies the point-guard position for Michigan. He will run the point whenever Walton needs a breather or finds himself in foul trouble, and there will be little drop-off, at least offensively. This should be 10 to 15 minutes per game, and, because both Walton and Albrecht can moonlight as spot-up shooters, there'll be times when John Beilein has both in the backcourt. We won't see Albrecht on the floor as much as we did last year, but he'll continue to be one of U-M's most important leaders and players.

Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman

Basic Info: #12 | Sophomore | 6-4 | 185 lbs. | Allentown, Pa.
2014-15 Stats: 29 GP | 19.0 MPG | 4.5 PPG | 1.7 RPG | 0.9 APG | 49.4 2P% | 29.3 3P%

Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman (MAAR) wasn't supposed to play much as a freshman. In the first 13 games in which he appeared, he averaged only 3.9 minutes and scored a grand total of seven points. He simply was a break-glass-in-case-of-an-emergency player.

Well, Michigan had itself an emergency when Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton went down for the season. John Beilein had no choice but to start MAAR at shooting guard as he and Spike Albrecht were the only healthy scholarship guards available. MAAR had stretches when he played well, showcasing an offensive skillset unique to the rest of the team. Whereas the other Michigan guards and wings were outside shooters, MAAR was a slasher that preferred to put his head down, drive to the hole, and finish at the rim. But Big Ten defenses caught onto this quickly and began to sag off of MAAR, teasing him to shoot threes (29.3 3P%) and harassing him into turnovers if he penetrated into the lane. In the offseason, he needed to improve his jumper to compel defenses to extend out on him, which would provide more opportunities to drive, and learn when to pick his spots.

But, even if MAAR has learned this, there may be no room for him in the rotation. Walton and Albrecht have locked down the minutes at point guard, and, though LeVert will be previewed in the wings section, he'll be the starting shooting guard and will earn around 33 to 35 minutes per game. Plus, Beilein doesn't need a set backup at shooting guard. He can play both Walton and Albrecht in the backcourt or slide Zak Irvin or Duncan Robinson up to the two spot when LeVert takes a short rest. This versatility could squeeze MAAR out of the lineup and leave him as the odd man out. And he's struggled with this, per a practice report from The Wolverine's Chris Balas two weeks ago ($).

It wouldn't be a huge surprise if Michigan tried to redshirt MAAR this season.

But, if Michigan doesn't, it's because the Wolverines need to use his unique skills. In addition to being a slasher on the offensive end, MAAR may be the best lockdown defender that Michigan has on the perimeter. He put on a defensive display when he went head to head with then-Buckeye and 2015's No. 2 overall pick D'Angelo Russell. The Laker did score 16 points, but MAAR forced him to take 17 shot equivalents to get there. And MAAR had a big hand in the five turnovers that Russell committed. Michigan's perimeter defense hasn't been top-notch under Beilein, and, despite his length, LeVert hasn't developed into the defender that most thought he would be. MAAR could fill that niche for Michigan in special situations. That's his best bet for earning time this year.


Tomorrow, we'll continue our basketball preview with a look at Michigan's wings.