It's time to review and grade our fourth individual from Michigan's 2014-15 season. We have evaluated how John Beilein handled what he called a "very unique" season, analyzed how Derrick Walton's toe injury robbed him of a breakout sophomore season, and recapped Spike Albrecht's transformation into a legitimate Big Ten starting point guard. Now, we take a look at Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman -- a last-minute pickup in the 2014 class that was thrust into the starting lineup at shooting guard due to injuries after averaging only 3.9 minutes in his first 13 games.
No. 12 | Freshman | 6-4 | 175 lbs. | Catholic Central HS | Allentown, Pa.
Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman wasn't supposed to play much for Michigan this season.
Heck, Abdur-Rahkman wasn't even supposed to be a Wolverine. The two-star prospect from Allentown, Pennsylvania, wasn't just under the radar. He was off the radar. Until late March or early April of last year, John Beilein hadn't shown him any interest, and I wouldn't be surprised if Beilein never had heard his name -- even if he shares the first half of it with the greatest boxer to step in the ring. But then Dave Rooney, a real estate dealer from Allentown and someone Abdur-Rahkman never had met, phoned his old pal, Beilein, out of the blue to tell him Abdur-Rahkman was "the best basketball player [he had] seen in a long time." Three weeks later, Abdur-Rahkman committed to Michigan.
But, notwithstanding Rooney's praises, Abdur-Rahkman was brought on board because Michigan needed someone to sit on the end of the bench, not to become an instant contributor, after Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III departed for the NBA earlier than anticipated. Michigan was set at guard with Derrick Walton at the point, Caris LeVert at the two, and Spike Albrecht able to back both of them up. Plus, Beilein has a reputation for using a short bench, so the question heading into the season was whether Beilein would redshirt Abdur-Rahkman or play him spot minutes behind LeVert.
The answer: the latter.
Abdur-Rahkman played, but he barely saw the court in the first half of the season. He appeared in 13 of Michigan's first 16 games and averaged only 3.9 minutes in those 13 appearances. The only time that he earned more than six minutes in a game was when he played 12 minutes in Michigan's 91-62 rout of Nicholls State. And he didn't do anything to warrant more playing time. He scored only seven points on 2-of-12 shooting in those first 13 games, and, in fact, he missed his first nine shots, eight of which were two-pointers, before he sunk his first field goal. He wasn't needed unless there was an emergency.
The alarms sounded two weeks later, though, when, in that time, it was announced that LeVert would be out for the season and Walton would be out for an indefinite period with foot injuries. Michigan had Albrecht to take over at point, but the only remaining healthy scholarship guard was Abdur-Rahkman. So Beilein made him the starting two.
To the surprise of many, the initial results were a resounding success. Abdur-Rahkman averaged 12.7 points with an eFG% of 54.7 percent in his first three games as Michigan's new starting two. And no game was more of a surprise than his scoring outburst in a hostile Breslin Center against in-state rival Michigan State. He terrorized the Spartans to the tune of 18 points on 8-of-14 shooting and demonstrated no fear in attacking the rim. He even bullied taller Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year candidate Branden Dawson in the post. He was a Spartan killer -- plus-16 in regulation -- and, if he didn't sit the final 10:31 of the first half with two fouls, Michigan would have left East Lansing with a win.
However, Abdur-Rahkman's success was simple to diagnose. Unlike many of the guards and wings Beilein recruits, Abdur-Rahkman is a slasher that likes to finish around the rim rather than a shooter -- he made half of his twos and only 29.3 percent of his threes this season. In those first three games as a starter, he put his head down, penetrated into the paint often, and finished through contact around the basket. It's a great skill to have and one that not many Michigan players possess, but it is not difficult to defend when it is the only offensive skill that one has. And once Big Ten defenses had film of Abdur-Rahkman doing this against Michigan State and Iowa, they knew how to shut him down.
As defenses began to sag off of Abdur-Rahkman, teasing him to shoot threes and harassing him if he tried to drive inside, his offense suffered. In Michigan's final seven regular-season games, he averaged 5.3 points and scored in double digits only once against, you guessed it, Michigan State in Ann Arbor. Though his scoring waned as he fired more threes, the biggest issue was his turnovers -- he had 17 in this stretch after posting only nine in his previous 20 games. He had trouble maintaining his dribble when he forced his way into the paint because defenses waited for him there and smothered him. He didn't have the jumper to pressure defenses to extend out on him, so he needed to learn to pick his spots of when to attack the rim better. Or just learn to shoot better.
Abdur-Rahkman didn't have time to improve his jumper in the days before the Big Ten Tournament, but he did show better restraint on offense. And it paid off. He scored 23 points on 10-of-19 shooting and recorded only two turnovers against Illinois and Wisconsin in Chicago. Rather than force his own forays into the paint, he played within the flow of the offense and drove when he had open lanes to the rim. It was a sign that Abdur-Rahkman had adapted to how Big Ten opponents were defending him.
But Abdur-Rahkman needs to improve his jumper this summer if he wants to continue to play more than expected at Michigan. Next season, if LeVert returns, he'll lock down the minutes at the two, while Beilein will have a plethora of wings to fill in at the three and four. Beilein's offense is predicated on spacing, and, if Abdur-Rahkman can't make defenses pay for leaving him open on the perimeter, defenses will continue to sag off of him, and spacing will be tight for Michigan's offense. He needs to give Beilein a reason to play him, or he'll be squeezed out of the regular rotation. Hitting perimeter shots -- or becoming a lockdown defender like he was against D'Angelo Russell -- will do the trick.
Nonetheless, this evaluation is supposed to focus on the 2014-15 season, not the 2015-16 season. And the 2014-15 season was not one that Abdur-Rahkman was supposed to play many minutes in, let alone start 13 games. Yet he was thrown into the fire as a freshman when Michigan had no other options and proved he could hold his own in the Big Ten.
Rooney may have known this would be the case, but we didn't until now.
Final Grade: B-