Big changes are coming to Michigan basketball under a new guiding hand in Juwan Howard at head coach, who comes to Ann Arbor after having coached the last six seasons as an assistant in the NBA with the Miami Heat. We’re not quite sure what his teams will look like yet and how they will play, but he has been dropping bread crumbs here and there on some of his philosophies.
One of those philosophies is a modern “positionless basketball” look on the court. That’s where the NBA has been heading and has been for at least a few years and it’s one of the biggest changes that you’ll see on the floor with the Wolverines in the first year of the Howard era.
So what is positionless basketball? Basically, it is what it says it is and is a shedding of traditional positional labels. Long gone are the days of pigeonholing a player into the “point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward and center” labels. It’s a simple guard-forward definition with the roles of each player being interchangeable. Some examples of this are having three or four guys on the floor at a given time that are able to bring the ball up the court, or having a center who is capable of stretching the floor and shooting from the perimeter.
Howard explained it in his own words and how it can apply to his program at Big Ten Media Days earlier this month in Rosemont, Illinois:
The game has evolved. One thing about this game, you could stick to your old habits or you could adapt. I want those who want to adapt and not die. I want to get ahead. I’m always that out-of-the-box thinking kind of individual. Not saying I’m an inventor, but I want to put our guys in positions where I can utilize their strengths. Everyone can be a positionless-type of an individual. Some guys are a natural five. You can shoot the ball like (Jon) Teske, you might be a stretch five. That’s something that could elevate your stock on our team and also looking forward to the future if he wants to go to the next level. The game and how it’s trending, and now in college I’m seeing it, too, is that now you’re seeing the three-man playing the five position. Small ball. You may see a four-man playing a five. You may see two smaller perimeters playing on the court at the same time. That makes you more dynamic because you have two guys that can run pick and roll’s with. I’m not going to tell you how we’re going to play but positionless basketball is here. When I see our players today, like bigs are shooting three’s. Bigs are handling the ball more. It’s not like how I first came into the game where you’re a five-man, you stay on the block. You’re a two, you have to shoot and you can’t handle the ball and bring it up the floor.
To put it simply, Howard is not going to be a system guy like John Beilein was (which again, is not a knock on him. It’s just different). Beilein recruited players based on potential in his offense and the type of guys that fit the program he was trying to build. Howard is set to simplify things a bit and bring in guys who can play and emphasize what those strengths are. There is not a right or wrong way to do it, but given Beilein’s special magic development touch when it came to his players, that is not just something you can replicate easy.
Positionless basketball comes with an emphasis of three guiding principles when it is used. You’re looking to space out the floor, first and foremost. If you have a forward or a center who is capable of hitting a mid-range jumper or beyond, a defense has to account for that and it opens up lanes to drive and pass.
It also calls for a little more improvisation with the ball with players cutting and driving. There are plays that can be run within this, but this is harder to defend because every single trip down the floor can throw something different at an opposing team.
The final aspect of a positonless basketball offense is how it helps you share and distribute the ball. The more passes and the better the ball movement, the more it keeps everyone on the floor actively engaged. With an emphasis on whipping the ball around and knowing what defensive looks either tell you that you should pass, pull up and shoot or drive to the basket, it has a tendency to create smarter basketball players, as well.
Defensively, a positonless mindset has you as a coach teaching your players how to guard multiple positions on the floor at any given time. One time down the floor, you might be forced to guard the All-American point guard who can hit a shot from anywhere in the gym. The next time down, you might wind up on the fifth-year senior who is rough in the post and has developed a dangerous hook shot. A player becomes a better, smarter defender when he knows the multiple ways a team can attack him offensively.
So to use a few simple Michigan-related examples, Isaiah Livers is set to play the three a bit more in the sense of the traditional starting lineup, but there are aspects of his game and his athleticism that can see him playing on both the wing and inside, as well as being able to bring the ball up the floor. A forward like Brandon Johns might be able to guard the 2, 3, 4 and 5 positions on the floor at any given time. When Franz Wagner returns from injury, he could play as many as three positions (2, 3, 4) and was potentially set to start at the two next to Zavier Simpson prior to his wrist fracture. That’s a 6-foot-7 guy who can do multiple things well.
Positionless basketball is not all that new, but it is being emphasized more than ever with the athleticism at all levels of the game as high as it has ever been. Magic Johnson and LeBron James are examples of players that have been used this way due to their ability to handle the basketball and a skill-set that goes further than their size. That isn’t to say the Wolverines have any of those types of talents on the roster, but when you have players that can do multiple things well, you may as well use that instead of sticking them in one spot with one role.
We are still a bit of time away from seeing what Howard’s Wolverines will ultimately look like on the floor, but what we just discussed above looks to be one of the guiding principles. It should help Michigan come up with a wide variety of lineup combinations to try and get the best five on the floor at any given time, which should be a fun to watch.