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As Austin Davis blossoms into a leader, Michigan’s centers grow closer

Austin Davis’ experience has provided a way for him to step up and lead in his own way.

NCAA Basketball: Indiana at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

After an offseason of roster turnover for the Michigan men’s basketball team, Austin Davis is doing his part to build up the Wolverines’ chemistry ahead of the upcoming season.

Nobody on the roster has been in Ann Arbor as long as Davis. Now in his fifth year with the program, Davis’ experience has allowed him to emerge as an early de facto leader.

For Davis, leadership goes beyond Crisler Arena. When freshman center Hunter Dickinson made his way to campus over the summer, Davis arranged for a centers-only fishing trip. For a unit that lost its two-year starter to graduation in Jon Teske during the offseason, it was exactly what Davis, Dickinson and senior Jaron Faulds needed. The group caught somewhere between 20 and 30 panfish, Davis estimates.

“We’ve got a great relationship,” Davis said during a Zoom call with reporters Tuesday. “We definitely hang out outside of basketball, outside of Crisler here, quite a bit. I think this has been one of the tighter groups of bigs along with Jaron (Faulds).

“Especially us three have been really close this year, just texting back and forth and all those kinds of things. It puts us in a better position to be able to push each other on the court during practices, and when game time rolls around, it’s going to make it all the better to be able to share each other’s successes.”

Davis’ efforts continued into the fall, most notably when he invited Columbia graduate transfer Mike Smith over to his apartment for a fish fry as they watched the NBA Finals.

A native of Onsted, Mich., a village of less than 1,000 people, Davis’ affinity for the outdoors has been well-documented. Now the program’s longest-tenured player, it’s provided a way for him to step up and lead in his own way.

“It’s been kind of a gradual rise to that type of (leadership) position,” Davis said. “I’ve been very lucky to have a lot of great leaders to set the example for me in the past four years of being here, all the way from (Derrick) Walton, Zak Irvin and Duncan (Robinson) early on going up through Moe (Wagner) and especially (Zavier Simpson) and Jon. They’ve all been tremendous leaders, they’ve been great examples to try to model some of the ways they’ve led that have shown success.”

After playing just 143 total minutes in his first three years with the program, Davis began last season firmly behind Colin Castleton in the rotation. But Davis made the most of his opportunities and carved out a permanent role as Michigan’s backup center as the season went on, averaging 4.9 points and 2.6 rebounds on 69 percent shooting across 10.7 minutes per game.

Now in his final season, the Wolverines will rely on Davis in multiple ways. Michigan coach Juwan Howard invited him back for a fifth year for a reason — one which could turn out to be multi-layered. Davis will be tasked with providing consistent production around the rim while also mentoring Dickinson, who enters the season as the highest-ranked prospect in Howard’s first recruiting class.

He already has a head start on the latter.

“The biggest adjustment, at least from my perspective, was the speed of the game (and) just the strength of the players around you,” Davis said. “… Hunter’s done a great job adjusting in the last couple months during our individual workouts and these first few days of practice. I think he’s done a great job so far and I have no doubt he’ll continue to get used to that and then be ready when games start to roll around here.”

Davis has returned to practice as a full participant after recovering from an offseason shoulder surgery, giving him a chance to see Dickinson up close. It didn’t take long to notice what separates the 7-foot-1 freshman.

“Hunter’s done a great job,” Davis said. “He’s come in with a good mind (and he’s) willing to learn. I think he’s really coachable and he definitely works his tail off on the court and in the weightroom. He’s done a great job with them. He is a tremendous player right now, and he’s only going to go up from here.”