As Hunter Dickinson watched last year’s Battle 4 Atlantis on television, he scrutinized the tournament with a different perspective than most.
Dickinson, who was a four-star recruit at DeMatha Catholic High School this time last year, paid close attention to Michigan — one of the final suitors in his recruitment alongside Duke, Florida State and Notre Dame. He watched as first-year coach Juwan Howard guided his team to comfortable wins over No. 6 North Carolina and No. 8 Gonzaga, paying special attention to the way he coached.
By the time Michigan hoisted the tournament trophy, Dickinson was sold. Less than a month later, he committed to the Wolverines.
“I just wanted to see the kind of offense (Howard) was going to run and how successful he’d be as a coach,” Dickinson said during a Zoom call with reporters Tuesday. “I felt like it being his first time being a head coach, I wasn’t sure how it was gonna work out, but then I saw the Bahamas trip and I was like, ‘Well this guy can for sure win big games. He can definitely out-coach the best coaches in the country.’ ”
In Atlantis, Michigan showed Dickinson everything he needed to see and more. Much of that came on the offensive end, where a first-year coach like Howard could only talk about visions — not results — during the recruiting process.
The Wolverines’ trip to the Bahamas validated what Howard had preached. Seeing Howard get down on all fours to wipe the floor or celebrate the tournament championship with his classic cabbage patch couldn’t have hurt, either.
“I really liked their offensive style,” Dickinson said. “For me, they have an NBA kind of offense. … The more I thought about it, if I want to play in the NBA, this is the offense I need to be accustomed to playing in. I really adapted and adjusted to it. I really like the offense (Howard) is running. It fits today’s game. Me and him, the connection we have, it’s just great. Learning from another man who played your position and knows the skills of what it’s like to be a 7-foot guy, it’s a feeling that I can’t really describe. It’s just a great feeling.”
At the time, Dickinson joined Zeb Jackson and Isaiah Todd as Michigan’s three committed recruits. While Todd would ultimately decommit in favor of the new G League path, Howard was able to add forwards Terrance Williams and Jace Howard to round out his first recruiting class.
Now, the Wolverines’ freshman class is ready to make an impact. Wednesday marks the end of their second full week of practice, and early returns sound promising. Dickinson credits Howard for helping him adjust to the college game, perhaps even more from a mental standpoint than a physical one.
“You have to enjoy getting hit and laying out some punishment as well,” Dickinson said. “I think that’s always been something, ever since I was young, I never wanted to be the soft kid. I always wanted to be someone who was respected and was tough, so I had to adapt to that role. Juwan is always good about that. He’s actually pretty good at pushing my buttons, like he knows when to motivate me and when to be a hand-over-the-shoulder kind of coach. … Being a big man, he knows what I need.”
And with the season on the horizon, there’s pressure on the freshmen to validate Howard’s highly-touted recruiting prowess.
“We’re aware that we’re Juwan’s first children, so to say,” Dickinson said. “We’re his first project. We’ve talked about it. Of course, we hoped to have five so we could’ve had the next Fab Five in there. But we have four great players. The other three freshmen are people I’m going to be friends with for the rest of my life.
“We’re just gonna try to leave our legacy as the Fab Four at Michigan, and we hope to kind of cement ourselves with Juwan as his first recruiting class.”