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Projecting Michigan Basketball’s starting lineup ahead of Wednesday’s season opener

The Wolverines’ roster looks much different in their second season under Juwan Howard.

Iowa v Michigan Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images

Six additions and five departures later, the Michigan men’s basketball team is set to enter the second season of the Juwan Howard era.

After the graduation of program cornerstones Zavier Simpson and Jon Teske, this year’s roster won’t look anything like that of Howard’s first season. The Wolverines also lost David DeJulius (Cincinnati), Colin Castleton (Florida) and Cole Bajema (Washington) to the transfer portal in the offseason, but brought Columbia graduate transfer Mike Smith and Wake Forest transfer Chaundee Brown to Ann Arbor.

Perhaps most importantly, Howard welcomed his first recruiting class to campus this fall. Headlined by top-40 center Hunter Dickinson, the four-man class can make an immediate impact as Michigan aims to replace its departures.

As of Monday morning, Howard still wouldn’t name a starting five for Wednesday afternoon’s tip-off against Bowling Green. So, we decided to take a crack at it.

Point guard: Mike Smith

Smith averaged 22.8 points on 43.2% shooting as a senior at Columbia, establishing himself as an effective three-level scorer despite his 5-foot-10 frame. But asking him to replicate that stat line this season would be unreasonable given the uptick in competition that comes with transferring from a last-place Ivy League team to a Big Ten contender.

The good news for Michigan is that he won’t have to do that. One area where Smith can shine is as a playmaker. Surrounded by subpar talent on a Columbia team that posted a 1-13 conference record, he still averaged 4.5 assists per game. Aside from Simpson, nobody on last year’s Michigan team averaged more than two. Smith will be surrounded by better shooters and interior finishers this season, and if he’s asked to help replace Simpson as a primary ball-handler in Howard’s screen-heavy offense, it likely won’t be as a scoring guard.

Unlike Simpson, Smith won’t see 35-plus minutes per game with the ball in his hands. Expect to see a heavy dosage of Eli Brooks and Zeb Jackson at point guard as well.

Shooting guard: Eli Brooks

Brooks is coming off a breakout junior season that saw his scoring average leap from 2.5 points to 10.6. He established himself as a legitimate catch-and-shoot threat last year, eclipsing the 20-point mark on four separate occasions as he shot 41% from the field, 36% from beyond the arc and 73% from the free throw stripe.

He excelled off the ball on both ends of the floor last season, but with Simpson gone, Howard could call on Brooks to be one of the team’s primary ball-handlers during his final season. While it’s possible he may start games at the ‘2,’ he’ll see lots of time at point guard as well.

When Smith heads to the bench and Brooks slides down, Chaundee Brown will see plenty of minutes at shooting guard. At 6-foot-5, 215 pounds, his combination of size, strength and quickness leaves Howard with no shortage of backcourt options. Brown would gel well with both Smith and Brooks, and there’s a good chance he’ll get the nod at the ‘2’ down the stretch when games are close.

Small forward: Franz Wagner

By the time March rolled around last season, Wagner was Michigan’s top offensive option. He averaged 16.6 points on 62 percent shooting over the Wolverines’ last five games, raising questions about whether he was ready to declare for the NBA Draft in the process.

Ultimately, Wagner decided to return for his sophomore season. He claims he’s grown an inch since last year, and he added 15 pounds of muscle while working out with his brother Moritz during the early stages of the pandemic. Technique was never an issue with Wagner, but it appears he’s now ready to make an even bigger impact from a physical standpoint.

Wagner’s long frame allows him to be effective on both ends of the floor, and with a year of experience now under his belt, it should surprise nobody if he begins the season as the Wolverines’ go-to scoring option.

Power forward: Isaiah Livers

Perhaps the best news Howard received during the offseason was Livers’ decision to return for his senior season. He tested the NBA Draft waters after averaging 12.9 points on 45 percent shooting, including a team-best 40-percent clip from behind the arc.

When healthy, Livers is a lethal shooter who makes a major impact in both the halfcourt and transition game. Now a senior, he’ll be challenged to improve another dimension of his game, such as rebounding or playmaking. Such strides could open even more doors for the Wolverines and make Livers more attractive to NBA executives.

Livers missed time last season due to two separate injuries, opening the door for Brandon Johns Jr. to carve out an expanded role. He used the opportunity to post four double-digit scoring performances. The promise he showed should be enough to make him one of Howard’s first options off the bench this season, whether that be as an athletic forward or small-ball center.

Center: Hunter Dickinson

Between Dickinson and fifth-year senior Austin Davis, this one can really go either way to start the season. But by the time Michigan gets to conference play, Dickinson should have a firm grip on the starting job.

At 7-foot-1, 255 pounds, Dickinson gives the Wolverines a massive presence around the rim. He averaged 18.1 points, 10.3 rebounds and 2.1 blocks during his senior season at DeMatha Catholic — one of the nation’s top high school basketball teams — and earned Gatorade Maryland Player of the Year honors.

Dickinson might appear raw in the early stages of the season, but he’ll be able to carve out a sizable chunk of minutes if he can show he has the stamina for it. Davis has never logged more than 17 minutes in a college game, and he was at his best last year when he delivered short bursts of fresh legs and post production in relief of Teske. Keeping him in that role could be in the best interest of Dickinson’s development and Davis’ impact.

Regardless of who starts at the ‘5,’ the Wolverines could have trouble defending ball screens. Both Dickinson and Davis are much less effective defensively when drawn outside the paint, meaning Johns could see some minutes as a small-ball center. That could give Michigan more offensive flexibility against certain opponents, but it’s safe to expect Dickinson and Davis to get the bulk of the available minutes at center.