When Hunter Dickinson arrived in Ann Arbor over the summer, he found himself in awe of sophomore wing Franz Wagner.
“That’s a lottery pick for sure,” Dickinson recalled thinking to himself.
After the graduation of Zavier Simpson and Jon Teske, most expected Wagner to emerge as the offensive centerpiece for the Michigan men’s basketball team. But so far, that hasn’t been the case. Instead, the Wolverines’ balanced scoring effort has keyed the team’s 8-0 start.
Through the first eight games of the season, Dickinson — a 7-foot-1 freshman center — is the one leading the team with 16.6 points per game. He’s one of six Michigan players averaging more than nine points — a testament to the team’s depth.
That much was clear on New Year’s Eve, when the Wolverines used a 19-2 second-half spurt to break the game open against Maryland. Michigan beat the Terps, 84-73, on the backs of four double-digit scorers. Seniors Isaiah Livers and Chaundee Brown weren’t part of that group, though. They combined for just seven points on 1-for-8 shooting.
But the Wolverines’ offensive chugged along unfazed. Much of that is a credit to Columbia graduate transfer Mike Smith, who spent much of the past year re-inventing his game after finishing the 2019-20 season as the nation’s sixth-leading scorer. So far in Ann Arbor, he’s evolved into a Big Ten-caliber playmaker as he searches for an ideal balance between hunting his own shot and creating for others.
“(Smith) understood before he walked onto campus, (through) conversations that we had, Mike is going to have to be one of our leaders on the floor and how can he help others get better,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “He of course accepted that challenge. Tonight was an example of a guy that was looking to make plays for himself and others.”
Added Dickinson: “Everybody thinks of Mike as a scorer. … He’s always talking about how he wants to be known as a playmaker as well. He’s always happy when he has high-assist games cause he wants to show everyone he’s more than just a scorer, he’s also a playmaker.”
Smith put his evolution on display in College Park, finishing with 16 points on 5-of-7 shooting and six assists. His transition from the Ivy League to the Big Ten was one of the Wolverines’ biggest question marks entering the season, but he’s starting to silence doubts with each passing performance.
Dickinson was on the receiving end for a few of Smith’s assists. The freshman continued his torrid start, posting a team-best 26 points on 10-of-11 shooting and 11 rebounds, while Wagner contributed 19 points and four assists.
Most of all, it seemed as though Michigan’s offense didn’t miss a beat despite cold nights for Livers — who rolled his ankle early in the game, and Brown — The Wolverines shot 59 percent from the field, including 75-percent on 2-pointers, and posted 84 points during a conference road game.
As conference play begins to pick up, there are inevitably going to be nights when Michigan’s key contributors are out of rhythm. And while Wagner may be the future NBA lottery pick, there are more than a few players ready to pick up the slack.
“If one person’s not having a good game, the next person can step up,” Smith said. “That just shows that the coach believes in everybody who he puts out there they’re capable of playing. It showed today. The next day it may be somebody else. But we just got to pick up our brothers and continue to play hard and play the game that we love and we do it out there for them.”