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Hunter Dickinson’s emergence becomes even more important with Austin Davis injured

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The freshman center is Michigan’s only player to score in double figures each game.

Central Florida v Michigan Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

Five minutes into the Michigan men’s basketball game against Toledo on Wednesday, Austin Davis found himself all alone in the paint. The fifth-year senior center had just slipped a screen after seeing his defender hedge, creating an easy passing angle for Mike Smith to find him.

Davis gathered the pass, leapt from both feet and cocked his arms back. He threw down a two-handed dunk that gave the Wolverines (5-0) a 10-9 lead that they wouldn’t relinquish in a 91-71 rout of the Rockets (3-3).

Davis, who has started each of Michigan’s first five games, scored the team’s first 10 points on just six shots. Those short bursts of efficient offense are the reason Juwan Howard invited him back for a fifth season. Davis showed an ability to make an impact in relief of Jon Teske with an array of crafty interior moves last season, though he’s never played more than 17 minutes in a game during his time at Michigan

But in the early stages of the second half, Davis exited the game with a non-contact lower body injury. He made his way to the locker room for treatment before rejoining his teammates on the bench, albeit with a noticeable limp. UM Hoops’ Ethan Sears spotted him leaving Crisler in a walking boot after the game.

“As of right now, we’re waiting to do the medical examination tomorrow and we’ll see (how) that comes back,” Howard said. “(That’ll) let us know as far as the injury and et cetera, et cetera, after that.”

With Davis out, Hunter Dickinson was forced back onto the floor. The freshman delivered, as he’s consistently done throughout the young season. Dickinson finished with 18 points on 8-of-11 shooting and pulled down seven rebounds. He also came alive defensively, blocking four shots in the first half alone.

Wednesday’s win over Toledo wrapped up the Wolverines’ five-game non-conference slate. During that stretch, Dickinson was Michigan’s only player to score in double figures each game. He’s emerged as a major offensive piece for the first Wolverines team to score at least 80 points in each of the first five games since 1991. In Dickinson, Michigan has a reliable interior option and exceptional low-post passer.

“I think what makes him special is he just goes out there and hoops,” sophomore wing Franz Wagner said. “He doesn’t really think too much. When you get him the ball, he knows his moves, he knows what makes him good, and you can see, he played extremely good tonight, again in the low post. And it’s such a threat being a passer too. That makes him even more dangerous. I think that you can’t just double him cause he’s going to find the right man.”

Through five games, Dickinson is averaging 14.8 points on 71 percent shooting and 7.4 rebounds. He was named last week’s Big Ten Freshman of the Week after dominant performances against Ball State and Central Florida.

Dickinson has grown comfortable coming off the bench, but that may change if Davis is forced to miss an extended period of time. Dickinson would likely become the team’s primary starting center candidate if Davis can’t suit up for the Wolverines’ Big Ten opener against Penn State on Sunday.

So far, all signs show he’s up for the challenge. Asked about Dickinson’s success, Howard flashed a smile.

“I’ve got to keep my big fella humble and hungry, alright?” Howard said. “It’s his maturity, and it’s also his work ethic. He loves getting in the gym and he also has that basketball mind similar to Eli, where he’s a very smart player, high IQ. When you have that passion for the game and you love the game of basketball, it’s just going to breed success.

“I see game after game, the improvement he’s making. Hopefully, in time, if he wants to make this a career, and I’m speaking of playing basketball at the next level, he’s giving himself a true shot at it.”

If anyone can say that for sure, it’s Howard — the one who’s been exactly where Dickinson wants to go.