It can be hard to remember after a Big Ten Championship and Elite Eight appearance, but there was a lot of uncertainty surrounding the Michigan basketball program heading into the 2020-21 season. Losing a three-year starter at point guard was a big part of that, as the Wolverines had limited options to fill the huge gap left behind by Zavier Simpson.
In came Mike Smith, a graduate transfer from Columbia who finished the 2019-20 season sixth in the nation at 22.8 PPG. Despite playing four years against Ivy League competition, Smith was decently regarded upon arriving in Ann Arbor — ESPN ranked him 17th among transfers — but he was far from a sure thing. In hindsight, that sounds like a pretty funny thing to say.
Mike Smith Stats (2019-21)
I included Smith’s final season from Columbia in the table above just to show to much Smith changed his game from one year to the next. In 2019-20 he ranked 13th in the entire nation with a 33.9 percent usage rate, meaning over a third of the Lions’ possessions ran through their point guard in one way or another. This season, his usage sat at just 18.9 percent, which is right in line with the rest of his Wolverine teammates.
A diminished usage rate does not mean his impact was limited by any means. Smith led the conference with 5.4 assists per game, including an unforgettable record-setting 15 assists against Maryland in the Big Ten Tournament, and was masterful commanding the offense all season long. Even though he ran into a little trouble against the athleticism of LSU and Florida State, Smith never looked like he did not belong at the helm of Kenpom’s No. 9 offense.
It is no easy task to go from prolific scorer and the only real threat on the Columbia roster to an entirely different role and system with Michigan, but there was really no dropoff for Smith. While his raw totals definitely took a dip, he became a more efficient player, raising his ORtg from 100.9 and 108.5 and becoming an extremely effective three-point threat.
Smith was the experienced point guard this team needed. He knew how to break the press and run any half-court set, and he was great at feeding Michigan’s bigs and finding open shooters. Having Smith on the team meant letting Zeb Jackson take a year to develop and freed up Eli Brooks for more of an off-ball role, two sizable benefits for this roster.
A true win-win
While some fans were holding out hope for one more season with Smith, it makes sense that the 23-year-old has had a long college career and is probably ready to move forward. Though the bonus Covid eligibility is a nice perk, it appears that many seniors (and graduate students) will forego the opportunity to stick around for another season.
Smith is completely justified in his departure and in just one year left a legitimate mark on the Michigan program. Without him, the Wolverines are likely not raising a banner, and his leadership will play a role even after he leaves. He was everything hoped for and more, and his ability to holistically change his game will never be overlooked.
The bar is now set high for incoming transfers, with both Smith and Chaundee Brown showing how much can be accomplished in a single year. The surrounding cast and coaching staff certainly played a part in their success as well, but these two players have formed a clear blueprint on how to plug a veteran into a brand new system.