At next month’s 2021 NBA Draft, five former Michigan Wolverines hope to hear their names called. Michigan was known for producing top NBA talent under former coach John Beilein — something second-year coach Juwan Howard will undoubtedly look to continue.
Headlined by projected lottery pick Franz Wagner, the Wolverines’ five-man group of 2021 NBA Draft entrants ranges in age from freshmen to fifth-year college players. Maize n Brew caught up with a Western Conference NBA scout to profile each player’s draft outlook and professional upside.
After a dominant sophomore season in Ann Arbor, Franz Wagner will look to become the second Wagner brother drafted in the first round since 2018. He averaged 12.5 points on 48% shooting and 6.5 rebounds this past season, helping Michigan secure an outright Big Ten title and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Offensively, Wagner was a three-level scorer and much-improved facilitator. He tripled his freshman year assists average, aided by his ability to play the role of ball-screen guard. At the other end of the floor, his length and athleticism allowed him to disrupt opposing offenses by way of steals, blocks and deflections. By the end of the season, he established himself as one of the conference’s best two-way players.
After growing up in Germany, Wagner’s game developed rapidly in college. That’s something NBA evaluators hope to see at the next level.
“In two years at Michigan, he got a lot better in year two,” the scout told Maize n Brew. “Way more competitive, got to see him impact the game defensively. I think he’s a smart player, and I think he’s got a high ceiling, too. There’s still a lot of potential, and at 6-9 he moves really well. I think the jump shot will keep getting better and better, getting more consistent. That’s probably a big piece for him to stay in the league.
“He’s got a lot of tools athletically and skill-wise and I like his ability to defend multiple positions. He’s versatile and I think he’s going to be a player who can do a lot of things with and without the ball as he gets older.”
Hunter Dickinson, the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year, declared for the draft just four days before the entry deadline. He led the Wolverines in scoring this past year, averaging 14.1 points on 60% shooting and 7.4 rebounds.
The 7-foot-1 newcomer tied former National Player of the Year Trey Burke’s Michigan record for most Big Ten Freshman of the Week selections during the regular season, but by the postseason, defenses began double-teaming him in the post and forcing him to his non-dominant right hand.
Dickinson signed with an NCAA-certified agent for the draft process, allowing him to retain his eligibility if he chooses to return to Ann Arbor. The NBA scout Maize n Brew spoke with believes that’s going to be the result this offseason.
“It’s good he’s getting feedback. That’s important for him because he’s on (NBA) radars,” the scout said. “He had a great freshman year. I was really impressed with him. He’s going to have to develop more skill, especially with his right hand. He’s got to develop counters and understand the defense is going to play him a certain way. He’s got to show more. He’s a good athlete, but I don’t want to call him elite. To be a ‘5’ in the league, you’ve got to be free — not only athletic, but skilled, and you’ve got to be able to move on the perimeter laterally. … The great thing is he’s playing for Juwan Howard, who’s a great teacher of bigs.”
In addition to developing right-handed counter moves on the block, there’s another major area where Dickinson can shine as a sophomore if he returns to school.
“I think where Hunter can really separate himself is shooting the ball,” the scout said. “He’s got to be able to shoot it. He’s getting there, and I’m excited about what he can be next year or even in two years. There’s a high ceiling with him. He’s got potential, but he’s got to come back for another year. There’s no reason for him to rush the process right now.”
Together, developing more post moves and adding a jump shot could boost Dickinson’s stock ahead of the 2022 NBA Draft.
One of the main bridge pieces between the Beilein and Howard eras, Livers leaves Ann Arbor after a trip to the national title game, Sweet 16 and Elite Eight. But throughout his career, he battled major injuries that often kept him off the floor. Most recently, he missed the entire 2021 NCAA Tournament due to a foot stress injury. He underwent surgery following the season and isn’t expected to return to the court until October.
When healthy, however, Livers was among the Big Ten’s deadliest shooters. He shot better than 40% from beyond the arc in each of his last three seasons and made 86% of his career free throw attempts. That alone is enough to pique NBA teams’ interest.
“If he can be a catch-and-shoot player and make perimeter shots and stretch the floor, he’s got a chance,” the scout said. “He’s in this conversation as a player who might not be overly explosive, but he’s a smart player and he’s gotten tougher. Not that he wasn’t a tough player under Beilein, but Juwan Howard really challenged him. You kind of saw that quite a bit even just watching the game. I do like that part of him. Defensively, he can do some things. He might struggle a bit laterally, but there are some things he does. He’s got good size, he’s strong, he’s physical.”
Without elite athleticism, though, Livers’ upside remains limited. But that doesn’t mean he won’t have an opportunity to establish himself at the next level.
“If he does make it, I think he’ll become a rotational backup player,” the scout said. “He’s got some things to prove, but I do think his ability to shoot the ball — he was more efficient this year — is in his favor right now. Shooting is at a premium in our league, and he does that. Even if it is catch and shoot playing off guards, there’s a place for that in the league. He’s got to do that consistently, he’s got to show he can stay on the floor and be trusted defensively not to be a liability.”
After a middling first three years at Wake Forest, Chaundee Brown emerged as a major spark off the bench for Michigan this past season. That was on display during the NCAA Tournament, when Brown knocked down seven of his 12 shots from beyond the arc and contributed suffocating on-ball defense.
If Brown shows he can do that at the next level, that’ll be enough to carve out a professional role in some capacity.
“He’s your prototypical 3-and-D player,” the scout said. “Chaundee is really an interesting type of player because he’s a defensive-minded guy. Good build, good body, he’s strong, he’s athletic. I think that bodes well for him. The biggest thing is showing he can do more as a shot-maker and put the ball on the floor. There’s areas of his game he needs to grow in, but he’s definitely someone that I think is very much a guy to keep on radars. Probably a G League type of guy.”
You’d be hard-pressed to find a player in the country who transformed as much as Mike Smith from 2019-20 to 2020-21. He was Division I’s sixth-leading scorer during the 2019-20 season as Columbia finished last in the Ivy League before leading the Big Ten in assists for the first-place Wolverines this past season.
Despite Smith’s productive graduate transfer year, evaluators at the next level remain skeptical of his 5-foot-11, 185-pound frame.
“I think he’s a good decision-maker, I think he’s an underrated passer and I think he brought leadership, which is most important,” the scout said. “It’s tough when you’re 5-11 as an undersized guard. He’s going to have to prove himself on some level. I don’t know if a team will give him a shot, maybe summer league could be a good opportunity for him. There’s things to like, but it’s tough when you’re at his size with what you’re asked to do at his position at the next level. That’s tough. When you’re his size, you’ve got to be an elite, elite scorer.”