Through nine games, it’s been up-and-down season for the Michigan Wolverines. While they are coming off a 15-point win to open up conference play against Minnesota, they are 6-3 and have fallen out of the top-25 after a blowout loss to Arizona State and close losses to Virginia and Kentucky.
In order for the Wolverines to get back into the to- 25, they need to put together a few quality wins in conference play after New Year’s Eve. We know Michigan’s best players, Hunter Dickinson and Jett Howard, will be top contributors, but Michigan will also need role players to pitch in to earn some big wins in the Big Ten.
Enter Kobe Bufkin, who has quietly turned into Michigan’s third scorer while also being the best on-ball defender. He’s looked good in a bigger role on both ends of the floor.
With Jaelin Llewellyn out for the year after tearing his ACL, Michigan assistant coach Howard Eisley said on Friday that Bufkin will be asked to play point guard when Dug McDaniel is on the bench.
“We’re very comfortable and confident in Kobe,” Eisley said. “We actually had an opportunity to see it earlier when Jaelin (Llewellyn) was out with his ankle, so this is nothing new for Kobe. He’s been through reps at the point guard position early on in the year, so this is nothing new to him.”
Let’s break down the impact Bufkin has had on both sides of the floor.
One of Michigan’s biggest issues last season was the lack of another reliable scoring option next to Dickinson and Eli Brooks. While Michigan got double-digit points from those guys most games, there were too many games where the rest of Michigan’s team didn’t show up, making the offense look stagnant and predictable.
Bufkin has scored double-digits points in five of the nine games played so far, including the last four games. He’s third in scoring this season for the Wolverines, averaging 10.2 points, 3.7 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.6 steals in 30.8 minutes per game.
While his usage rate has only seen a slight increase (18.2% to 19.7%), Bufkin’s minutes have basically tripled from his freshman year, and he has shined in most of those minutes.
The sophomore year is oftentimes when we see guards in college basketball make a massive leap in offensive production, and it’s encouraging to see Bufkin has been just as efficient on the offensive end with an increase in minutes and usage rate. He’s improved in pretty much all the advanced stats — his per-40 minutes and per-100 possessions numbers are also up, and his offensive rating is about 10 points better.
Last season in limited play, he showed flashes of his scoring potential, but never looked confident and almost seemed like he was making sure to not make a mistake to stay on the floor. This season, he looks much more comfortable in his larger role and has been Michigan’s best offensive player through certain stretches.
Bufkin has some major improvements to make in order to be an even more reliable scorer. He’s only making 23.3% of his threes, and as our Dan Plocher broke down in a recent video, his shot selection hasn’t been great and he didn’t look great when asked to run the offense against Minnesota.
That being said, Bufkin is getting to the lane, cutting well and finishing near the rim (he’s shooting 50% on two-point field goals). There will be conference games where he’ll be needed to score 15+ points and based on how we’ve seen him improve, he seems more than capable of doing that.
An incredibly smart defender
Bufkin’s biggest contribution this season has been his play on the defensive end, as he’s proven to be one of Michigan’s smartest players on that end of the floor. He leads the Wolverines with 14 steals and his defensive rating has improved by three points.
Bufkin anticipates plays well and does a great job getting in the passing lanes and being ready for steals. He also does a great job rotating when the defense is scrambling, and you can see he’s talking way more on that end of the floor this year.
His quick foot speed matches the defender, and he does a good job reaching in for steals without fouling. Just look at his defense here on this possession against Emoni Bates.
Really enjoying Kobe Bufkin on both ends. Still has some major efficiency struggles, but his defense and guard skills are so fun pic.twitter.com/2NfiM2CH4h— Bryce Hendricks (@BryceHendrick14) December 15, 2022
Once Bates puts the ball near his forehead, Bufkin swipes at it and knocks the ball away. Bates recovers and corrals the ball but at that point, he’s a few steps away from the free throw line with Bufkin up in his grill. Bufkin proceeds to pull a move from the Trey Burke school of pick-pocketing, as he knocks the ball away with his left hand as Bates tries to go left before grabbing it and taking it all the way for an easy layup.
That’s the kind of on-ball defense Bufkin has played all year, and while he’s far from perfect, he’s clearly embraced being Michigan’s go-to defender to stop top guards.
The Wolverines will need Bufkin to keep playing well defensively once they start playing more conference games in a few weeks. He’ll have lots of tough assignments defensively in games Michigan will need to be competitive in for its tournament resume. He will have to try and shut down the likes of Braden Smith, Fletcher Loyer, Xaiver Johnson, Jalen Pickett, R.J. Melendez, Chucky Hepburn, Tyson Walker and more.
Bufkin seems up to the task defensively. If he can keep up his improved play on the offensive end, he can continue to grow as the third scorer Michigan so desperately needs.