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Which sophomore will take the next step for the Michigan hoops?

A trio of versatile options comprises Michigan’s second-year returners.

NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Michigan Lon Horwedel-USA TODAY Sports

The 2021 Michigan Wolverines’ men’s basketball team features a quartet of sophomores all of whom played as freshman in 2020: Hunter Dickinson, Terrance Williams, Zeb Jackson and Jace Howard,

Dickinson was an All-American, while the other three appeared in varying degrees of limited action throughout the season. Now entering 2021, which one of these three will take the next step and become a valuable contributor?

Let’s examine the options.

Jace Howard (2020: 11 game appearances, 1.1 points, 0.4 rebounds-per-game)

The longshot of the three candidates, Jace Howard has a long road to seeing consistent playing time in 2021. However, Howard has made strides this offseason to improve his chances of providing a meaningful contribution to a potentially elite team.

Firstly, Howard added 15 pounds of muscle in the offseason. Last season, Howard looked like a kid playing against his older brother and friends any time he was on the court. This added size will allow Howard to play more physically and not be bullied off his spots.

Furthermore, at 6-foot-7, Howard has ideal size in the world of position-less basketball. Offensively, he can operate from the perimeter and use his ball-handling and size to finish on the inside. Defensively, he can guard at least three positions and contribute in ways that do not always show up on a stat sheet.

Howard is the dark horse of the three, but if he breaks through, it will be because of his energy and ability on the defensive end of the court.

Zeb Jackson (2020: 16 game appearances: 1.0 points, 0.7 rebounds, 0.4 assists-per-game)

Expectations were high for Zeb Jackson entering his freshman season, but with the addition of veteran transfers Chaundee Brown and Mike Smith, Jackson trickled down the depth chart.

With scattered playing time and an inconsistent jumper, Jackson struggled in the times he saw the court. A flash of potential came from Jackson in the NCAA Tournament’s opening game for Michigan against Texas Southern. Jackson knocked down 2-of-4 three’s (his first collegiate makes from beyond the arc) and added two rebounds.

In the offseason, similar to Jace Howard, Jackson added 10 pounds of muscle to help keep up with the physicality of the college game. The added weight should allow him to be more aggressive and increase his finishing ability inside the paint.

Despite a crowded backcourt, Jackson’s ball-handling, three-point capabilities and high IQ could get him on the court while the talented freshman adapt to the next level.

Terrance Williams (2020: 21 game appearances, 1.9 points, 2.2 rebounds, 0.4 assists-per-game)

This is my choice; Terrance Williams flashed in multiple games last season because of one attribute: effort.

Williams was a spark plug off the bench, utilizing his defensive intensity and positional versatility to make an impact in any way he could. Unlike Howard and Jackson, Williams spent the offseason shedding 10 pounds to make him quicker and more agile on the court.

My colleague Kellen Voss did an excellent breakdown of Williams here and explains why an improved jumper and deceptive frontcourt passing abilities could see him take a massive leap in production.

Williams can play three different positions offensively for the Wolverines and guard four positions. If his jump shot can become respectable, he could be a sixth man of the year contender in the Big Ten.