Feb. 1, 2015
By Steve Kornacki
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- It was just one play, and only two points. But it told you so much about what Michigan freshman guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman brings to the lineup.
Abdur-Rahkman had Branden Dawson guarding him on the perimeter and covered up well to avoid getting picked by Michigan State's athletic, 6-foot-6 forward. Dawson then retreated toward the basket, daring Abdur-Rahkman to come closer.
The "Rock," as he's known among Wolverines teammates and coaches, took Dawson up on the offer. He's 6-foot-4 and not nearly as strong as MSU's best player. But he drove to a spot about eight feet from the basket, pulled up and faded back to create separation. The he popped a shot that swirled and fell in. There was a hush over the sellout crowd at the Breslin Center.
Spartan head coach Tom Izzo switched Dawson onto him, and "Rock" didn't back down.
"I always love a challenge," said Abdur-Rahkman. "He's a great player, and you want to be your best playing against a great player. So, I just went right at him."
With starting guard Derrick Walton Jr. out for the "foreseeable future" with a turf toe, the Wolverines have leaned on the "Rock," and he's come up like Gibraltar. He scored in double figures for the first time and matched guard Spike Albrecht with a team-high 18 points in Sunday's 76-66 overtime loss.
"Abdur-Rahkman killed us and did a hell of a job," said Izzo.
This was easily his best game, but Abudur-Rahkman has been coming on strong. He had nine points against Wisconsin, Nebraska and Northwestern. And in the last five games, he's averaging 9.8 points and shooting a sharp .568 from the field (.444 on nine three-pointers).
There's an ease to his game that tells you two things: The speed of the game is no factor, and the sky's the limit.
I asked Michigan head coach John Beilein what enables the "Rock" to roll so well into the flow of the game.
"He has a natural gift of speed," Beilein said. "And now his mind has to continue to work quicker than his body so he can really utilize all that great, God-given talent."
Beilein didn't sign the four-time all-state pick out of Allentown (Pa.) Central Catholic until April, and the only game until Jan. 13 that he exceeded six minutes in was a rout of Nicholls State. But now the bird-dogging tip from a long-time acquaintance is paying big dividends.
"It was a call from an old coaching friend of mine from 30-some years ago," said Beilein. "His name's Dave Rooney. He was the coach at Buffalo State when I was at Erie Community College. He went onto coach Slippery Rock, and he follows that Allentown area of basketball. And he told me Muhammad was still available when he found out Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson (III) were going pro.
"We jumped on it. We watched a lot of film, and he's growing. He's getting better every day. I like what I see and love the kid. (He's a) really good kid."
Beilein said he never saw "Rock" play live but was sold on him after dissecting video and having him visit.
"It was a blessing to end up here," said Abdur-Rahkman. "Dave Rooney referenced me to Coach B, and they watched film of me, made a couple of calls, I made a visit, and the rest is history. My second choice was something closer to home like Boston College, Pitt or Penn State."
His father, Dawud, is an assistant coach at Muhlenberg College in Allentown and also coached at his alma mater, Howard University. Beilein loves coaches' sons. He signed freshman wing Aubrey Dawkins, son of Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins, in May. Walton's father coached him in high school.
"I have a better understanding of the game because of my dad," Abdur-Rahkman said. "The inner workings of the game and how the flow of the game feels are part of what I learned from him -- and poise and confidence, too. You always look more confident when your dad was a coach. And it's really important to be poised because if you're a guard you are going to have the ball in your hand."
"Rock" is confident with "THE ROCK" in his hands. That's the name of the ball produced by Anaconda Sports that Michigan uses, and it's also street vernacular for basketballs in general.
His development has been a godsend, really, with Walton having missed two games and no timetable for a return.
"We don't anticipate him being back for a while," said Beilein. "It will be some time. It won't be in the foreseeable future."
When Walton comes back, and he returns to a backcourt with "Rock" and a rejuvenated Albrecht, who also had been slowed by injuries, the Wolverines will have a very special guard rotation.
"I love the way our team is growing right now," Beilein said. "Our kids are hunkered in and going after it."
Michigan overcame Abdur-Rahkman sitting out the final 10:31 of the first half after picking up his second foul. It was ahead 15-8 with him and down 21-9 without him in the first half. Then the Wolverines overcame a five-point deficit in the final 42 seconds of regulation time with Albrecht calmly draining a three-pointer, and Max Bielfeldt getting his second tip-in to drop.
The Wolverines couldn't score in overtime and weren't pleased with the defeat. But they took their arch rivals to overtime without leading scorer Caris LeVert (out for the season) and Walton. That's a combined 25.6 points per game that needs to be replaced, and new starting wing Dawkins and "Rock" combined for 25 against MSU.
"It was a stepping stone for us becoming a better team," said Abdur-Rahkman. "It's always a great opportunity to play in a hostile environment like this."
"Rock" made 8-of-14 shots and added three rebounds with one assist and only one turnover. He played like a senior and produced plenty of things -- not the least of which is hope.