June 24, 2014
By Chad Shepard
Head coach John Beilein has had three players drafted into the NBA since arriving in Ann Arbor. He hopes to double that number on Thursday with a trio of entries: Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary. The group has been an integral part of Michigan's 59 wins over the past two seasons, which mark a program high over any two-year span in school history. After former Wolverines Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. were first-round selections last year, the possibility exists that all five starters from Michigan's 2013 national championship game will be first-round draft picks.
In this year's class of pro-hopeful Wolverines, Beilein sees three players with the potential to make a substantial impact on NBA rosters. In an ever-developing league, more and more elements of potent college offenses like Beilein's can be found across the NBA.
"It's not necessarily by design," said Beilein of the systematic similarities, "it's almost by coincidence."
Intentional or not, Beilein acknowledges, "We do see tremendous similarities between our game and the professional game."
The parallels between the style of play he and his staff have established in Ann Arbor and the directional trend of NBA offenses creates an exciting opportunity for U-M players. They are able to grow comfortable within a system that features many of the same elements they will continue to see at the next level.
"Much of what we run offensively and defensively will have them ready to handle the different schemes they may see when they go to NBA camps," said Beilein.
It is not just the X's and O's drawn up by the coaching staff that prepares Michigan players so well for the NBA. Beilein also credits the hostile environments of the Big Ten Conference with sharpening his players mentally (the Big Ten produced four first-round picks last season alone). U-M players battled through a physical league schedule and came out on top more often than not, tallying a 27-9 record in Big Ten play during the trio's time in Ann Arbor.
"We play in front of sellout arenas virtually every night," he said, "and as a result they're used to high-profile, win-or-go-home type games. The Big Ten does a great job of preparing them."
After a bid for back-to-back Big Ten Titles fell just short at the end of the 2013 season, Beilein and his team claimed the conference crown outright this year with three games in hand, the largest margin atop the league in five years.
The way his team, specifically its returning players, approached that closing stretch to the season told Beilein just how valuable a rigorous regular-season slate was.
"If you saw us play for an outright Big Ten championship at Illinois, you realize that these young men embrace the opportunities presented to them by this conference," he said.
The value of lessons learned from the Big Ten regular season has not been lost on the U-M coach, but when addressing the characteristics that separate this group from their peers in the 2014 draft class, he was quick to point to big-stage postseason experience.
"Anyone that has ever played in the Final Four and had any success is well equipped to take on any challenge at any level afterward," said Beilein, "These guys played in front of 70,000 people in a high-level game. It doesn't get much bigger."
Speaking of getting bigger, Beilein also stressed the importance for all three players to continue to put in work in the weight room, where they spent so much time in Ann Arbor reshaping their bodies with head strength coach Jon Sanderson.
Stauskas, who Beilein called "a tremendous worker," garnered a great deal of media attention for his offseason commitment to "Camp Sanderson."
"He gained a lot of natural strength," said Beilein, "but he also worked very hard at it."
Stauskas made strides in several key areas outside the weight room as well, notably with his ball-handling. He has grown much more comfortable running the fast break and handling the ball as the shot clock winds down, notes Beilein.
"We think he can evolve into a primary ball-handler in the NBA in some situations," he said.
Still, Beilein recognizes it will always be Stauskas' shooting that truly sets the table for the rest of his game and elevates his value on the floor. After all, he ranks top 10 all-time at U-M in three-point attempts (10th; 390), three-pointers made (eighth; 172) and three-point percentage (fifth; 44.10), and it was his trademark three-goggles that first endeared him to fans in Ann Arbor.
This season, the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year averaged 17.5 points per contest, shooting 47 percent from the field, including a red-hot 44.2 percent beyond the arc, numbers that would excite any NBA club.
"If you watched the NBA Finals, you saw the importance of shooting," said Beilein, "It opened up the floor for everybody. There's not a better time to be a shooter going into the NBA."
Despite established success as a shooter, Stauskas' appeal to NBA teams is aided by his versatility, something he shares with Robinson. Beilein mentions Robinson's willing defensive mindset and proven adaptability on that end of the court as big selling points for clubs at the next level.
"He has guarded guys that are 6-9, 6-10, 240 pounds and probably outplayed them," said Beilein, who notes that Robinson "(has) also shown the ability to guard a point guard. As a result, when he gets posted up by big small forwards who have that 6-9, 250-pound size, it will not be new to him."
Beilein sees Robinson playing "anywhere between the two and three" in the NBA, and says his much-praised athleticism is still untapped.
"He is absolutely as athletic -- if not the most athletic -- as any guy I've ever coached," said Beilein, "He's still growing as a player in many, many ways."
One area where Robinson has shown steady improvement is in creating his own shots. He has also shown a penchant for big performances in big moments -- like his game-winner from the baseline at Purdue last season.
"Glenn's in-between game continued to develop (this season). He was in ball screens for the first time," said Beilein, "He does shoot the ball very well and what we saw in the NCAA Tournament is a better barometer for what type of shooter he is."
In the tournament, Robinson drained 22-of-46 shots from the field, good for a blistering 47.8-percent clip. But it wasn't just during the NCAA postseason that Robinson heated up; he went a whole month at the end of the regular season in which he sank at least five field goals in each contest and finished the season hitting that mark in 11 of 13 games.
Robinson, who says he models his game after the Indiana Pacers' Paul George and recent NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard of the San Antonio Spurs, takes pride in his defense as well. Beilein believes Robinson can "definitely" become an impactful two-way player at the next level, especially if he taps into what Beilein calls his 'fifth gear.'
"When we see what I call the 'fifth gear' from Glenn, there's not a better player in the country," said Beilein, "We sense he's showing that right now."
A multi-talented frontcourt presence, McGary is known for always having his gear shift in overdrive. Beilein knows he is chomping at the bit to get back out on the court in full form and let his game speak for itself.
"When he gets out on that court again, he's going to attack it with everything he has," said Beilein, "For a while he'll have to calm down and just play."
It may need to be harnessed, but the energy McGary plays with is an inherent part of his game and an asset many NBA teams are looking for says his former coach.
"No team will be disappointed with what he brings to practice every day, to the warm-ups and to the game," said Beilein, "There aren't many guys with a better engine and motor than Mitch McGary."
Schematically, McGary can be a matchup nightmare. He has the ability to guard bigger players underneath the basket with physical play while still possessing the athleticism to get out in the open floor and create offense in transition, a skill he showcased during Michigan's 2013 run to the national championship. Beilein praised McGary's decision-making abilities down the stretch, giving him increased responsibility as he proved his worth in the transition game.
"We gave him the right to run the fast break as long as he made good decisions," he said, "and that is very difficult to defend."
McGary stuffs the stat sheet, contributing in any way he can on both ends of the court. The dynamic big man averaged 7.8 points and 6.6 rebounds per contest while knocking down 58.8 percent of his field goals during his time in Ann Arbor. He also added 57 career steals -- averaging 1.2 takeaways every time he took the floor.
Beilein believes his excellent vision and growing feel for the game will make him an attractive option for teams that need help in the frontcourt.
"He's got a knack for seeing the game one step ahead of everyone," said Beilein, "Where he may be outsized, he turns that around and uses it to his advantage. When he's guarding smaller guys, he's got the feet to stay in front of them."
"He's a really good player on the move," added Beilein, "in the pick-and-roll and in pick-and-run situations -- even some pick-and-pop situations."
Boasting versatility and promise at both ends of the court, this year's U-M draft class features three players who would make a welcome addition to nearly any NBA roster. Wherever they end up, Beilein is confident this year's crop of Wolverines will impress pro-level executives with their character and intangibles of just as much as their on-court abilities.
"We hope that really jumps off the page to NBA scouts," said Beilein, "Each one of these players will be a great reflection of both the program and the University of Michigan."
The NBA Draft begins at 7 p.m. EDT on Thursday, June 26.