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Michigan Basketball: Investigating the Wolverines’ wing situation for 2022-23

Juwan Howard, Michigan

ANN ARBOR, MI - JANUARY 25: Michigan Wolverines head coach Juwan Howard watches the action on the court during a regular season Big Ten Conference game between the Illinois Fighting Illini (21) and the Michigan Wolverines on January 25, 2020, at Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire)

Michigan basketball brings back a star big man and added an experienced mid-major transfer point guard. For the Wolverines to reach their potential, they need strong contributions from their wings.

With several players graduating or heading to the NBA, a major talent overhaul struck the Big Ten this offseason. As a result, the league’s top feels very unpredictable for 2022-23. Michigan is among the potential contenders because Hunter Dickinson is one of only three returning All-Big Ten players from last season. The Wolverines also added former Princeton point guard Jaelin Llewellyn via the transfer portal. That duo gives Michigan a strong pairing at the 1 and 5 spots.

Much like a season ago, a major determining factor in Ann Arbor will be whether Michigan has enough talent on the wing. Caleb Houstan was solid last season, averaging 10.1 points per game, but he was the lone wing scorer. He has since departed for the NBA, leaving the Wolverines in need of wings. Head coach Juwan Howard brought in a trio of newcomers to fill that need.

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Jett Howard, Joey Baker and Youssef Khayat are fresh faces, but those three aren’t the only potential heirs to wing minutes. The Wolverines also bring back former four-stars Kobe Bufkin and Isaiah Barnes. Either or both could emerge in their sophomore seasons. Given Dickinson’s star power and Llewellyn’s experience at lead guard, Michigan has a strong baseline for 2022-23. Rising junior Terrance Williams is also proven, but most of his minutes will likely come at the 4 this year due to roster construction.

The Wolverines should know what they are getting out of Dickinson, Llewellyn and Williams, so the task of raising Michigan’s ceiling falls on its five core wing options. Let’s take a deeper look at each one.

Kobe Bufkin is poised for a breakout at the 2

Michigan’s activity in the transfer portal this offseason was interesting. The Wolverines, on paper, had a clear need at both backcourt positions. Yet, Princeton transfer Jaelin Llewellyn is the only guard addition thus far, and there has not been much activity with other guards. If that lack of interest in other backcourt transfers is any indication, Juwan Howard might feel he already has an incumbent starter on the roster.

Kobe Bufkin came in as a four-star, top-50 freshman last season but never truly became a star alongside Houstan on the perimeter. Bufkin appeared in 28 contests off the bench, averaging 3.0 points in just 10.6 minutes per game. His lack of efficiency, even in limited playing time, was noticeable; he shot just 38.0 percent from the field and 22.2 percent from 3-point range.

Yet, Michigan’s current roster construction indicates significant confidence in Bufkin taking a step in Year 2. The Wolverines appear likely to either start Bufkin at shooting guard or use him as one of the first players off the bench. Either way, his development will play a major role in determining Michigan’s level of success. Bufkin would be far from the first highly-touted recruit to struggle as a freshman before blossoming as a sophomore.

Returning star Hunter Dickinson was optimistic about Bufkin in an interview with 247Sports’ The Michigan Insider:

“One guy that I think everybody on the team and the coaching staff is definitely expecting to make a big leap is Kobe. Obviously, you can see the potential that he has, the skill set, everything like that. He’s got it all. I think it’s just a matter of him putting it together. I think [with] another year in the Big Ten, I think you’ll see him get a lot more comfortable in his own game…I’m expecting a big sophomore campaign for him.”

Considering the other pieces on this roster, Bufkin may be the most important 3.0-points-per-game player in the country going into 2022-23.

Isaiah Barnes can add much-needed depth

Bufkin is just part of Michigan’s underrated returning sophomore class. He gets the most attention as a potential breakout star, but Isaiah Barnes is also returning to Ann Arbor. Barnes played just six minutes last season, but he was the No. 119 overall prospect in the 2021 class. The 6-7 swingman will likely be tasked with playing a reserve role this season. Michigan greatly lacked wing depth last season, so Barnes becoming a solid piece would help in that regard.

Can Jett Howard be a true wing star?

Michigan was solid last season, finishing 19-15 and reaching the NCAA Tournament. With that said, the Wolverines took a step back compared to the previous two seasons. Perhaps the biggest difference was the lack of a true star on the wing. Franz Wagner and Isaiah Livers left huge holes after 2020-21, and Houstan could not fill those shoes alone; he lacked a co-star on the perimeter. An underclassman duo will hopefully provide more balance this time.

Bufkin can hopefully be one half of the solution, while the other is incoming four-star Jett Howard. The coach’s son is fresh off reaching the GEICO Nationals semifinals as part of a loaded IMG Academy roster. Howard also performed well at showcase events. Most notably, he was named the Co-MVP of the Iverson Classic after a 20-point performance on 9-for-12 shooting. Howard is a shifty self-creator with a nice stepback that extends to 3-point range; he is a much different scorer than Houstan.

Howard feels like the perfect fit for Michigan, and not just because of his genetics. Given the uncertainty at both wing spots, he has the versatility to command the ball as a playmaker or function as an off-ball spacer. Most importantly, Howard brings excellent positional size (6-7) and the ability to create offense, which helps offset Houstan’s departure. Houstan was a solid shooter (35.5 percent) but mainly in catch-and-shoot situations. Howard likely will not be as accurate, but he is more dynamic off the bounce.

The Wolverines ranked just 164th nationally in 3-point percentage last season, one year removed from finishing 13th in the country. Notably, Michigan assisted on over 85 percent of its made 3-pointers. Howard’s ability to provide self-created perimeter scoring around Dickinson would be massive. Off the court, he is set to act as Carmelo Anthony in LeBron James’ upcoming biopic; on the court, if Howard can be half the player ‘Melo was in college, then Ann Arbor will be buzzing.

Joey Baker provides experience, floor-spacing

Even if Howard immediately lights it up, he alone cannot provide adequate spacing. Thankfully, Coach Howard landed some additional shooting via the transfer portal. Duke transfer Joey Baker never reached his full potential in Durham, making only four starts in 89 appearances, but he is highly regarded as a floor-spacer. Baker has shot 37.9 percent on 3-pointers over his career and is coming off his best season (40.5 percent on 74 attempts).

In a new situation, Baker appears primed to play the biggest role of his college career. Baker posted a career-high for minutes per game (12.1) as a sophomore with the Blue Devils — but he might double that this year. Michigan has a massive need for experience and 3-point shooting; Baker brings both, and his solid, 6-6 frame is also a plus.

Juwan Howard is entering his fourth season as Michigan’s coach. Over that sample size, Michigan’s game-to-game 3-point percentage has correlated strongly with wins and losses:

Michigan is not the only team impacted by the correlation between 3-point percentages and results. Yet, the Wolverines are perhaps more affected by it than others. Michigan has generally fared better offensively than defensively under Howard’s leadership. The Wolverines need to shoot well around Dickinson to maintain efficient offense. As shown above, Howard’s teams have gone 38-5 when shooting 35 percent or better from beyond the arc. They are just 23-27 when falling short of that threshold.

Baker will play a bigger-than-ever role in Ann Arbor, and his contributions could be pivotal to success. Michigan’s returning roster currently lacks quality shooting — in fact, Dickinson is the team leader in 3-point makes among returners. Bufkin, Howard and Baker will need to emerge as strong perimeter threats.

Where does Youssef Khayat fit?

Michigan made a late splash by landing Lebanese forward Youssef Khayat. The incoming freshman first announced his intention to play in Ann Arbor in late June, and he could be a real difference-maker with outstanding positional versatility. He brings outstanding height for a combo forward; the Lebanon National Team listed him at 6-8.5 without shoes.

Having already played professionally overseas, Khayat brings a different level of experience than most freshmen. He knows what it is like to compete against older, more physically mature players, which should aid in the transition to playing in the Big Ten. He needs to add some weight but has excellent guard skills for his height.

Even as Lebanon’s youngest player at the FIBA World Cup Asian Qualifiers, he made an impact. Khayat posted 6.7 points and 2.0 rebounds in 11.8 minutes per game at the event. He shot 61.5 percent from the field overall, including 4-for-8 from three, as Lebanon won five of its six games.

Michigan has had success with international players, most recently with Franz Wagner, and now Khayat might be next in line. He boasts excellent positional versatility thanks to his athleticism, size and length. If both Bufkin and Howard play up to their potential, Khayat will compete mainly with Williams for minutes at the 4. If one of those guards struggles, though, Khayat could slide down and play the 3.

Either way, odds appear likely that Khayat will fill a considerable role in his first season.

Assessing Michigan’s status for 2022-23

Michigan has finished in the KenPom top 30 in its three seasons under Juwan Howard. With Dickinson returning for 2022-23, hopes are high that the streak will continue. The Wolverines bring in a solid quartet of reinforcements that includes at least two potential starters. Michigan, with its trio of experienced starters in Dickinson, Llewellyn, and Williams, likely has a higher floor than the rest of the Big Ten.

However, determining the Wolverines’ ceiling will come down to its inexperienced wings. Kobe Bufkin and Jett Howard are the two presumed favorites to start on the perimeter, but neither has ever started a collegiate game. The same goes for Youssef Khayat. Incoming transfer Joey Baker is the most experienced of the group, but he only made four starts over four years with Duke.

These wings will immediately need to blossom into scorers, particularly from the perimeter, to support Dickinson’s interior dominance. If they can provide that scoring, though, Michigan could quickly emerge as one of the top contenders in a Big Ten without a clear favorite.

Asking Michigan to replicate its success of 2020-21 — when it finished No. 3 on KenPom — is setting an absurdly high bar, but there are some personnel similarities. That group featured a star freshman (Dickinson), a breakout sophomore (Franz Wagner), a proven senior stud (Isaiah Livers) and a mid-major transfer point guard (Mike Smith). Howard, Bufkin, Dickinson and Llewellyn will all try to fill those same roles. The question is, can they make lightning strike twice?

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