Ann Arbor — Early in the season, Michigan fans still might be adjusting to not seeing Trey Burke leading the fast break. With Burke gone to the NBA, that’s been left mostly to point guards Derrick Walton Jr. and Spike Albrecht.
And Mitch McGary.
In what might be one of the most uncanny developments this season, the 6-foot-10 big man is trying his hand at handling the ball more. Instead of grabbing a rebound and throwing an outlet pass to a point guard, McGary starts the transition game himself.
On Saturday, in a 107-53 victory over Houston Baptist, McGary unleashed the newest facet of his game, putting up a Burke-like stat line with 12 points, nine rebounds, six assists and four steals.
“Our team is at best when we’re in transition and I like to push it on the break and get our guys open looks,” said McGary, whose six assists tied a career high. “I’d like to keep doing it, as long as I don’t turn the ball over. You don’t really see guys my size doing it much, but it’s what comes naturally.”
The traditional instinct in coach John Beilein probably convulses each time McGary bypasses the point guard on the fast break. But the good thing about Beilein is that he’s learned to let his players play to their strengths — and clearly, McGary isn’t hurting the team with his handles.
“He’s gaining that trust by making some pretty simple plays — base hits. We don’t need home runs, just base hits,” Beilein said. “It’s something we talked about in the recruiting process and also during the process of seeing him in practice doing things.
“I said, ‘I’m fine with that, as long as you’re going to take care of the ball. You have to make a bunch of good plays; you don’t have to have great plays, just good plays.’ ”
Since McGary broke into the starting lineup during the NCAA Tournament run, he’s shown an array of skills, which pushed him up many NBA draft boards. But with a lower-back injury limiting him from August to November, he didn’t practice much and is just working his way back into playing condition.
“Even though the score was lopsided, I wanted to leave him out there, just to get the heart rate going. He’s establishing a trust with me on that — with the team and coaching staff,” Beilein said. “We have a saying: ‘When you make a play, would everybody on the team think that was a good play? Not just you, everybody on the team and everybody on the coaching staff.”
Michigan (6-3) has had to adjust, with others taking on the scoring load. With most of the roster assuming new roles, Beilein has rolled with the changes, giving Caris LeVert more freedom to score and handle the ball and Glenn Robinson III more looks at the basket.
Credit Beilein with not putting his players in a box. It’s fun for the fans to see — and surely helps in recruiting when multi-talented recruits can see that Beilein’s system can adjust to the player’s talents.
It's a hoot to see
For Nik Stauskas, who was the recipient of a couple of McGary’s passes in transition, it’s still an odd sight to see.
“It just makes us laugh — we see it all the time in practice and he looks goofy sometimes but he gets the job done,” said Stauskas, who had 25 points. “When he first came in last year, there were a lot of things where coach said, ‘You have to stop doing this’ and restricting him.
“He’s starting to have a little more freedom as time goes by and he shows he’s capable. He’s confident and we trust him with all that stuff.”
Beilein has turned the strategy into a strength. With McGary handling the ball, he has four shooters to find in transition. Even more, it’s a risky proposition for anyone to step in the way of a 6-10, 255-pound pseudo-point guard rumbling up the court and looking to pass.
“It can be very dangerous because I don’t think anyone wants to step in front of him,” Stauskas said. “You saw today he got (a three-point play) because he took it all the way and no one really stopped the ball. He can be pretty effective in that position.”
Even with the surprising outcomes, McGary still gets razzed about leading the fast break at his size.
“(BTN’s) Seth Davis was saying I’m like a freight train — I don’t know where that came from,” McGary joked. “I’ve always wanted to do that. In AAU, I always tried to push the ball but now I’m trying to get back in game shape where I’m able to stay on the court, grab rebounds and push the ball.”
Even through that, McGary knows it’s still a give-and-take with Beilein and building the trust that he’ll make the right decisions — and not give up easy turnovers.
“He’s still itchy about it and I have to earn that full trust from him, which I haven’t really yet — and I’m still trying to do that,” McGary said. “We build our trust in practice and we’re doing these little things in practice and if I don’t do well in practice and make turnovers, he’s going to take back the trust a little bit.”
Many pundits would like to see McGary in the post and with his back to the basket, as traditional big men do.
But McGary is anything but traditional — in his dives to the floor, his love for the game and his pure joy at making a good play, whether he scores or not.
It’s also something Beilein hasn’t seen in his 36 years of coaching, from Erie Community College to West Virginia to Michigan.
“I don’t think I’ve coached that yet. I had Kevin Pittsnogle, who we let shoot threes like crazy and I’d never had that before,” Beilein said. “We want to have versatile players and when he comes out, it’s who’s got the ball and whoever takes the ball — now there are mismatches. Having a push man like that is very difficult to defend.”
But it’s certainly fun to watch.