UM's ‘silent assassin’ Abdur-Rahkman lets game do talking

James Hawkins
The Detroit News
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Do More. Say Less.

It’s a message Michigan wore on its warmups during the Big Ten tournament in New York two weeks ago.

Michigan senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman is averaging career highs in points per game (12.6), rebounds (3.9), assists (3.3), 3-point shooting (40 percent) and minutes (34.8).

But it’s been a state of mind for senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, a soft-spoken leader who quietly has evolved into an unassuming star for the Wolverines.

“It makes me so happy to play with him right now because he’s like this silent assassin,” junior center Moritz Wagner said. “When you need a bucket, you get it into his hands and he’s going to figure it out. When you play together for the amount of time we’ve been playing together, you have a really good relationship on the court. You don’t really have to talk about it; it’s just there.

“It makes me very proud to be part of this group, and to play with him, the way he’s been playing and the way he’s developed in the last couple years.”

When Abdur-Rahkman arrived at Michigan, he lurked in the shadows behind teammates like Caris LeVert, Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin as the glue guy and role player whose impact often went overlooked.

Make an extra pass. Get a key stop. Force a turnover. Collapse the lane and create open shots for others. Doing all the little things that are underappreciated essentially became Abdur-Rahkman’s calling card, even though it wasn’t glamorous and wouldn’t show up in the stat sheet.

Through it all — from the injuries that forced him into the starting lineup as a freshman to back-to-back Big Ten tournament titles — Abdur-Rahkman has been a steady presence and a key piece to Michigan’s success. He has played at least 35 minutes in 22 games this season and has started all but one game since last season — due to a clerical error by former assistant coach Jeff Meyer.


Abdur-Rahkman is a prime example of a player who continued to develop each season and maintained an upward trajectory, transforming from a freshman who dished out 27 assists in 550 minutes to a senior who leads the nation with a 5.04 assist turnover ratio (116-23). But above all, he’s the consummate teammate who is willing to do whatever is necessary for the team to win.

“He’s always been that kind of kid who tried to fit in and tried to do the right thing, make the right type of plays,” said Dawud Abdur-Rahkman, Muhammad-Ali’s father who coached him in AAU in the summer from age 12 until his senior year at Allentown Central Catholic High in Pennsylvania.

“He was not necessarily looking for all the glory or trying to be the highest scorer. He’s never been that way.”

Michigan’s Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman is shown with his dad Dawud Abdur-Rahkman when he was with the 10-and-under D.C. Assault. “He’s always been that kind of kid who tried to fit in and tried to do the right thing, make the right type of plays,” his dad said.

When Abdur-Rahkman played on the 10-and-under D.C. Assault team, a Washington-based AAU program, he strived to make everyone around him a better player and always tried to make sure everybody else was involved.

But when D.C. Assault reached the national championship game and his teammates were being shut down in the final three minutes, Abdur-Rahkman was pressed to take over on offense. He got the ball every time down the floor and either knifed his way to the rim or drew a foul and sank the free throws to help lead his team to victory.

Fast forward to his high school days where even as the top player at Central Catholic, Abdur-Rahkman never craved recognition or the spotlight. Instead, he sacrificed his individual stats and accolades and led by his actions, not his words.

“Early in his junior year we were 4-2 and we had just lost a game to our against crosstown rival Allen High School,” said Central Catholic coach Dennis Csensits, who coached Abdur-Rahkman for four years. “It was a tight game and down the stretch we played pretty selfishly. He was so upset after that game and probably more demonstrative than I’d ever seen him. We had a sit down as a team after that game and it was obvious to me that all he cared about was winning.

“I think that set the tone for the whole era of his career and our success here.”

After that game, Central Catholic went on a tear and lost just three games — that season and next. It finished 24-4 and 29-1 in Abdur-Rahkman’s final two years.

“Since we’ve had him, I’ve told every team since that everybody on this team has got to sacrifice something in order for us to be successful,” Csensits said. “He was a great example of that.”

But Abdur-Rahkman’s selflessness didn’t attract many big-time programs. He was being recruited by every mid-major in the nation, from Richmond and Drexel to VCU and Robert Morris, until Michigan — who was dealing with the early departures of Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III — swooped in and offered him after his senior season.

“We forget about that guy who made the little brush screen,” said Dawud Abdur-Rahkman, who is a basketball coach at Lehigh Carbon Community College in Pennsylvania. “We forget about that guy who is getting the 50-50 balls. We forget about the guy who always makes the quick reversal pass every time he’s able to look a guy off and make the quick pass and gives the shooter just that second to be open to make a shot.”


Abdur-Rahkman has been far from forgotten this season. As the youngest of three children, he knows what it’s like to wait his turn in line. He’s matured and become more assertive, more aggressive and more driven by need to provide for the team. It’s led to him averaging career highs in points per game (12.6), rebounds (3.9), assists (3.3), 3-point shooting (40 percent) and minutes (34.8).

While Michigan coach John Beilein has said on numerous occasions he wishes Abdur-Rahkman was more vocal, Beilein also admitted it took time for him and the coaching staff to realize he was evolving into more than just a solid role player.

Michigan guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman has come up big in clutch situations for the Wolverines, including here celebrating his layup to take the lead in overtime last month against Minnesota.

Throughout the season, Abdur-Rahkman has stepped up and delivered in several clutch moments as the closer, knocking down the winning free throws with 1.2 seconds remaining against Maryland and a tiebreaking and-1 layup with 3.8 seconds left in overtime against Minnesota.

Most recently in the Big Ten tournament, he helped seal the win over Michigan State in the semifinals with a 3-pointer that bounced off the back of the rim and in, and scored six of Michigan’s final seven points to help stave off Purdue in the final.

“He has just answered the bell on so many big shots, so many big stops that you don’t understand. So many big foul shots, none bigger than that Maryland game here,” Beilein said. “He’s everything we’ve asked for. I told him, ‘Muhammad, you’re playing as good as guard that’s played here. Just keep doing what you’re doing.’”

When Abdur-Rahkman was told the flattering remark by Beilein, he was appreciative before responding in the same breath that both he and the team can still get better.

Several Big Ten coaches have raved about his ability as a defensive stopper. Iowa coach Fran McCaffery even went as far as to call him a “star” and one of the best players in the conference that “nobody talks about.”

But Abdur-Rahkman isn’t looking for praise. He never was and never has. Rather, he’s humble yet hungry for one thing — team success.

“I’ve always envisioned winning a championship,” Abdur-Rahkman said after Michigan beat Purdue in the conference tournament. “I didn’t know it’d be back-to-back Big Ten tournament championships, but it’s a great feeling.

“That’s how people remember you — when you win championships and hang banners.”

That goes without being said.


Tip-off: 9:50 p.m. Thursday, INTRUST Bank Arena, Wichita, Kansas

TV/radio: TBS/950

Records: No. 3 seed Michigan 28-7; No. 14 seed Montana is 26-7

Next up: Winner faces winner between No. 6 Houston and No. 11 San Diego State on Saturday.

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