Wojo: The NBA blessing and curse of Beilein's Michigan program
Ann Arbor — John Beilein looked and sounded weary, as if stuck in a season that doesn’t end.
“I’d like to sleep again pretty soon,” he said, trying to smile.
This is the tedious dance that follows the Big Dance, the treacherous period for college basketball coaches who must figure out who’s leaving, who’s staying and who’s worth pursuing. Three Michigan underclassmen have declared for the NBA draft, and Charles Matthews announced he’s definitely leaving, which was expected. Two other key components of a 30-7 team — Ignas Brazdeikis and Jordan Poole — also entered their names and hired agents, and neither seems likely to return to Michigan.
Early national projections for next season pegged the Wolverines as a top-five team, but if they lose three-fifths of their starting lineup that could change dramatically. Michigan State is the near-consensus No. 1 pick, as long as Cassius Winston isn’t going anywhere.
Beilein goes through this grind as regularly as any coach in America, which doesn’t make it easier. He also adjusts as well as any coach, replenishing enough to reach two national championship games and five Sweet 16s since 2013.
“You just keep adapting,” Beilein said Wednesday. “I laugh so hard when people say, 'Now you getting some rest?' No, I get more rest in the season, and I don’t sleep during the season. My schedule is absolutely incredible. But you have to go out there to be in position to be in position.”
You have to be in position to grab an uncommitted prospect to fill a hole, or land a transfer. How crazy does it get this time of year? William & Mary 6-foot-7 forward Justin Pierce, who averaged 14.9 points per game, is being courted by Michigan, Notre Dame and North Carolina. Beyond the flood of freshmen and sophomores declaring for the NBA, as many as 500 players are in the transfer portal, seeking a better opportunity at another school.
A new rule allowing players to hire a certified agent, go through the NBA combine and still return to college before May 29 has had a profound impact. It’s a fair rule in principle, affording players options they didn’t used to have. In practice, it can be tumultuous for coaches and players.
Hello and goodbye
Since 2011, Beilein has lost eight players — Darius Morris, Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr., Nik Stauskas, Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson III, D.J. Wilson and Moe Wagner — before their senior seasons, a trend that really started when Burke rocketed from a relative unknown to a star, and led Michigan to the 2013 title game as a sophomore.
“It’s a sad state of things when you say, 'Oh, I hope he’s not too good as a freshman,'” Beilein said. “Just think about that. You think Jim Harbaugh is ever gonna say that? Hockey’s got the same issue. Baseball (and football), they have to stay at least three years. There are some things we gotta try to fix. But then again, it’s a free world and I think the sentiment is, kids should be able to go out and have these opportunities.”
Brazdeikis and Poole said the rule absolutely was an impetus for them to test the NBA waters, although both sound like they might’ve done it regardless. Brazdeikis was the Big Ten freshman of the year and is likely to be drafted the highest out of the trio. He emphasized he hadn’t made his final decision yet, and Poole said the same thing, although both admit the goal is to get drafted.
You feel you’re ready to be a pro right now?
“Yes, definitely,” Poole said. “That’s just me personally, but I feel my confidence is already through the roof. You could’ve asked me my freshman year — do I think I’m a pro? — I’d say the same thing.”
If they both join Matthews and stay in the NBA draft, there’s no guarantee any of them will be a first-round pick, or drafted at all. In ESPN’s top 100 prospects, Brazdeikis ranks 48th, Poole is 68th and Matthews is 69th. That doesn’t dissuade them, as they prepare to visit teams and go through workouts.
Meanwhile, Beilein dutifully returns to the recruiting road, unsure if he’ll have scholarships open, with tough decisions ahead. Programs that shop heavily in the one-and-done market — Kentucky, Duke, Kansas — can prepare for departures. Michigan’s situation is unique because its early exits usually aren’t touted recruits. Players develop rapidly in Beilein’s system, which emphasizes fundamentals, shooting and passing instead of sheer athleticism, a profile that fits the shooting-centric NBA.
Beilein knows as well as anyone, as a candidate last summer to be the Pistons coach.
“You go through a wave of emotions when you hear people putting pressure on the kids, and you feel for them,” Beilein said. “At the same time, we have a great history, almost every one of our guys is still in the league. I don’t want that to be the expectation, come here and be an NBA player. The expectation is, I’m gonna work hard and unpack my bag and be there four years, but if I have an opportunity to go earlier, coach is gonna support me.”
The lure of the league
What was a steady trickle has turned into a gusher, affecting almost every top program. Duke and national champ Virginia had their top three players declare for the draft. Michigan State remains an impressive outlier, with only eight early entrants in Tom Izzo’s 24 seasons, including Jaren Jackson Jr. and Miles Bridges a year ago.
The Spartans will lose seniors Kenny Goins and Matt McQuaid through traditional attrition, although Nick Ward could depart as well. Winston is likely to be that rare senior star, although Izzo has encouraged his players to gather NBA feedback. Ward did it last year and returned. It makes sense for legitimate prospects to get evaluated, but you wonder if players feel compelled to do it, then get misled and make a mistake.
At Michigan, the pipeline sustains itself, which is good in one respect, damaging in another. Poole burst into the spotlight with his game-winning heave against Houston in the NCAA Tournament last year, but struggled with his shot since midway through this season and wasn’t an adept passer. For Poole, part of the appeal of Michigan was Burke. You hope the NBA draw doesn’t become a drawback if a player isn’t as ready as he thinks.
“Coach B and his staff do a really good job of developing guards,” Poole said. “Growing up you want to play in the NBA, that’s the ultimate goal. Being able to see guys come through Michigan and make it to the NBA, it’s a record that’s crazy. I don’t know how you wouldn’t look at it.”
Underclassmen have until April 21 to declare, and more names will surface, more players will transfer, more uncertainty will stir. Beilein’s record suggests he’ll find players and find a way. He has three experienced returnees in Zavier Simpson, Jon Teske and Isaiah Livers, and two prime shooting prospects in freshmen Cole Bajema and Jalen Wilson.
But in many ways, the immediate future for Michigan, and plenty of programs, will be decided in the next whirlwind month.
“There’s gonna be a lot of really good teams,” Beilein said, “and there’s gonna be some teams in complete rebuilds.”
Once again, Beilein’s challenge is daunting, to build and rebuild, and oh by the way, try to win 30 games. The dance after the dance never ends.