Austin Davis poised to shoulder larger load for Michigan basketball
Austin Davis has never started a game, has never played more than 18 minutes in an outing and has never scored more than 11 points in his 65 appearances at Michigan.
All those streaks could come to an end in 2020-21 as the Wolverines put more playing time and responsibilities on the fifth-year senior center’s shoulders, including his right one that underwent surgery in late April.
"It's been a long summer,” Davis said last week. “(My shoulder) is feeling great now. Back to full-go and everything. It's been a long road to recovery. I'm very thankful for athletic trainer Alex (Wong), for the doctors that worked on me. Coach (Jon) Sanderson has been great getting me back up to snuff in the weight room. Our entire coaching staff has been tremendous working with me, getting me back and rehabbing.
“It's unfortunate that I had to go through this with how I did with my shoulder, but I'm very thankful to have been in a place like this to be able to go through it, have the resources and people around here to support getting me through that process.”
Davis, who wore a protective shoulder brace all last season for comfort, added he’s not at 100% yet but is “definitely getting there.”
“It's been feeling great in practice,” he said. “Just continue to improve, continue to strengthen it, rehab it and we'll be good.”
The Wolverines will need Davis to be in top form by the time the season tips off because, for the first time in his career, he’ll be relied on to log important minutes from the get-go. With two-year starter Jon Teske graduating and backup big Colin Castleton transferring to Florida, Davis is only center left on the roster who has any Big Ten experience.
That’s one reason why senior forward Isaiah Livers predicted earlier this month Davis would be in the starting lineup over 7-foot-1 freshman and former top-50 recruit Hunter Dickinson if the team had a game this month.
There’s also the fact that Davis blossomed under coach Juwan Howard last year. After redshirting as a freshman in 2016-17 and playing sparingly the following two seasons under former coach John Beilein, Davis carved out a role in the rotation and turned in a career year as a dependable bench piece.
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“I've said it from Day 1, Coach Howard puts so much effort and so much energy into us every day that it's really contagious,” Davis said. “His attention to detail with everything, from the smallest little thing with post moves to the bigger ideas of our offense, he's very all-encompassing but he breaks it down to the small details. I think that's helped me tremendously."
It showed in Davis’ numbers — 4.9 points and 2.6 rebounds in 10.7 minutes per game, all career-best marks — and in his performance as Howard’s tutelage transformed him into a reliable asset, a key reason he was invited back for a fifth year in March.
But Davis knows there are still strides he can make. After looking at film from last season, Davis said the one thing that jumped out was he needs to improve his defense “quite a bit.”
“Moving my feet, that's been a weaker area of mine honestly for a very long time,” Davis said. “Just continue to improve there and try to remain consistent and always remain ready to fill the gap, do what's needed or what's asked of me by the team. That's really the biggest thing in my mind."
Simply put, Davis knows who he is and understands what he can and can’t do. He’s a capable rebounder who can hold his own in the post. And thanks to improved footwork and post moves, he’s an efficient scorer around the rim, as evidenced by his 69.3% shooting from the floor last season.
That effectiveness has caught the attention of grad transfer point guard Mike Smith, whom Davis could be setting plenty of screens for in Michigan’s pick-and-roll offense.
“No offense to my old teammates at Columbia, but Big Au is really a true big. I’ve never ever actually played with somebody that's a back-to-basket big,” Smith said last week. “You can give him the ball down there and his left hook is ridiculous. I've never seen somebody that's a righty shoot with their left hand a hook like that and make it go in.”
Smith added Davis, who isn’t typically known for speaking up, is always talking and offering encouragement during practices.
“You can tell even when he talks to guys, he always wants to say the right thing,” Smith said. “He's always willing to make everybody else around him better and he wants the best out of everybody.”
That especially goes for the fellow big men on the roster, like walk-on Jaron Faulds and Dickinson, whom Davis is taking under his wing and showing the ropes.
As one of Michigan's veteran players, Davis will look to balance a bigger role while mentoring his position group, a unit Davis described as “one of the tighter groups of bigs” since he’s been in Ann Arbor.
“Us three have been really close this year, texting back and forth and all those kinds of things,” said Davis, who took Dickinson and Faulds out on a fishing trip this offseason. “I think it puts us in a better position to be able to push each other on the court during practice. Then when game time rolls around, I think it will make it all the better to be able to share in each other's successes."
And if Davis is able to build off last season, more could be in store for him as he writes another chapter at Michigan — one that, at one time, was not guaranteed.
“My first four years were an incredible experience overall,” Davis said. “It's great to be able to be at a university like this, be on a team like this. It's another great group of guys that I know I'm going to enjoy every single second of this year.”