Phil Martelli spells out why Michigan freshmen have so much promise

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

With high rankings come high expectations.

That’s what coach Juwan Howard’s first recruiting class and quartet of freshmen — Hunter Dickinson, Zeb Jackson, Terrance Williams and Jace Howard — are walking into as they begin their college careers at Michigan.

But over the last month of preseason practice, assistant coach Phil Martelli has seen the potential that’s tied with being the Big Ten’s top-rated group of first-year players and the promise each of the four possess.

Hunter Dickinson

At the center of it is Dickinson, the former top-50 big man who figures to play an integral role when the season tips off next week.

“Hunter Dickinson has been on a climb,” Martelli said Wednesday on a Zoom call with reporters. “A lot of times you want a kid with that kind of reputation to come in and skyrocket. But with COVID and not having a chance to be in the lab with Juwan every day, have his hands on him, Hunter is coming (along).”

Dickinson arrived with a reputation for being as a great passer and Martelli noted the first part of his skill set that stands out is his ability to find teammates out of the high and low post.

Another thing that stands out, obviously, is his size. At 7-foot-2 with long arms, he doesn't need any lessons on how to dunk. Rather, the coaching staff has been working with Dickinson, who is left-handed, to commit to shooting open jumpers and scoring the ball around the basket with his right hand.

While finishing around the rim won’t come easy against bigger and more mature bodies in the Big Ten, Martelli said Dickinson has shown strides in that area thanks to the physical battles he endures against fifth-year senior center Austin Davis.

“Austin is truly country strong and he wears Hunter out,” Martelli said. “I'm not saying he surprised him, but he presented Hunter with a real awakening.”

As far as his conditioning, Dickinson said last month it wasn’t where he wanted it to be before added he was pleased with progress he was making with each passing practice.

Martelli noted Dickinson is getting up and down the court better — “And that’s without the heavy dose of (strength and conditioning coach) Jon Sanderson,” Martelli said — but couldn’t put a finger on how many minutes he could handle before getting a breather since the team has only held 10-minute intrasquad scrimmages to date.

Juwan Howard and Phil Martelli

“Big things have been anticipated and big things are expected,” Martelli said, “but none bigger than what Hunter holds for himself.”

Along with Dickinson, Jackson will have a chance to make an impact by sharing the point guard responsibilities with grad transfer Mike Smith and senior Eli Brooks.

Martelli said Jackson has been working hard at learning the playbook but has been a “little banged up.” According to Martelli, Jackson suffered a “stinger” in his shoulder when he ran into a screen and has had a mix of contact and non-contact practices since.

Martelli described Jackson as vocal and athletic — the same words used by several Michigan players — before adding he has been a streaky shooter.

“But the streaks are like a rocket,” Martelli said. “When he's going, he can really put the ball in the basket. What we're working with is to make sure he understands great shot, good shot, bad shot. That's going to take a little work.

“There's just something about a left-hander. You know that stroke is in there. We just want it to come out more consistently.”

When it comes to Williams, there could be a shortage of minutes since the 6-7 forward plays at a position where Michigan has its most talent with perimeter players like Franz Wagner, Isaiah Livers, Chaundee Brown and Brandon Johns Jr.

Martelli called Williams an “old soul in a young man’s body” who has multiple skills. He can guard bigger players because of his basketball IQ. He can knock down outside shots better than Martelli thought. And he can handle the ball, though he needs to tighten up his dribbling.

“He's one of those guys that you've got to find a way to get him on the court,” Martelli said. “Terrance Williams impacts winning, so he'll have that opportunity to get out there, make some mistakes. But he doesn't think young, he doesn't act young and he doesn't play young.”

Playing time will also be hard to come by for Jace Howard, Juwan’s son, especially as he adapts to a new position. According to Martelli, Howard is converting to a wing role at Michigan after being utilized more as a forward in high school.

Martelli added the fact Howard is playing for his dad hasn’t been an “uncomfortable” situation for anyone on the roster.

“Jace Howard is as good a teammate as we have on this team,” Martelli said. “There's a lot of love there and it's a beautiful thing to watch.”

Starting next week, everyone will get to see it for themselves as the four freshmen set out to make their mark this season and beyond.

“We're aware that we're Juwan's first children, so to say,” Dickinson said last month. “We were his first project and we've talked about it. It would've helped to have five so we could have the next Fab Five in there, but we have four great players.

“We're going to try to leave our own legacy as the Fab Four, I guess, at Michigan and hope to cement ourselves as Juwan's first recruiting class.”

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins