'He never backed down': UM's big freshman Hunter Dickinson steps up in biggest moments

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Two days before Michigan's Big Ten opener, senior forward Isaiah Livers called Hunter Dickinson the “most ready” freshman he has seen this season.

The big man proved why once again Sunday.

After shining throughout the nonconference slate, Dickinson played a starring role and introduced himself to the conference with a game-high 20 points, seven rebounds and three blocks in Michigan’s 62-58 win over Penn State.

“There's always some questions once Big Ten basketball comes,” senior guard Eli Brooks said. “Since Day 1, he's stepped up and wanted the challenge, so that's something I give him credit for. He never backed down from anybody no matter who’s on the court. That's something I appreciate about him because you know he's there every single time and ready to go.

“For me, there was just a little bit of doubt because he hasn't played in a Big Ten game, but he's been ready every single time."

Michigan center Hunter Dickinson (1) put up a season-high 20 points in his first Big Ten game.

As Brooks noted, there was plenty of interest surrounding Dickinson heading into Sunday’s matchup. How would he fare against tougher competition? Would he be able to have a similar impact against Big Ten big men? Will he be able to take on an increased role with fifth-year senior Austin Davis out indefinitely with a right foot injury?

While it’s only one game, there was no drop-off in the non-league and league version of Dickinson.

He showed he could handle extended action by logging a season-high 28 minutes in his first career start. He showed he could finish in traffic and through contact against Penn State senior John Harrar. He showed he could be effective on defense and efficient on offense, shooting 9-for-14 from the floor.

He was as prepared, poised and productive as he has been all season, something he credits to the talent he played with and against in high school and AAU as well as Davis’ mentorship.

"I really owe it to Austin Davis,” Dickinson said of his early success. “Without him, there's no way I would play this good. In practice, he pushes me as hard as anybody I've ever went against in practice. His physicality, his intelligence on the floor, he's so experienced out there. I've really learned from him and really got a taste of what the Big Ten is like in practice every day.”

Through Michigan's 6-0 start, Dickinson is averaging 15.7 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocks and leads the team in all three categories. He’s shooting 69.1% from the floor, with most of his damage coming around the rim.

He’s been a reliable and consistent force on a Michigan team that isn’t lacking veteran players, which is saying something. He’s also been a dependable go-to option who has come through in late-game situations.

In the overtime win against Oakland, Dickinson helped the Wolverines avoid the upset by scoring 19 after halftime and having a hand in 26 of the team’s final 35 points. Against Penn State, he was responsible for five of Michigan’s seven made field goals in the second half, including the tying and winning baskets in the final two minutes.

More: MSU (6-0) stays put at No. 4 in AP rankings; UM moves back in at No. 25

“He's a tremendous worker,” said Davis, noting Dickinson has had a “learning mindset” since arriving on campus. “I think that he has gotten very comfortable in whatever situation that he's put in. He's done a tremendous job and delivered what we've asked of him, whatever that may be.

“I honestly see the potential in how good Hunter is and how much potential he has. He's the future of the program. I see what he has and what he can be. It really inspires me to pour myself into him and pass as much on as I possibly can to him.”

There’s still plenty more for Dickinson to show. He has made strides on defense by blocking and altering shots, but Brooks said they challenge him every day to be more active in ball screens because “when he does that, he’s an elite-level defender.”

On offense, Dickinson has done much more rolling than popping in screen situations, though he has confidence in his outside shot despite the 0-for-3 mark from 3-point range. He also has room to grow at catching and finishing in traffic off pick-and-rolls, an area he admitted wasn’t a strong suit of his in high school.

“He wants to improve in every area of his game,” coach Juwan Howard said. “You can’t do nothing but feed more and more information and help him get better because he wants it. He wants it in film. He wants it when we do individual work together. He wants it in practice. That’s confidence that he doesn’t lack at all. We’re going to do whatever we can to help him get better.”

jhawkins@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins