Backup guard Kobe Bufkin giving Wolverines boost off the bench

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

One role up for grabs for Michigan heading into the season was at the backup guard spot behind fifth-year senior Eli Brooks and grad transfer DeVante’ Jones.

There’s no shortage of candidates jockeying for those minutes, from returning players like Zeb Jackson and Adrien Nunez to newcomers like Kobe Bufkin and Frankie Collins.

But with Jackson sidelined with a non-COVID illness and Nunez struggling to knock down shots in Michigan’s first three games, Bufkin — a combo guard who can play the one, two and three — has made the most of his opportunities.

Michigan guard Kobe Bufkin (2) drives past Seton Hall center Ike Obiagu (21) in the first half.

Prior to Friday night’s matchup against UNLV in the Roman Main Event tournament, Bufkin has strung together a pair of strong showings off the bench, tallying 12 points and shooting 5-for-6 from the field in 26 minutes over the past two games.

"Kobe has been working extremely hard. He's been in tune to film and growing in a lot of areas on the offensive end and the defensive end,” coach Juwan Howard said this week. “Some freshmen have a higher learning curve and are able to adapt quicker and faster than others. With Kobe, he has such a unique skill set.

“With versatility being a strength of his, he’s getting him a chance to grow in a lot of areas and has to grasp a lot of moving parts in our offensive and defensive end.”

More: Wolverines head to Roman Main Event tournament looking to move on from first loss

In last weekend’s neutral-site game against Prairie View A&M in Washington, D.C., Bufkin gave the Wolverines what Howard summed up as “great minutes.”

During a five-minute stretch in the second half, Bufkin recorded eight straight points for Michigan and showed off his skill set by scoring at all three levels with a driving layup, 3-pointer and jumper. He was also active on the defensive end, coming away with two steals and blocking a 3-point attempt.

“That comes from a guy who has been putting in the work and it's good to see that it's been able to translate into a game situation,” Howard said. “I have trust for him just like I have trust with all of our players."

That growing trust was apparent in Tuesday’s Gavitt Games matchup against Seton Hall. Howard shortened his bench and went with an eight-man rotation in that contest, with Bufkin being the only reserve guard to receive playing time.

Bufkin responded with a first-half stint that featured a pair of impressive plays. The first was a punch-out steal he had in front of the Michigan bench that led to him scoring the other way on a fast-break layup. Two possessions later, Bufkin used a pump fake to get a defender in the air before driving to the rim, adjusting his body in the air, and flipping up a shot over another defender that bounced in.

“He's a very, very quiet young guy but he was very vocal,” assistant coach Phil Martelli said on WTKA’s “The Michigan Insider” this week. “But that bucket on the baseline when he first went up, I wondered what is going to happen with this ball. Is he going to try to dunk this because that was not a game for fancy. That was a game for hard hats.

“You have to be a man to make buckets like that. We always tell him to finish through contact and he finished through contact.”

Those encouraging moments have added up to a promising start for Bufkin, one that he’ll look to build on with two games in a 48-hour span in Las Vegas.

“It's starting to come (for Bufkin). You start to see it in the quiet of practice,” Martelli said. “I think as everybody is hoping for and is well aware of, there's a lot more there.”

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins