Niyo: Juwan Howard's coaching style will evolve as Michigan's team takes shape

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Like just about everyone else in and around the Michigan basketball program, Isaiah Livers had questions.

Livers, who’ll be one of the Wolverines’ key returning players as a junior in the fall, said the most pressing of those were answered in a brief team meeting Thursday morning with new head coach Juwan Howard.

Juwan Howard walks off the stage after speaking to the news media at the Crisler Center in Ann Arbor

The former Fab Five star and longtime NBA fixture started with a joke, quickly cast aside his prepared notes and spoke from the heart about what he calls a “brotherhood.” He did so again when athletic director Warde Manuel welcomed him to the podium for his introductory news conference on the Crisler Center floor, but only after breaking down in tears, overcome by the emotions of this homecoming.

And all of that clearly made an impression on the audience that matters most, the group that was left in the lurch by John Beilein’s abrupt departure 18 days earlier.

“You can obviously see real from fake,” Livers said, “and we can all see that Juwan is real.”

But now the real work begins for Howard, a first-time head coach who has been away from the college game — aside from watching his two oldest sons’ Division I careers — for longer than Livers or any of his teammates have been alive. And what we heard Thursday still left everyone asking questions, Howard’s players included.

“I’m curious, of course,” Livers said. “We’re all curious. We want to know what’s going on. We didn’t have a coach for two weeks.”

They have one now, and there’s at least a general idea of who else will be joining Howard here, starting with a familiar face in assistant coach Saddi Washington, a key holdover from Beilein’s staff. Jon Sanderson, the longtime strength and conditioning coach, also is staying on, as are others in supporting roles, though both Howard and Manuel cautioned nothing’s official yet. (Chris Hunter, Michigan’s director of basketball operations, was among those in attendance Thursday.) Expect more announcements soon about staff additions, including at least one former college head coach who'll help Howard navigate the rapids ahead.

As for what this new era of Michigan basketball might look like on the court, however, that’s still anyone’s guess. On Thursday, Howard revealed little, if anything, about his vision, save for the usual coaching platitudes.

Team talk

Howard, a two-time NBA champion who spent the last six years as an assistant with the Miami Heat, said fans can expect to see “a group that fights together, a well-connected group, a group that’s inspired by their play, a group that enjoys each other’s success, a group that is all about family.”

But when asked by a reporter to describe his coaching philosophy, Howard smiled and turned to address his answer toward several of the current Michigan players seated in the back.

“Well, it still remains to be seen, fellas, right?” he said. “But I can tell you this. One thing about me, I’m humble. And I don’t have all the answers. We’re gonna try to figure out solutions together. My staff and the players will be active participants in finding the solutions. We will create this identity together. And we will have fun doing it, too.”

In that sense, I suppose, the fun is only just beginning here, as Howard dives into the NCAA manual to familiarize himself with the do’s and don’ts — "To my understanding, there are a lot of rules out there,” he quipped — before hitting the recruiting trail in earnest.

Howard has a few open spots to fill on next season’s roster, either with current recruits (Jalen Wilson and Franz Wagner) or possible graduate transfers. Beyond that, there’s a massive 2020 class that’ll go a long way in deciding Howard’s ultimate success as a head coach in Ann Arbor.

He’s more than familiar with the summer AAU hoops circuit, as his two youngest sons, Jace and Jett, are both top prep prospects. But prepping for all the headaches that come with it as a collegiate head coach “is going to be a challenge," Howard readily admits. And to be fair, his willingness to acknowledge his shortcomings may prove to be the new coach's greatest strengths, right up there with his engaging, fatherly personality — one that strikes an immediate contrast with his professorial predecessor.

Part of Howard's challenge, though, will involve articulating his vision for the Michigan program, and detailing his plan, something Beilein certainly had no trouble doing after decades of refining both. And soon enough, there’ll have to be some actual conversations about X's and O's and what his players — current and future — can expect.

Perhaps that's already happening with recruits. It'll need to be if he's going to reel Wilson back in, for example. Ask those who know the real Howard, as a player and a coach in Miami, and they'll tell you he's more than ready to gameplan and to grind. But for the moment, the rest of us are all left waiting to see what that looks like.

As former Michigan star Terry Mills, now an analyst on the UM radio broadcasts, put it Thursday, “No one knows exactly what kind of style he’s gonna run.”

You could argue uncertainty was a guarantee even if Beilein had stayed. Michigan lost its three leading scorers in Ignas Brazdeikis, Charles Matthews and Jordan Poole, all of whom opted for the NBA as early-entry candidates. That trio produced nearly 60 percent of Michigan’s offense last season.  And as Mills notes, “Any time you lose three guys to the NBA, it’s gonna look different no matter how you slice this pie.”

It's not pie-in-the-sky thinking, either, to suggest the offense won’t look dramatically different — schematically, at least — than what Michigan fans grew accustomed to seeing in recent years as Beilein’s beloved two-guard offense evolved into a system that relied heavily on pick-and-roll action.

“If you watch the Miami Heat play, they run a lot of similar things to what Michigan’s players are used to,” said Tim McCormick, a former Michigan standout who works as an TV analyst on NBA games. “Miami runs a quick-hitter or a quick set and if it doesn’t work, they flow right into ball-screen offense. Well, that’s what John Beilein has been doing. So Juwan Howard’s gonna be coaching some players next year that have a pretty good understanding of how that offense works.”

Veteran duo

It’ll start with his seniors, point guard Zavier Simpson and center Jon Teske, who proved to be one of the nation’s most effective pick-and-roll tandems last season. But where the Wolverines turn after that is something Beilein himself was talking about as soon as Michigan’s postseason came to a screeching halt against Texas Tech in the Sweet 16. Stymied by freely switching defenses all winter, Beilein lamented his team’s struggles with isolation basketball and trying to break down defenders 1-on-1.

Surely, that’s something Howard will attempt to address in recruiting as he moves forward. But in the meantime, how he and his still-developing staff decide to attack the problem will be worth watching.

Likewise, just as Beilein will have to adjust to a faster-paced game and a 24-second shot clock in the NBA, Howard will discover that defense dictates much of what goes on in the college game these days.

Howard’s known more as a defensive-minded coach, and his track record in working with big men certainly seems promising for the likes of Teske, Colin Castleton and Brandon Johns on the current roster. In fact, the 46-year-old Howard, who played more than 1,200 games in his NBA career, already has let it be known he'll be diving into the drills himself when necessary.

But Howard — and Manuel — also know they’ll both be judged by how he delivers on the promises we heard Thursday. Easier said than done? No, it might be the opposite, actually. Because right now there's a lot more to do than there is to say.

“Let him evolve,” Manuel said. “Let him develop into a head coach of his own. That’s what I’m going to do: Support him, answer questions and let him evolve.”