The atmosphere at Michigan's open gym yesterday was impressive. Several hundred fans came out over four hours prior to the Notre Dame game to get a glimpse of what is going on down at Crisler and none left disappointed. As expected, both Joe Crawford and Al Horford showed up. They looked as though they fit right in with the current crop of Wolverines. Many of the fans came with signs and posters encouraging Joe to re-commit to the Maize and Blue…. a gesture that wasn't lost on the Crawford family. They took photos of the signs and even took one home with them. Joe rewarded the hospitality with some excellent play on the court.
I've seen Joe Joe play much better than he did on Saturday, yet he was still very good (which is quite scary). He matched up with Dion Harris much of the day and flashed some tenacious defense that slowed the former Detroit Redford star's production. Their head to head was very fun to watch, as each player approached the pick-up games where they faced each other with added intensity.
On offense, Joe didn't have many break opportunities, but he did catch an alley-oop or two. One play that drew a major reaction from the crowd occurred going toward the south goal. Joe drove from the left baseline, jumped from one side of the basket while faking the shot, then he brought the ball down to his waist, and finally reversed it on the other side of the rim. The rest of his aerial acrobatics were on display during game intermissions. Most of his point production came courtesy of a very nice stroke from deep and his vintage drive and lean in the lane. His elevation was simply unmatched by anyone not named Brent Petway.
Speaking of Brent, he too didn't have as many break opportunities as he had become accustomed to in previous open gyms. (That said, those who watched him during the breaks in between games still saw some highlight reel dunks!) He was relatively quiet on the offensive end, but his presence was felt on defense and on the boards. He is probably the most active player on the team, and that allows him to slide into good rebounding position. On defense, any shot that Brent is in the vicinity of will be in danger because this kid can reach to the ceiling to swat a ball. Even Joe Joe fell victim to one Brent's rejections.
One might think the informal nature of these pick up games is reflected in the effort exerted, but nothing can be further from the truth. EVERY shot is contested and EVERY loose ball is chased! Daniel Horton spent a lot of time driving into the lane, and every time... one or more defenders would come over and lay a body on him or get a hand in his face to challenge his attempt. To his credit, Daniel was excellent on the drive and dish yesterday. Sure, he took his proverbial number of jumpers. However, his degree of unselfishness has increased in relation to the number of options around him. Daniel's activity level seemed to be at a preseason high and he looked very good on Saturday.
Two other players whose activity level had risen were JC Mathis and Graham Brown. Both players really made their presence felt down low. Players that drove into the paint while those two resided down there received some unwanted greetings. On the offensive end, both were much more assertive in looking for their own shots. Graham's USA Basketball experience has obviously given him a little more confidence down low and his overall footwork and back to the basket game have improved. It isn't unreasonable to expect a few more points per game from the big man from Mio…even with the increase in big men that will see playing time. Mathis' low post game won't wow you, but he does have a few legitimate back to the basket moves. While point production won't be his primary on-court contribution, defense, rebounding, and leadership will. He's a good position defender and he gets great position on the boards, but the aforementioned leadership may be his most impressive quality. He takes control of the team and provides direction for the players that may not know what they're doing, and even for those who do. For that reason alone he'll be a valuable on court presence.
If Graham and JC provide the brute strength down low, Courtney Sims and Chris Hunter provide the athleticism and finesse. Both kids ran the court extremely well. Chris still spent most of his time on offense shooting jumpers, but he did frequently venture inside to get on the boards. Courtney was probably the most active big man on the day. He went inside and out, made it down court before all of his teammates on a number of occasions, and played great defense. He gave Al Horford fits when he was checking him. Courtney seemed to have plateued a little since my initial time seeing him this summer. However, he really appears to be settling down and coming into his own now. One thing that will need a little fine-tuning will be catching the bullet and no-look passes from the wing players. There have been a lot more dimes going into the post or hitting the postmen on the break (mostly from Jerret Smith when he's in attendance…but now from Daniel Horton as well). Courtney has been the target of many of those passes. As he and his teammates become better acclimated with one another that will no longer be an issue.
Al Horford was relatively quiet offensively, but we saw enough from this young man, yet again, to know that he's a very polished offensive player in the post. He did smart things as subtle as receiving the ball in the paint and then throwing it back out to re-establish position if he'd been pushed out or double-teamed. He also put his jump hook on display a few times. Aside from matching up with Sims on a number of occasions, he went head to head with Lansing Everett's Goran Sutton (6-8, 235) a few times as well. This was my first time seeing Sutton, and he too has a very nice low post game. However, a nice 15 footer accents his. While he may be a better face up shooter than Al at this point, I'd have to give the back to the basket edge to Mr. Horford based upon my initial evaluation. Al can go to either side, has a great drop step, and most of all…he has that great hook, which with his long arms will cause college defenders problems 3 or 4 years down the line.Other Notables:
-Bernard and Lester faced off like they do in all of the open-runs. They went after each other harder than any opponent ever will. The way these guys play each other is going to make each one of them better this season.
-Ronnie Coleman will have the purest jumper on the team when he joins it…bar none! His shot is like a piece of artwork. He just has to take it a bit more. He had a few nice drives on the day, which should be an encouraging development for those monitoring that aspect of his game.
-When they put Sherrod Harrell on the court this season it will be virtually impossible to tell that the kid is a walk on. As I've mentioned before, he's a reliable jump shooter. The majority of the time he's going to nail the open jumper. Add to that the fact that the kid plays really good defense and you can see why the coaches have confidence in him. The young man now knows he belongs and it looks like it!
Keep an eye out for pictures from Saturday's open run, which will feature the best aerial shot of Brent yet!