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Michigan’s Frontcourt Takes Shape After D.J. Wilson and Moritz Wagner Decisions

As expected, Michigan got one forward back, while the other bolted for the NBA.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Michigan vs Louisville Thomas Joseph-USA TODAY Sports

For anyone that has been following D.J. Wilson and Moritz Wagner’s careers, they’ve taken on different forms at Michigan. Wilson was the quieter of the pair, letting his play do the majority of the talking. Sometimes brilliant and befuddling at other times, Wilson made what appears to be the right decision for him. His ceiling probably wasn’t getting much higher, and what could he prove to NBA scouts with four other ball-dominant players in the starting lineup (Charles Matthews, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, Jaaron Simmons and Wagner) and a fifth (Duncan Robinson) coming off the bench? College basketball fans are quick to point out players who bolted too early and were busts, but if Wilson becomes half the player DeAndre Jordan is (eight points and six rebounds per game in his one college season), it will be a gamble well worth taking.

Wagner is a different story. If you read any of Steve Kornacki’s piece on Wagner’s decision, it’s clear Wagner loves college. He’s acclimated himself extremely well to life and basketball in the United States, truly enjoys his classes and spending time around John Beilein and his teammates. Wagner also struggled mightily in the 5-on-5 portion of the NBA combine, against potential bottom-tier NBA players and likely D-Leaguers.

Wilson’s departure and Wagner’s return, however, give Michigan fans a clearer picture of what Michigan’s front court will look like next season. Gunner Duncan Robinson will most likely assume the starting role at one forward position, a role he was extremely efficient in two seasons ago. His shooting, improved rebounding and defense and newfound cutting ability make Robinson a tough cover. Michigan will use Simmons, MAAR and Matthews’ driving ability to get Robinson open 3s, and don’t be surprised if the redshirt senior makes 80 or 90 by season’s end.

Behind Robinson, freshman Isaiah Livers appears to be the most likely candidate to play backup minutes. Livers already has great size for a freshman, as his ESPN recruiting profile lists him at 6’7”, 185. He’s got a great shooting touch like Robinson, but his ability to defend multiple positions and drive to the basket (not to mention thunderous dunks) will make him a fan favorite in Ann Arbor. Don’t be surprised if Livers steals Robinson’s starting position by season’s end; Livers won’t be as good of an offensive player, but if his defense and rebounding are up to speed in the Big Ten, Robinson will be a luxury coming off the bench.

At center, Michigan has their answer for 30 minutes a game next season. Wagner is everything Michigan fans have been hoping for in a starting center since Mitch McGary left, except for rebounding: a great finisher around the rim, a guy who can stretch the defense and a fierce competitor who always fires up the crowd. Wagner’s foul habit will need to be curbed next season to another level, especially if he wants to bolt to the NBA after the season.

Behind Wagner, the battle between Austin Davis and Jon Teske for backup minutes should prove to be quite interesting. Teske was the player John Beilein thought would be more game-ready this season, but the freshman was a disaster. In 61 minutes, the 7-footer had five points, 12 rebounds, seven blocks and ten fouls. Reports from Michigan’s practice last season were that Austin Davis will be a major contributor for the Wolverines, but at least Wagner gets to do the majority of the heavy lifting this season.

While Michigan didn’t get their dream scenario of getting Wilson and Wagner back, the return of Michigan’s starting center means that Teske and Davis don’t have to be starter-ready from day one. The Wolverines have a more than capable player in Duncan Robinson ready to jump into the starting lineup, and the early play and development of Isaiah Livers will determine whether this Michigan team can be good or great.