Michigan basketball star Hunter Dickinson's season goals involve more than just NBA prep

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INDIANAPOLIS — As Michigan basketball center Hunter Dickinson weighed the pros and cons of keeping his name in the 2021 NBA draft, there were two drawbacks gnawing at his subconscious.

The first was his disappointment with feedback he received from the NBA regarding his draft position, which teams indicated was likely the middle of the second round — a significant difference from Dickinson’s self-evaluation as a “first-round pick-type player.” The second was a pang of emptiness regarding his collegiate experience in Ann Arbor which, because of the pandemic, left the All-American freshman feeling like “a basketball player and I went to an online school,” as he described it Thursday at Big Ten media day.

So Michigan fans rejoiced in early July when Dickinson removed his name from the draft and committed to another year with coach Juwan Howard, who was welcoming the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class. With fewer COVID-19 restrictions to begin the school year, Dickinson is living the life of a U-M student: football games, social events and, on account of his newfound fame, interminable requests for pictures.

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“Being able to go out and go to football games on Saturdays and then enjoy that whole experience,” Dickinson said. “The Big House is crazy, I mean, it’s like no other. Just going out and hanging out with my fellow Michigan students has been super fun because it felt like we were isolated from them. It almost felt like I didn’t really go to Michigan last year.

Michigan's Hunter Dickinson addresses the media during the first day of the Big Ten basketball media days, Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021, in Indianapolis.
Michigan's Hunter Dickinson addresses the media during the first day of the Big Ten basketball media days, Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021, in Indianapolis.

“I feel like everybody’s gotten their picture now. I feel like I made my rounds with everybody.”

His popularity extended a few hours southwest, to Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, where Dickinson was one of the prime attractions during the opening stanza of the league’s two-day event. Voted by the media as a near-consensus first-team All-Big Ten selection for the upcoming season, Dickinson represented the best player on arguably the league’s best team. He and Illinois center Kofi Cockburn, another All-American who was in attendance Thursday, were living proof of a theme that reverberated from player to player and coach to coach:

“The Big Ten is where it’s at for big men,” Dickinson said.

Dickinson shared a table with guard Eli Brooks for a 30-minute media session opposite Howard, who held court on the other side of the room. The interview evolved into something of the Hunter Dickinson variety hour as the charismatic sophomore opined on everything from ways to improve his game; to his experience with name, image and likeness deals; to his thoughts on the Illinois fanbase. (Regarding Illini supporters, Dickinson couldn’t contain himself: “I don’t want to say it. Ah, I’m going to do it. I’m going to do it, Eli. They got me. They just act like they’re some powerhouse in the Big Ten and they’re really not. ... I think their fans are kind of annoying.”)

Said Brooks, who broke into laughter several times, “Hunter is just a funny guy.”

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Humor aside, there were portions of the interview that offered legitimate insight into how Hutchinson, who averaged 14.1 points and 7.4 rebounds per game last season, plans to improve both his draft stock and the Michigan team this season. He described the upcoming campaign as “one more go with it at college basketball” in reference to his plans to enter the 2022 draft barring a significant setback in the next six months.

Here’s a look at his checklist:

• Shoot more 3-pointers than he did last year: “I only shot like three (sic), so anything is going to be an improvement from that. Just shooting probably more volume. (NBA teams) wanted to see it over the course of a season and not just some workouts and stuff like that.”

Michigan center Hunter Dickinson reacts during the first half of the Elite Eight game in the NCAA tournament on Tuesday, March 30, 2021, in Indianapolis.
Michigan center Hunter Dickinson reacts during the first half of the Elite Eight game in the NCAA tournament on Tuesday, March 30, 2021, in Indianapolis.

• Improve his agility: “This summer was definitely pretty hectic for me. It was a lot of three a days, two a days, four a days. I did a lot of great work this summer and I’m really proud of the work I put in. ... I feel like I’ve done a lot of work over the summer to put me in a position to be able to move a lot better on the floor and stuff like that. ... Just show that you can guard in the pick and roll, on switches especially.”

• Learn to score with his right hand: “I definitely worked on that. That’s something that me and Coach Howard work on a lot, you know, player development, using my right hand more. I’m trusting it more. I’m still not where I want to be with it in terms of trusting it, but I’ve definitely gotten a lot better. I think by the time the season starts, it will be something that I use regularly.

• Developing solutions for double teams: “Double teams aren’t really that fun, I’m not going to lie. But Coach Howard has done a lot of working with me on just posting up deep so they can’t bring the double team. That’s always the best option. And then also just working on (my) face-up game, opening up and seeing the floor. So if they come and double team me, you’re able to see the entire floor and not (have) your back to the basket.”

Mentor freshman big man Moussa Diabate: “He’s a freak of nature, honestly. He’s 6-11 and got long arms, super athletic. He’s a specimen. He’s going to be really good. I think his best days are ahead of him for sure. He’s got so much potential. I think he can be a really big piece for this team. Somebody who can guard one through five. Somebody who I think we can play really well when we’re on the floor together. He’s going to be a big piece.”

• Demonstrate improvements without compromising the team: “I’m not going to force it. I’m still trying to win a national championship, and whatever that takes from me is what I’m going to do. I’m not going out there trying to shoot 10 3s a game just to show the NBA scouts. I’m going to try to win the game and do a little bit of both.”

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If Dickinson accomplishes even a few of the items on his list, it’s hard to envision a scenario where he returns to Ann Arbor for a junior season. That the media tabbed Michigan to win the Big Ten again this season speaks in large part to what is expected from Dickinson after the Wolverines lost their second-, third, fifth, and sixth-leading scorers from a year ago in Isaiah Livers (13.1 points per game), Franz Wagner (12.5 ppg), Mike Smith (9 ppg) and Chaundee Brown (8 ppg).

Michigan center Hunter Dickinson dunks the ball during the first half of the Elite Eight of the 2021 tournament on Tuesday, March 30, 2021, in Indianapolis.
Michigan center Hunter Dickinson dunks the ball during the first half of the Elite Eight of the 2021 tournament on Tuesday, March 30, 2021, in Indianapolis.

But Howard isn’t ready to discuss life after Dickinson just yet. The coach and his big man have more they want to achieve.

“How that’s going to translate and transition into the NBA?” Howard asked aloud. “You know, I’m not here to talk about the NBA right now because we haven’t gotten that far. He has his sophomore year that he’s looking forward to.”

Either way, fans should get their pictures while they still can.

Contact Michael Cohen at mcohen@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Cohen13.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan basketball's Hunter Dickinson focused on more than NBA