On Monday morning, Juwan Howard was asked to assess his recruiting.
He said he didn’t know how to do that — likely out of modesty.
But we can say it for him: He seems to be pretty good at it.
Entering Wednesday’s start of the early signing period, Howard and Michigan basketball stood atop the recruiting rankings. Howard has put together a six-man class that ranks No. 1 nationally and could be the Wolverines’ best recruiting class since 1991 — the year that Howard and the rest of the Fab Five arrived on campus. At the very least, it is the program’s highest-ranked recruiting class since 1994, and easily Michigan’s top-ranked class in the modern recruiting rankings era, dating back to 2002.
Another illustration of how well Howard has recruited: According to 247Sports’ All Time Recruits tool, Howard has landed seven of Michigan’s 25 highest-ranked recruits since 2003, including the No. 1- and No. 3-ranked prospects in five-star wing Caleb Houstan and five-star big man Moussa Diabate.
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Even more remarkably, Howard has done it in just under 15 months, despite circumstances that easily could’ve hindered his recruiting. With less than five months on the job before last year’s early signing period (and no prior recruiting experience), he inked a four-man class that ranked No. 1 in the Big Ten. And this year, he has had to virtually recruit his 2021 class on Zoom (due to the COVID-19 pandemic), with no in-person recruiting or evaluation allowed since March.
Recruiting is not a guarantee of on-court success. But it usually is a strong predictor — and Howard seems to have tailored his approach to that of the most successful teams. When he first accepted the job, Howard sent out a flurry of offers to the nation’s top-ranked prospects. For a time, it seemed as if he was exclusively recruiting five-star prospects — or at least top-50 recruits. Very few schools have been able to recruit consistently at that level — one could argue the list is solely Duke and Kentucky — and the Wolverines’ approach resulted in plenty of strikeouts.
The most notable whiffs came this past spring during the April signing period; within a 12-hour span, Michigan lost out on five-star guard Josh Christopher, who picked Arizona State after most experts predicted he would pick the Wolverines, and five-star forward Isaiah Todd, the top-ranked commitment in Michigan’s class who chose to play in the NBA’s G League.
The Wolverines aren’t on Duke and Kentucky’s level, filling the majority of their classes with one-and-done NBA prospects. But Howard’s new approach might be better for the program in the long run.
In his first two classes, he has landed two five-stars, in Houstan and Diabate, who could be one-and-done. But Howard has also added a bevy of recruits who project to be multi-year contributors while still ranked in the top 100. That list includes four-star center Hunter Dickinson, four-star point guard Frankie Collins, four-star guard Kobe Bufkin (Grand Rapids Christian) and four-star wing Terrance Williams. Howard has also shown a willingness to search the transfer portal for immediate help, adding point guard Mike Smith and wing Chaundee Brown to this season’s team.
One-and-done players can certainly help any team. But many successful programs —think Villanova — have proven that players who contribute for multiple years are beneficial both for a team’s long-term success and its postseason success. Even Kentucky’s John Calipari has seemingly altered his approach in recent years by targeting a mix of blue-chip recruits, multi-year players and transfers.
Assuming all six commitments in the 2021 class sign and enroll, Howard has put together a talented, versatile roster that should at least contend for a Big Ten title. He has added two players who can handle the ball and initiate the offense in Collins and Bufkin to go with Zeb Jackson, a freshman this season. There is athleticism, shooting and size at the wing with Houstan and Isaiah Barnes. Dickinson, this year’s top big, should play well with Diabate in 2021’s class. And then there are two key swing pieces in Terrance Williams (2020) and Will Tschetter (2021), who offer unique skills and could slot in at multiple positions.
A potential extra benefit to Howard’s success in the 2021 cycle: He can now turn his full attention to the 2022 class.
And while the Wolverines are currently projected to be full on scholarships for the 2021-22 season, Howard could still have flexibility to add another player (either through the transfer portal or the recruiting trail) if Franz Wagner goes pro after this season.
Howard’s first two recruiting classes have provided him with the necessary ingredients for success. And they’ve earned him a reputation as one of the nation’s top recruiters.
“All I can say with recruiting (is) we try to go after guys that we feel fit our culture,” Howard said. “And fortunately enough last year’s class and now this upcoming class, 2021, these guys wanna be here at Michigan, we want them here, we’re looking forward to building something special: a winning, competitive group.”
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan basketball recruiting: Juwan Howard shows elite skills