Jon Teske knew the opportunity was there. He also knew that if he didn’t seize it, it probably wouldn’t come around again.
Fresh off a 79-62 loss to Villanova in the 2018 NCAA Tournament championship game, Michigan had an opening at the center spot after Mo Wagner (VOG-ner) was selected by the Los Angeles Lakers with the 25th pick in the NBA Draft.
The 7-foot-1, 260-pound Teske, a 2016 Medina High graduate, was entering his junior season with the Wolverines in 2018-19. Intelligent on and off the court, he knew if he didn’t claim the starting job, there was little chance of doing so as a senior.
“I knew Mo was leaving early last season because he and I were roommates and he told me his plans,” Teske said earlier this week in a phone interview. “I knew the five man spot was open.”
Desperately wanting to be the starter, Teske stayed in Ann Arbor throughout the spring and summer to work on his shot and get “bigger, stronger and faster.”
When preseason practice began, Teske could see his work paying off and felt good about his chances, but veteran coach John Beilein was giving little away.
“Coach B doesn’t specifically say who’s starting,” said Teske, who averaged 3.4 points and 3.3 rebounds as the Wolverines went 33-8 and won the Big Ten Tournament for a second consecutive year in his sophomore season. “I just went to practice very day and competed. Coaches gave hints here and there, but I just tried to keep playing my game.
“A week or two before we started playing, Coach kept the starters together in practice. He didn’t specifically say I was starting until the first game, but I kind of got the feeling I would be a couple weeks earlier.”
Given the chance to start after playing in all 41 games as a sophomore and 20 as a true freshman — he averaged 0.3 points and 0.6 rebounds in 2016-17 — Teske didn’t waste it. The 21-year-old led both teams with 13 points and eight rebounds as the Wolverines defeated Norfolk State 63-44 in their season opener.
“It felt great,” he said. “My third year, being able to start for the University of Michigan was a dream come true. Not a lot of kids get to play Division I basketball, let alone start. All the hard work I put in was finally paying off.”
It continued to pay off throughout the season, as Teske repeatedly drew raves as one of the most improved players in the country.
He led Michigan in scoring three times, with a career-high 22 vs. Big Ten foe Nebraska, and finished 2018-19 averaging 9.5 points, up more than six from his sophomore year. Teske also led the team in rebounds in 15 games while averaging a team-best 7.0 and posting eight double-doubles. His 75 blocked shots made him the first Wolverines player to have more than 60 in a season since 2007-08.
The former Gazette MVP and All-Ohio pick shot .521 from the field and .593 at the line. He also made 22-of-77 3-pointers (.299) after attempting just one in his sophomore season, helping Michigan finish 30-7 and advance to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament, where the Wolverines fell 63-44 to Final Four participant Texas Tech.
“The system Coach B runs, being a five man you get the ball a lot, either at the high post or in the low post,” he said. “My style of play down low and at the 3-point line, that fits Coach B’s system.
“Early on (at Michigan), that really wasn’t my job,” he added of shooting 3-pointers, “but I knew this year we were going to need some more offense. I wasn’t going to force it, but if the shot was there, I was going to take it.”
Unlike some star-laden programs, where coaches let their players get by mostly on talent and athleticism while paying little attention to fundamentals, Beilein runs a complex motion offense and an even more structured defense, especially where the center is involved.
Not the quickest player in the world but long-limbed and willing to work, Teske excelled at showing on high ball screens, then recovering to his man, whether that offensive player popped behind the 3-point line or rolled to the hoop.
“That goes back to my freshman year,” he said. “Even though I wasn’t playing much, I was practicing against (guard) Charles Matthews on scout team. I got so many reps against a great guard coming off ball screens. That really helped translate into the games.”
With Matthews likely headed to the NBA Draft, Teske figures to play an even bigger role for the Wolverines in his senior year.
“I just want to improve my game,” he said. “I need to continue to get stronger up top and focus on little things on the court. I need to be more consistent on my 3-point shot and work on my low-post game. All in all, I just want to try to improve on both sides of the ball.”
While Teske currently is not listed as a top-60 pick in any reputable 2020 NBA mock draft, he could slide into the second round if he continues to improve at a rapid pace.
Even if he’s not drafted, a lucrative professional playing career overseas is almost certainly in his future, because talented players who stand 7-1 and weigh 260 pounds aren’t easy to come by.
“Anything can happen,” Teske said. “I have to take it day by day. The coaches will put me in the right position to get where I need to be. As long as I follow that path, I should be fine.”
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