When he first came to campus, Isaiah Livers didn’t know much about Zavier Simpson.
So during one of the Wolverines’ summer workouts, the freshman forward decided he’d post Simpson up. It seemed like obvious mismatch. Livers, listed at six-foot-seven, 230 pounds, is one of the most physically imposing players on the Michigan men’s basketball team. Simpson, meanwhile, is sturdy but stands at a layman’s six-foot-nothing.
Livers bent his knees for leverage, faked one way and attempted to beat Simpson going the other. He got nowhere. At that moment, Livers learned everything he needed to know about Simpson.
“I tried to post up on him — no way,” Livers recalled last weekend. “He’s so low to the ground.
“He’s a pitbull.”
And if Simpson’s a pitbull, the defense is his marked territory.
Teammates are quick to acknowledged that the diminutive point guard keys the Wolverines’ ninth-ranked scoring defense. Livers calls him Michigan’s energy guy. Junior forward Mortiz Wagner said he’d be lying if he didn’t say Simpson sets the tone defensively.
Simpson knows this. He says he’s the Wolverines’ middle linebacker on hardwood, where is energy is contagious.
“If they see me start doing it,” Simpson said, “they’ll start doing it.”
On the surface, it’s no surprise that Simpson is where he is. That power and grit he flashed against Livers has helped him become an essential part of a Michigan team primed for a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
But none of this came easy to Simpson. At almost every stage of his career, he has been doubted, looked over and passed up.
Many players would become discouraged by such disappointments. But that’s the point: Most players aren’t Zavier Simpson.
Back in high school, Simpson probably irked some of his teammates, especially when it came time to run.
Quincy Simpson, Simpson’s father and coach his junior and senior year at Lima Senior (OH), would put 60 seconds on the scoreboard. The drill was simple: Run 10 lengths of the floor in the allotted time — suicide style.
The whistle would blow, and the whole team would burst off the baseline — with the exception of Simpson. He wanted more of a challenge, starting after each of his teammates had run the first length, charging towards them like a mad man while yelling in their faces.
“He wouldn’t always win,” recalled Lima Senior assistant coach Brock Howe. “But he would still make it under a minute and beat half the team.”
And when his teammates didn’t make the time, Simpson would really go in. He’d yell for another 60 seconds to be put on the clock repeatedly until all his teammates made it. Sometimes, it got to the point where even his coaches wanted to move on.
“He would call out every kid who didn’t make it like, ‘You’re faster than that, you’re faster than that,’ ” Howe recalled. “ ‘Man, you’re going to state in track, and you can’t make this time? Because you’re soft.’ ”
It was that type of work ethic and leadership that defined Simpson’s high school career.
Even when they weren’t at the same school, Quincy and Simpson would head to the YMCA for workouts at six in the morning four times a week. And when Simpson didn’t think that was sufficient, they went even earlier — sometimes 5:00 or 5:30.
“Everything that he’s gotten at this point has been earned,” Quincy said. “He wasn’t blessed with a lot of natural abilities, so therefore we had to work extra hard.”
Added Howe: “I’ve never seen anyone enjoy being in the gym more than him.”
It all soon began to pay off. Simpson scored 59 and 65 points in games during his senior year. Scouts crammed into high school gyms to watch him play. He was rated as a four-star recruit, and the offers started to stack up.
For a while, though, there wasn’t one from Michigan. Coach John Beilein and his staff were instead focused on Detroit Jesuit star Cassius Winston — their primary point guard target for the 2016 class.
Winston, however, was set on Michigan State. That opened the door for Simpson to fall in love with Michigan and follow the footsteps of fellow Ohioans Trey Burke and Caris LeVert.
But even as Simpson found a home with the Wolverines, he wouldn’t forget about Winston — the man who could’ve taken his spot.
Simpson was hesitant to admit it publicly before the semifinals of Big Ten Tournament. But he craved another battle with Winston. So much so that fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson said Simpson was literally licking his fingers in anticipation of the matchup.
It showed. Simpson was keyed in during an emotion-filled affair, diving for loose balls and talking trash throughout. He held Winston to a lackluster 3-for-10 effort, as the Wolverines topped the Spartans en route to back-to-back conference championships.
For all the firepower Winston has and all the criticism Simpson receives for his offensive shortcomings, the stereotypes have been flipped in their two matchups this season. Winston was stymied twice, shooting just 35 percent with 22 total points. Simpson, meanwhile, scored a combined 31 points on 9-of-16 shooting.
And therein lies another piece to Simpson’s game: he takes every matchup personally. It doesn’t matter if it’s suicides in a high school practice or postseason basketball in Madison Square Garden.
“I’m not the type of guy who likes to get scored on,” Simpson said. “When you have pride in your defense, you’re not going to be passive. You’re going to take things personally if you get scored on, and you’re gonna try to win your matchup.”
That’s something Quincy has preached throughout his son’s basketball career, emphasizing the value of taking the opposing player out of the equation.
In an age where point guards are becoming more and more offensively adept, Simpson is a rarity. A look around the country and the NBA shows that an efficient outside stroke is paramount, and youth and high school coaches are teaching accordingly.
In that sense, Simpson is an old-timer. Defense, not shooting, comes first.
“I feel like it’s just my mindset and my pride,” he said. “Just not wanting him to score — that’s what it comes down to. There’s no secret, no special ingredient, just taking it personal and not wanting to let him score.”
But with that mindset comes aggressiveness — and sometimes too much of it.
Simpson played just nine minutes per game last season. Of course, he was behind a four-year veteran star in Derrick Walton. But when Simpson saw the court, fouls kept him on a short leash as he averaged nearly six infractions per 40 minutes.
“Last year, we couldn’t put him on the floor because he’d foul somebody within 30 seconds,” Beilein recalled, “and it wouldn’t help anybody.”
Though Simpson had moderate expectations for his freshman year, he didn’t realize being a backup would equate to such limited playing time — which contributed to some apprehensiveness.
Simpson seldom looked comfortable on the floor. He couldn’t finish around the rim. His offense stalled frequently.
“I always told him there was no reason to be timid or second-guessing himself,” Walton said. “We already (thought) he was good enough. We know you’re good enough.”
Naturally, Simpson’s struggles culminated in frustration. Here was a player who’d always been the best on the floor, now barely seeing it.
“It was definitely a hard pill to swallow,” Quincy said.
Added Walton: “I told him, ‘I’m only here for a couple more months. So you only got to deal with this for a little longer.’ ”
It was supposed to be a straightforward progression for Simpson. Learn behind Walton for a year, then run the show the next.
But a month after Walton played his last game in a Michigan uniform, Beilein called Simpson into his office. The message was direct: The coaches hadn’t seen enough out of Simpson; they had decided to add graduate transfer Jaaron Simmons as insurance.
Suddenly, it seemed like Simpson would have to wait another year to take the reins. Simmons was a star at Ohio, averaging nearly 16 points and seven assists per game. He possessed the offensive acumen the Wolverines had missed with Simpson on the floor.
“I had three options,” Simpson said. “Beat him and (freshman point guard Eli Brooks) out for the position, be in-between, or be last.”
Simpson chose the first. Thanks to his knowledge of Beilein’s complex offensive system, Simpson was the starting point guard at the onset of the year.
But he wouldn’t be there for long. Those fouls crept back into his defense. He couldn’t move the ball effectively on the other end. Beilein thought Michigan’s offense had more flow with Brooks.
So just four games into the season, Beilein made the switch.
“Zavier didn’t earn it,” Beilein said. “He was starting because he knew more than the other guys, and then he wasn’t doing some of the intangibles you need.”
It was back to square one for Simpson. This was supposed to be his opportunity. Yet, a freshman had just taken his job.
The possibility of Simpson transferring seemed realistic. He already didn’t match Beilein’s traditional, 3-point heavy offense. Now, he’d been handed another roadblock in young career already chock-full of frustration.
But that’s not Simpson. He’s too hardworking, too competitive to quit.
“We never even discussed (transferring),” Quincy said. “I told him to keep his head up, keep working. I told him to be a good teammate and challenge and compete daily in practice. It’s adversity.”
After a month of inconsistency at the point guard spot, Simpson returned to the Wolverines’ starting lineup on Jan. 6. As has sometimes been the case this season, his performance didn’t exactly stick out in the box score — five points on 1-for-5 shooting. Still, it was a vote of confidence from his coaches — one that Simpson needed.
In the games that followed, he began to play more freely and, most importantly, became a player who Beilein could trust to play both ways.
“It’s not like the other guys flunked the test,” Beilein said. “He became a defensive stopper, and a guy who was playing winning basketball.”
Since taking back the starting job, Simpson is averaging almost 10 points with four assists per game, helping Michigan find an offensive rhythm it occasionally missed earlier in the year.
In mid-January, when Nebraska’s defense stalled the Wolverines by switching screens — a strategy Beilein anticipated others would follow — it looked like the Cornhuskers had cracked the code to defending Michigan. Instead of relying on Wagner’s pick-and-pop game, the Wolverines needed a slasher to keep the opposition honest.
Simpson stepped up. Against Purdue’s massive frontcourt two games later, he rendered the Boilermakers’ defense ineffective with a newfound aggressiveness, scoring 16 points en route to Michigan’s best offensive performance of the season.
“At the beginning of the year, he still had some of his rough spots,” said assistant coach Saddi Washington. “At the point things clicked, the game slowed down for him, and he really was able to take control of the team on both sides of the ball. I think that’s when our team really started to catch our flow.”
Of course, just like in high school, Simpson’s influence extends beyond just the floor.
On Feb. 24, Michigan finished the regular season on a six-game winning streak, capped off by a drubbing of Maryland in College Park.
During the next practice, though, a sleepy feeling loomed around the team.
“We were just lethargic,” Beilein said.
So Beilein turned to the player who could most effectively ignite his team. Not captains Duncan Robinson and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman. Not Wagner. Rather, it was Simpson who Beilein called over.
“I talked to Zavier, ‘We need you right now, right now,’ ” Beilein recalled. “He started getting after people a little bit, and practice changed.”
From a distance, Simpson is reserved — quiet even. In front of the media, he contrasts the unabashed energy of freshmen Jordan Poole and Isaiah Livers, or the brashness of Wagner.
But away from the cameras, Simpson is the epitome of a vocal leader, challenging teammates with both his voice and play throughout workouts and practices.
“I think when Derrick left, there was a void there, and I think he’s really stepped into it,” Robinson said. “He’s very very vocal, and that’s huge for us just because of his energy. He’s always talking during practice, so I think that’s been big.”
Simpson has always been this way. In high school, his dad described him as a coach on the floor, a coach in the locker room and a coach off the floor. Even in the summer of 2016, Walton knew Simpson had the potential to lead the team.
“He was kind of like I was — just strong and demonstrative,” Walton recalled. “When he’d say stuff, he’d mean it.”
Simpson, despite consistently holding the conference’s best point guards below their season averages, wasn’t a selection for the Big Ten All-Defensive team.
Another day, another look-over.
Simpson, of course, has bigger things to worry about. The NCAA Tournament starts next Thursday, and the Wolverines are trying to balance what will be nearly two weeks off before since their last game.
But if the past is any indication, he won’t forget about the snub.
“We were all shocked he didn’t get any All-Defensive team love,” Washington said. “But because (he’s) is such a competitive kid, he’ll really use that to motivate (himself).”
Such has been the case throughout Simpson’s career. He wasn’t Michigan’s first choice for the class of 2016. He barely played as a freshman. He wasn’t trusted to be the point guard immediately after Walton. He was benched in the fall.
And yet here he is — the Wolverines’ definitive spark plug, leading Michigan its best basketball of the year when it matters most.
“Talk about a chip on your shoulder?” Beilein said. “He’s got the chip now, and that’s really been good. … I’m partially guilty of putting that chip there, and I want to keep it there.
“I’m tough on him, but he always responds.”
That’s simply what Zavier Simpson does. Just ask Cassius Winston.