Coming off an illustrious prep career at Kalamazoo Central High School, Isaiah Livers joined the Michigan men’s basketball team last year with hype and anticipation as one of the program’s top recruits.
He then proceeded to make himself invisible.
As a freshman, Livers did much of the dirty work: cleaning up the offensive glass, playing solid defense and scoring only when needed. In 15.1 minutes per game, he averaged 3.4 points on 2.9 shots and recorded a miniscule 12.9 usage rate — the lowest of any Wolverine. He attempted just 12 free throws all season.
Granted, with shot creators such as Moritz Wagner and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman around him, Livers didn’t necessarily need to be noticed. He was the prototypical role player, and he filled a role that implied — if not demanded — invisibility.
Of course, that’s different this year. Wagner, Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson play professionally now, and much of Michigan’s creative punch and outside shooting will have to be replaced. Some of that responsibility will fall to Livers, but right now, it’s unclear just how much.
Livers’ fit on the team is still very much a mystery, but Wolverine players and coaches will tell you it’s no mystery what Livers can be. At 6-foot-7 and 235 pounds, Michigan’s Gatorade Player of the Year and Mr. Basketball in 2017 has a potent combination of size, athleticism and shooting range seemingly tailor-made for coach John Beilein’s offensive system.
The process of harnessing Livers’ considerable talent, in large part, might just involve the passage of time and the transition from freshman to sophomore. Livers admitted at Michigan’s media day on Monday that he “wasn’t much of a talker” last year. But this year, players and coaches have both noted his improved on-court communication, pointing also to the relationship Livers developed with Robinson.
“He’s a very bright young man, very bright in school, and he thinks the same way defensively,” Beilein said. “He sees things around him and educates the other guys. That’s the biggest thing. He probably has more of a sense of a veteran than a lot of sophomores would have.”
Added assistant coach Luke Yaklich: “Isaiah was able to sit next to Duncan in the film room every single day, share a lot of the same drills together and a lot of the same defensive talks last year. And he saw the value of Duncan’s presence on the defensive end, because of the IQ he had, the positioning he had, and then the personal challenge that Duncan took every day. Isaiah came in and this summer and said, ‘I’m going to be that talker this year, I’m going to be the communicator, I’m going to be the guy that can guard multiple positions.’ And so far he’s done a wonderful job doing that.”
Livers bolstered more than his communication skills this offseason, in which he spent both the spring and summer semesters in Ann Arbor along with sophomore guard Jordan Poole, his best friend on the team. And from Poole’s observation, some of Poole’s trademark swagger may have rubbed off on his roommate.
“He’s been really aggressive. We were really trying to get on Isaiah last year about taking more shots,” Poole said. “… He’s extremely athletic and he has God-given talent, so we just worked out every day and we were focusing on being confident in your shot, get to your spots, start working on moving more naturally.”
Poole isn’t the only one who’s been impressed with Livers’ more assertive mentality. Junior center Jon Teske mentioned that Livers dunked on him in practice on Sunday — no small feat against a 7-foot-1 behemoth.
Monday’s practice displayed more of the same. Livers threw down a handful of impressive dunks in open play, and towards the end of an offensive set, he spun and hit a deep, contested three-pointer. Coming out to guard highly-touted freshman Ignas Brazdeikis on the perimeter, Livers stayed in front of him all the way to the rim, where he cleanly rejected the Canadian slasher’s layup.
“(Yaklich) talks about hunting shots all the time,” Livers said. “I wasn’t much of a hunter last year. … But this year I feel so much different because I think the offseason really helped, staying here in the spring and summer, I learned so much about the offense. So now I know where my shots are and when to hunt them.”
Livers is probably never going to be Poole. Even with the glut of offensive creativity that the Wolverines have to replace, it’s not necessarily imperative that he change his game. After all, while he may have been invisible last season, he was quite solid at doing so.
But that invisibility, coupled with Livers’ potential, rendered his freshman season inconclusive. As a sophomore, though, Livers is seemingly established as Michigan’s starter at the ‘4.’ It’s a role that should come with increased confidence, responsibility and attention.
Will Livers remain the capable “glue guy” he was as a freshman? Or will he tap into his potential as a defensive communicator and powerful scorer, and emerge as one of the Big Ten’s elite power forwards?
It’s not exactly a make-or-break scenario, but this year, the Wolverines should start to find out just who they have in him.
“Coach B knows what he expects and Isaiah knows what he expects from himself,” Poole said. “He’s locked in, he's a different player than he was last year.”