Last year, Isaiah Livers took the tip-off as the starting power forward in the national championship game.
The next game the sophomore forward played in — Tuesday’s opener against Norfolk State — he came off the bench.
It’s not often that a player who secured a starting job as a freshman, especially one on a team that went as far as the Michigan men’s basketball team did, loses it before the start of the next season. But Livers is embracing the change.
“It’s new for me from starting last year,” Livers said. “But I agree with everything (Michigan coach John Beilein) says and it kind of makes sense, having some leadership come off the bench. I’m cool.”
Livers’ leadership is especially vital given the player that has replaced him as the starting power forward — freshman Ignas Brazdeikis. With Livers sidelined for a chunk of the offseason with an ankle injury, Brazdeikis stepped into the rotation and found a rhythm with the rest of the team. Once the season started, Beilein rolled with him.
But even for a player as talented as Brazdeikis, jumping to the college level will have a learning curve. While he was injured, Livers devoted time to helping coach Brazdeikis, and he’s carried that role over into the regular season.
“Isaiah is a team guy,” Beilein said. “And he’ll fill that role well.”
Being the sixth man will also require a physical adjustment. Instead of the routine that comes with being the starting 4-man, Livers must prepare to play any position besides point guard and enter in any situation. Especially on defense, Livers will have to adapt on the fly to wherever he’s needed.
But Livers has been in this position before. At the beginning of last year, the starting ‘4’ was now-graduated Duncan Robinson, who transitioned to a swingman role as Livers assumed the starting job.
“It’s different,” Livers said. Then he paused.
“It’s not actually, it’s not different at all, because last year I came off the bench at the beginning for Duncan and then I started. But I still kinda felt like a sixth man last year because Duncan, he was a veteran, he was a very smart player. … It was basically kind of the same as I’m doing right now.”
Robinson was a different player than Livers — his game was 3-point shooting, whereas Livers is a better defender and has a bigger post presence. But despite not starting, Robinson still frequently made a difference on the court, and Livers’ starting experience indicates he’s capable of a similar impact.
Tuesday against Norfolk State, Livers was the second player off the bench. He still finished with eight points — including two made 3-pointers — and three assists and co-led the team with eight rebounds. If he continues to put up similar stats, he’ll find plenty of minutes and remain an integral part of the team.
“I just told him that his shooting has been so good in practice,” Beilein said. “And I said, we’re not gonna treat you any different than we would Duncan Robinson. … What he also does for us is he’s the talker out there defensively. He’s talking to everybody.”
During his freshman season, Livers showed flashes of the versatility and leadership that will make him so valuable off the bench, but in the offseason, he’s developed those skills even more. And though he still wants to start — what player doesn’t? — Livers is ready for anything, even if he’s not on the court at first tip.
“I’m gonna get my job done, I’m gonna do my best to help the team,” Livers said. “ … Obviously if I was asked to start I would take the job and go start, but (Beilein) knows what he’s doing and I’m gonna trust his process.”