Last season, the Michigan men’s basketball team revolved around Zavier Simpson.
Simpson anchored the defense and dictated the offense, while his voice carried the most weight within the confines of Crisler Center. His omnipresence made for a bridge from John Beilein to Juwan Howard.
So as the Wolverines wade into the post-Simpson era, their most pressing question is that of replacing their stalwart point guard.
“It’s going to be difficult to replace Zavier,” assistant coach Howard Eisley said. “He graduated as the winningest player in Michigan history. When you have a guy who was a natural leader, who had the success that he had here, that’s pretty difficult to replace.”
Simpson’s on-court impact can’t be replicated by one player. Michigan will look to a platoon at the point guard spot, with three players — senior Eli Brooks, graduate transfer Mike Smith and freshman Zeb Jackson — vying for playing time.
“It’s to be determined,” Eisley said of a potential starting backcourt. “I don’t think coach (Juwan Howard) has really labeled anybody yet. I know that with the way we play, being able to have versatility and play multiple positions is always a plus.”
Brooks is almost certain to see time as the primary ball-handler. Though he predominantly flanked Simpson at shooting guard last year, he is not without experience in steering the offense.
As a freshman, Brooks spent time as the starting point guard early in the 2017-18 season, only to be supplanted by a resurgent Simpson in conference play. Last January against Nebraska, with Simpson suspended, he again embraced his role as the orchestrator, scoring 20 points in 39 minutes.
“Eli seems a lot more confident,” Eisley said. “Playing in our system for a year and having an understanding of what that’s supposed to look like, he will be a lot more comfortable this year.”
While Brooks has the luxury of familiarity, Smith and Jackson have spent the offseason acclimating. For Jackson, that involves bracing for the physicality of the college game. For Smith, a transfer from Columbia, that means preparing for tougher competition in the Big Ten.
“It’s an adjustment, but also it’s a confidence thing at the end of the day,” Smith said during a Zoom call with reporters Tuesday. “In the Ivy League, you still play against big-time schools. We played Virginia, Penn State, Villanova. …. In practice, you continue to try new things, be yourself and play your game, and everything else falls in line for sure.”
A 5-foot-11 scoring dynamo, Smith led the Ivy League with 22.8 points per game last season. Though a gifted scorer, his status as a high-volume shooter — he attempted 19.3 field goals per game, the 6th highest total in the nation — was largely a product of Columbia’s roster. The Lions went 1-13 in the Ivy League and were strapped for points, needing Smith to post video-game numbers just to compete.
“I don’t always have to create for somebody,” Smith said. “At Columbia, I always had to create for somebody, and that’s cool, that’s what we needed. But here I don’t think that’s gonna be an issue.”
Though Michigan will undoubtedly miss Simpson’s on-court presence, the shift to multiple ball-handlers may unlock new dimensions.
“(Simpson) was more of a play-making guy,” senior forward Isaiah Livers said. “He was the guy who brought the ball up, started the break. Now we’ve got a lot more guys who can just start the break, and get a rebound and go.”
Along with the three guards, Smith mentioned a trio of forwards — Livers, sophomore Franz Wagner and senior Chaundee Brown — as capable shot-creators. Beside the centers, Smith says, anyone is allowed to bring the ball up the court following a rebound, with Howard encouraging the team to push the ball in transition.
This fluidity should allow Smith to showcase other aspects of his game. Smith said that Jaaron Simmons, who played for Michigan as a graduate transfer in the 2017-18 season and is currently the team’s video analyst, is always telling him to shoot the ball during team scrimmages.
“At Columbia, I was more the dominant ball-handler, the ball was always in my hands,” Smith said. “Here I can play more off the ball. And I’m a really good catch and shoot player. I really didn’t get to show that at Columbia.”
“These two guys are shot-makers,” Eisley added, referencing Smith and Jackson. “They are very good perimeter shooters, both off the dribble and with their feet set. I think we’ll be a better shooting team than what we saw last year.”
If Brooks and Smith are largely proven college players, then Jackson is the enigma. It’s unknown how college-ready he is, and how much Michigan can count on him to contribute as a freshman. Early returns, though, are positive.
“Zeb is really good,” Smith said. “He’s gonna help the team, this year, next year for sure, taking that role. He’s a big leader. The sky’s the limit for him if he continues to work and understand and buy into everything that coach is telling him.”
Michigan has only had a week of practices, yet the competition among the guards is already paying dividends, with Brooks specifically taking the newcomers under his wing.
“(Eli) guarded everybody in the Big Ten,” Smith said. “He’s on the list of people that he’s the hardest person to score on. For me to have that in practice every day, it’s making me a better player. We’re trying to figure out how each of us play together and it’s going well. He has confidence in me and I have confidence in him, and I think that’s everything the team needs, playing in that 1-2 spot if that’s the case when the lineup comes out.”
Livers named both Brooks and Smith when pressed to list a tentative starting five in a Zoom with reporters last week. Still, it’s mid-October. Nothing is set in stone.
For now, the Wolverines are focused on what they can control. Eisley said the current emphasis in practice has been specific shots that the guards will see in games — an array of floaters, runners, layups and 3-pointers.
And even without Simpson, there is confidence.
“With the guys we have coming in, Eli, Mike and Zeb, they’re gonna be fine,” Eisley said.
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