A lot changed about Michigan’s offense over the course of last season. Isaiah Livers bounced in and out while battling a series of nagging knee and ankle injuries. Shooting success, both inside and outside the paint, came and went. Head coach Juwan Howard switched up his guard looks constantly, rotating David DeJulius, Eli Brooks and Adrien Nunez in and out of the lineup as the situation changed.
One thing that didn’t change: Zavier Simpson.
The senior point guard left his fingerprints all over the Michigan men’s basketball team’s offense. Every play, he was involved: moving the ball down the floor, getting off ball screens — quite literally calling the shots. If the Wolverines were making moves in the frontcourt, it was a safe bet that Simpson was a key part of it.
“He made some great decisions with the basketball,” Howard said of Simpson after an 89-65 win over Indiana in February in which Simpson posted 12 points and 11 assists. “He did a really good job of controlling the tempo of the game. He was hunting for singles. He wasn’t trying to make the home-run play. Finding guys who were open, being patient with the basketball, reading what the defense gives him.”
Now, of course, that will have to change. Simpson graduated after last season ended abruptly due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He left behind a program that, while promising, has a lot of moving parts.
The outgoing pieces: center Jon Teske, the senior backbone of Michigan’s play in the paint on both ends of the court, who also graduated in the spring. DeJulius, a point guard who learned from Simpson and was starting to come into his own, transferred to Cincinnati. Forward Colin Castleton and guard Cole Bajema transferred to Florida and Washington, respectively.
But an impressive freshman class of recruits has arrived in Ann Arbor. There is Hunter Dickinson, a talented center who seems poised for success in Big Ten play. Zeb Jackson, a four-star guard who was in ESPN’s top 100 recruits last year. Forward Terrance Williams, another top-100 recruit, and Jace Howard round out the freshman class.
In addition, Howard snagged a couple transfers of his own: guards Mike Smith, from Columbia, and Chaundee Brown, from Wake Forest. Smith filled a floor-general role at Columbia and finished his senior season as the sixth-ranked scorer in the nation. Brown has the potential to fulfill a similar Simpson-like role this year, particularly if he can learn from Smith there. As a graduate student and a senior, Smith and Brown (if he gets his waiver approved) could help Livers fill the gap in experience and leadership that Simpson and Teske leave behind.
All of these changes will give Michigan’s offense a completely different look this year. Leadership will come from Livers, yes, but who will join him in that role? Will anyone make the same type of plays that Simpson once helped create? Will the widely-hailed recruiting class live up to its sky-high expectations?
Of course, we can’t know for sure how Michigan will replace Simpson’s presence in those areas. But there are a few places where we can make some educated guesses.
First, Livers will be crucial, even more so than last year. He is the last remaining piece of the 2018 Final Four team, and his offensive presence sparks the Wolverines in a way that cannot be undervalued. His scoring prowess is a key part of the offense, but as a senior he’ll now be challenged to develop his playmaking skills to help alleviate the void left by Simpson.
“Isaiah is a talent; it’s that simple,” Howard said after a 77-68 win over Michigan State in February in which he returned from injury. “We missed him a lot. We missed having another guy who can make shots and has a high basketball IQ that knows how to make plays.”
Said Simpson of his teammate: “He makes this team better in many ways. His leadership, his voice. On the offensive end, he spreads the floor. He can attack. It’s just his presence. Sometimes it’s not about the stat sheet, or anything else.”
Sophomore wing Franz Wagner will be another key player on offense. His impressive shooting put him third on the team in points per game last season, and when he’s hitting his shots, Michigan is a much better team — and much more dangerous in the frontcourt. Senior guard Eli Brooks will also be a critical piece. He came into his own as an off-ball shooter last year, and now, as a senior, he could be an important voice in the locker room, potentially stepping into a bigger leadership role alongside Livers. On the floor, Brooks will be among those tasked with replacing Simpson, along with Smith and Jackson.
None of the trio, though, have Simpson’s established playmaking ability. And for Michigan, that will be an even bigger loss than his leadership qualities.