Somewhere amid the hazy, ever-changing point guard battle lies an answer.
Only twice in John Beilein’s tenure at Michigan has the starting point guard played fewer than 32 minutes per game. This season, Zavier Simpson has slightly edged out Eli Brooks for the lead in point guard minutes. Neither eclipses 20 minutes per game.
At some point in the season — likely soon, if not now — Beilein will no longer subsist with a three-way revolving door at his most coveted position. If the entire precedent of Beilein’s offensive philosophy means anything, one point guard will become the guy.
What if that guy could be a former four-star, top-50 recruit? What if, in theory, that said recruit merely needed time to develop his offensive skill, to find his niche within a highly complicated offensive system and time to adjust to the speed and nuance of college basketball?
This is where Zavier Simpson was supposed to be in his second year on campus. This team was supposed to be his.
Yet in many ways, Simpson is still the forgotten man of this point guard battle. He doesn’t have the collegiate all-conference background of Jaaron Simmons, and he’s not the new freshman garnering regular praise for the ability to adjust to college basketball like Eli Brooks. Last season, Simpson averaged just 1.6 points per game, and shot just 37 percent from the field, a particularly troublesome number given his propensity to shoot closer to the basket. Along for the ride of Derrick Walton Jr.’s magical journey last year, Simpson was a mere afterthought.
He wasn’t forgotten on Saturday, though. Star UCLA guard Aaron Holiday certainly won’t forget him.
Simpson entered the game with just over four minutes left as Holiday continued to terrorize Michigan’s guards. Holiday had 23 points at the time and seemed to have an answer for every punch the Wolverines tried to throw in their comeback bid. Simpson’s thought process was quite simple.
“To go in and play defense. To try not to let him score, to try and just shut him out.”
Spurred by his trademark energy and tenacity, he did just that. He held Holiday scoreless for the remainder of regulation, including a steal off a lazy Holiday pass with 18 seconds left and a strip as Holiday tried to elevate from the free throw line in a tied game on the last possession.
Then Simpson opened up overtime by nailing a 3-pointer and capped it with a contested layup. He scored a career-high 15 points and cemented his claim to do away with the ongoing point guard roller coaster.
“They’re both really good kids,” Beilein said. “We haven't had fussing by all three of them. We made a decision going in we were going to play two of them… based on practice and games it’ll be two different ones. But we felt that they weren’t getting, nobody was really getting to feel what they needed to feel in a game. So we went with those two today, it could change at any time.”
But it doesn’t have to change at any time. A meritocratic decision only lasts until someone cements his merit. With a renewed, more complete skill set, Simpson might be ready for that.
“I’m not surprised,” said redshirt sophomore guard Charles Matthews, when asked about Simpson’s performance. “All he needed was his opportunity to get out there and get his rhythm, get his flow. I see how hard he works, night in and night out, and I know what type of dog he has in him, so I wasn’t surprised. I was just happy that he finally unleashed it.”
Defensive prowess has never been in doubt for Simpson. And there are signs that Simpson’s offensive growth — however incremental it may be — is real.
In an admittedly small sample size, Zavier Simpson has improved his three-point percentage from 26 percent a year ago to 47 percent this season. His field goal percentage has seen a similar jump, from 37 to 56. And in his two most recent performances, in which he was afforded his “rhythm” as Matthews described by playing 20-plus minutes in each, Simpson has combined 10-for-14 for 26 points, including a game-altering four-steal performance Saturday.
Zavier Simpson has the pedigree. Now his game might be rounding into form.
What if the answer to the season’s preeminent question is just that simple?
Marcovitch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Max_Marcovitch