Four minutes into last Saturday’s game against South Carolina, Zavier Simpson caught the ball in the right corner with the closest defender over 10 feet away.
As Simpson pondered letting it fly before pump-faking out of the open look, a fan in earshot of the Crisler Center press box muttered, “Oh no.” He wasn’t a Gamecock fan.
Last Saturday’s contest came three days after the Michigan men’s basketball team narrowly escaped Northwestern on the road, 62-60. In the second half especially, the Wildcats left the Wolverines’ junior point guard open on the perimeter, baiting him into five 3-point attempts. Simpson missed all five, including misses on three straight second-half trips down the court, and was benched for sophomore Eli Brooks with 6:24 to play.
Simpson spoke with the media the Friday following that game. After about five minutes of mostly team-focused questions, a reporter finally pointed to the elephant in the room.
Northwestern kind of guarded you differently in the second half, sagged off you and forced you to shoot. How did you take that?
“I kept shooting,” Simpson said.
“Yeah. Kept shooting.”
Simpson’s struggles from downtown have been well-documented since he stepped on campus in 2016. He hit 26 percent of his 3-pointers as a freshman, and bumped that figure up to 29 last season. His brutal night in Evanston sank his percentage this year to 23 percent — just 5-for-22.
Even so, Simpson explained that something was different this year. Maybe not in the numbers, but something did change.
What was it?
“Last year I probably wouldn't have shot them,” he explained. “Then again, they felt good. It'd be different if they felt bad. At least four, I thought for sure three or four of them was going in. But it didn't fall, but next time, I can’t see myself … teams playing like that and me going 0-for-5. Sooner or later it's going to have to pay.”
Against Western Michigan this Saturday, it did.
Two minutes into the second half, junior center Jon Teske set a high screen for sophomore guard Jordan Poole. Broncos guard Jared Printy, defending Simpson on the left wing, strayed away to help on Teske as he rolled to the basket. Poole recognized the open man and kicked to Simpson.
No hesitation. Three points.
Three minutes later, redshirt junior wing Charles Matthews found himself one-on-one with Western Michigan’s William Boyer-Richard on the baseline. Printy brought the double-team, leaving Simpson wide open. Matthews knew what was coming and fired a long bounce pass to Simpson at the top of the key.
Again, no hesitation. Three more points.
With 8:08 to play, Matthews pump-faked and drove the lane. Surveying the floor, he saw Simpson all alone in the right corner.
Printy sensed Matthews was going to pass, sprinted out of the lane and threw his hand up in desperation. It was a solid closeout, and maybe a week ago, the shot doesn’t go up at all.
But Simpson elevated, flicked his wrist and held his right arm in the air the way a shooter does when he just knows the ball’s going through the bottom of the net.
“People think that he can't shoot now, and they'll go out there and they'll sag off on him, but he can shoot threes,” Poole said Saturday. “Being able to see a couple go in is just all he really needs.”
Granted, all three of Simpson’s treys were wide-open looks – products of a strategically lax defense. Just because Simpson went 3-for-4 from beyond the arc in a mid-December buy game doesn’t make him Stephen Curry.
But that’s not really the point.
In a practical, quantifiable sense, all Michigan needs Simpson to do is make 3-pointers when he’s open. The Wolverines are hitting a respectable 36.8 percent from deep and have a legitimate shot creator with limitless range in Poole, along with freshman Ignas Brazdeikis and sophomores Isaiah Livers and Eli Brooks, all of whom have been efficient in catch-and-shoot scenarios this year.
No one expects Simpson to start pulling up from 25 feet with a hand in his face. But if Simpson establishes himself as someone who can make a defense pay for leaving him open, that 36.8 percent figure will only increase, both with Simpson’s makes and the added spacing those makes will provide.
“We ended practice yesterday, I drew up a play for him to hit a three and he did. Ended practice doing the same type of defense they were playing with him here,” said Michigan coach John Beilein on Saturday. “ … That's something we're not going to give up on. Are we drawing up plays for him to shoot threes (in games)? Probably not. But when they're just sitting in the paint like they were today, he's got to shoot it anyway. Either that, or we're playing four-on-five.”
In a more intangible sense, it’s a matter of confidence.
Everyone knows when a shot misses. Every brick and every airball goes down in the boxscore. It’s harder to count the shots that don’t get taken at all.
And it’s the difference between the Simpson of last year and the Simpson of now. The Zavier Simpson of now isn’t leaving those shots on the table. He’s putting them up with a newfound confidence — the confidence that defines a shooter whether he’s shooting 20, 30 or 40 percent from beyond the arc. And he's shooting with a disregard for the consequences — whether that be being benched in the waning minutes of a close conference game, or a fan crossing his fingers that he doesn’t take a 3-pointer ever again.
“When he's open, he's going to knock it down,” Poole said. “He's not going to hesitate, and I feel like it's a good factor to have a guy who isn't worried about, ‘Alright, I'm open, hopefully it goes in.’ He's shooting like he knows how much work he's put in in his 3-point shot, and when he's open, he's definitely taking it.”