Over the last decade, stellar point guard play has evolved into the norm for the Michigan men’s basketball team.
Darius Morris led the Big Ten in assists as a sophomore during the 2010-11 season and declared for that year’s NBA Draft. Trey Burke picked up where Morris left off, starting as a freshman and winning National Player of the Year honors in his second season. Derrick Walton Jr. then filled Burke’s shoes, becoming a dependable scorer and four-year starter. And after righting the ship following a rocky non-conference campaign in 2018, Zavier Simpson held the starting reigns through the end of last season.
But with Simpson graduating in May, it’s time for someone else to carry the point guard baton.
Enter Zeb Jackson.
The 77th-ranked recruit in the ESPN Top 100, Jackson has all the tools to flourish as a Wolverine.
“Zeb, he’s got true point guard instincts,” Rob Conover, who coached Jackson through his junior season of high school at Maumee Valley Country Day in Maumee, Ohio, said. “He sees the game really well, probably understands the game better than any other kid I’ve ever coached.”
Conover was first introduced to Jackson’s talent while coaching at Toledo-based St. Francis de Sales High School. Jackson, a sixth grader at the time, matched up against the St. Francis varsity team in an open gym scrimmage. Just five feet tall, Jackson ran the show.
“He was just lighting our varsity up,” Conover said. “He’s always had the shooting ability and the basketball skills.”
Although undersized, Jackson could still best taller and stronger opponents with his quickness off the dribble and pure shooting stroke. Now fully grown at 6-foot-5 — a towering stature for a point guard — Jackson’s game is more complete, allowing him to transition into a combo guard.
“With the size and strength that he’s added, it really makes him a versatile basketball player,” Conover said. “That’s why you’ve seen him evolve into a combo guard. When you’re short and skinny, it’s tough to use some of those attributes. Now he’s got great size.”
Through his first three years of high school, Jackson led Maumee Valley to two sectional titles while scoring 25.4 points per game. Still, he sought more.
Jackson elected to play out his senior season at Montverde Academy in Montverde, Fla., a perennial high school basketball powerhouse. Jackson would have the opportunity to play against consistent, high-level competition, which wasn’t the case at Maumee Valley.
At Montverde, Jackson was surrounded by a prodigious collection of basketball talent; last season’s roster included four top-40 prospects, headlined by Oklahoma State commit Cade Cunningham, the No. 1 overall prospect in the country.
No longer needed as the primary offensive option, Jackson tabled his scoring prowess and embraced his role as a facilitator.
“He really enjoys getting his teammates involved,” Conover said. “At the collegiate level, having weapons around you at the point guard spot, kinda playing that quarterback, I think that’s something he’ll do really well. He’s really good at getting guys involved.”
Of course, there weren’t many college basketball players better at getting their teammates involved last season than the one Jackson is replacing. Not only did Simpson top the Big Ten with 7.9 assists per game, but he constituted the do-everything floor general in Michigan’s offense.
It’s a role Conover is confident Jackson can fill, given his prior experience sharing the ball with college-ready talent at Montverde.
“To be able to play with some guys who are going to be lottery picks, that’s an opportunity he couldn’t pass up,” Conover said. “Michigan, at the time, was telling him, ‘We need you to come in ready, be ready to play.’ Going up against that sort of competition day-to-day in practice, at the speed at which they were playing at, prepared him to be ready to go at Michigan.”
Jackson, it should be noted, is the only member of Michigan’s four-player freshman class who committed under John Beilein; he chose the Wolverines over the likes of Ohio State, Dayton, Michigan State and Butler in October of 2018. His primary recruiter was then-assistant coach DeAndre Haynes, who departed Michigan alongside Beilein last May, joining Mark Turgeon’s staff at Maryland.
In that sense, Jackson will be one final tie to Michigan basketball’s era of yesteryear.
And yet moving forward, it’s Jackson who may very well hold the keys to Michigan’s future. He might not get the lion’s share of point guard minutes as a freshman — Mike Smith, a graduate transfer from Columbia, figures to make an impact, and senior Eli Brooks will likely see time running the offense after predominantly flanking Simpson as the shooting guard last season. Conceivably, Jackson could play just as often at the off-ball guard spot as he does on-ball.
Such is life as a freshman learning the ropes of a new system. In terms of the baton, though, Jackson has his fingerprints all over it.
“He’s there when you need him,” Conover said. “When you need a shot, he’s there. He’s got that mentality going in where he knows what his role is going to be. So I think that bodes well for him and for Michigan.”