Roster breakdown: New-look Wolverines need production from unproven underclassmen
Roster turnover — and adjusting to it — is an inherent part of college basketball. A top program’s best players tend to move on annually to the professional ranks as a new batch of heralded freshmen take over.
Michigan, which can now be classified among the elite programs in the sport, is no different. Jordan Poole, Charles Matthews and Ignas Brazdeikis all moved on from last year’s Sweet Sixteen team, taking 57 percent of the Wolverines’ scoring production with them. With the loss of that trio, a few newcomers and a completely different coaching philosophy being implemented under new coach Juwan Howard, there is no shortage of uncertainty accompanying this year’s Wolverines.
And yet, the cupboard is far from bare. Three linchpins and a number of talented, albeit unproven, players return to Ann Arbor. Whether the latter can step up to the plate will likely dictate how far this team goes in Howard’s first season.
The Daily broke down what’s still stocked in that cupboard for the coming season.
Since he officially secured the point guard job as a sophomore under former coach John Beilein, Zavier Simpson has become the heart and soul of the Wolverines. In his senior season, expect more of the same.
Simpson is the unquestioned leader of this team and one of the best point guards in the country. He earned All-Big Ten second team honors a season ago, but only because Michigan State guard Cassius Winston also plays his position. Though not a potent scorer as evidenced by his 8.8 points per game last year, Simpson and his patented hook-shot have become a nationwide phenomenon. A floor general in every sense of the word, Simpson registered a 3.2 assist-to-turnover ratio last season, which ranked first in the Big Ten and sixth in the country. He also led the team in steals and was named to the Big Ten’s All Defensive Team.
Simpson’s contributions to Michigan extend well beyond statistics, though. Hard-nosed, vocal and sometimes brash, he will hold his teammates accountable and is about as dependable as it gets on this roster.
Junior guard Eli Brooks, on the other hand, will be asked to step up more than ever before. Serving primarily as Simpson’s backup last season, Brooks averaged just 12.8 minutes per game. Now without Poole, Brooks will likely start alongside Simpson in the backcourt. Though he struggled with confidence a season ago, Brooks is a capable shooter and defender. In the Wolverines’ exhibition game against Saginaw Valley State on Friday, he notched a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds. Teammates and coaches have repeatedly praised his work ethic and understated leadership this offseason. If Brooks improves his decision-making and is more aggressive on offense, he could make a much-needed leap.
Sophomores David DeJulius and Adrien Nunez fall very much into the “talented but unproven” category. Both are slated for significantly more playing time than last season and will be key in replacing the loss of offensive production from a season ago. Despite only being 6-foot, DeJulius is an energetic, athletic and crafty ball-handler who can score in the paint and knock down an open shot from deep. Nunez is a long, sharpshooting wing, who will be more of a “catch-and-shoot” option on offense. Defensively, there are question marks surrounding both of these players and their ability to lockdown opposing guards.
Isaiah Livers flashed his potential multiple times last season as Michigan’s sixth-man. Now without the wing presences of Matthews and Brazdeikis, the junior — who averaged just under eight points per game a year ago — has an opportunity to shine. He’s a threat from behind the arc (42.6-percent last year) but is also athletic at the rim. As demonstrated by his team-high 24-point outing against SVSU, Livers has the potential to lead the Wolverines in scoring. Already a versatile defender with his 6-foot-7 frame, Livers’ work in the offseason to get in better shape should pay dividends on the other end of the floor. With two years of playing experience under his belt, he joins Simpson as a respected upperclassman.
Though inconsistent overall, Brandon Johns Jr. showed some promise off the bench last season as a freshman. While he has a professional build, a good motor and can provide a scoring burst if needed, he struggled at times to stay in front of his man defensively and battle for rebounds with other bigs. Shoring up those areas of his game could be key to him getting more playing time.
A similar sentiment holds true for his classmate, Colin Castleton. At 6-foot-11, Castleton is a shot-blocking big who can also step out offensively and knock down a perimeter shot. As a freshman though, he was overpowered by other bigs on the glass and wasn’t skilled enough around the basket to make his presence felt offensively. Realizing Michigan lacks depth down low, Howard has been working closely with Castleton to help him along.
Johns Jr. and Castleton will be relied on even more during the first few weeks of the regular season due to the absence of highly-touted freshman Franz Wagner, who suffered a broken wrist in practice two weeks ago. Just 18 years old, Wagner played professionally for Alba Berlin in Germany’s Basketball Bundesliga last season and earned the 2019 BBL Best Young Player Award. Though he has inevitably received comparisons to his older brother, Moe Wagner, he’s arrived as a more polished offensive player — with a sweet stroke and good distribution skills — and is a more willing defensive player. The coaching staff has raved about his temperament and savviness, so look for him to possibly take over a starting role upon returning to action.
If Simpson and Livers are the first two linchpins for the Wolverines, 7-foot-1, 265-lb senior Jon Teske is the other. “Big Sleep,” as he’s known to his teammates, has steadily improved throughout his time at Michigan, culminating in a junior statline of 9.5 points, seven rebounds and two blocks per game. He possesses 3-point range but arguably relied on that too frequently a season ago. As a rim-running center always active in transition, he should benefit from Howard’s up-tempo, transition offense — though his conditioning will be tested. Defensively, he’s one of the conference’s best shot-blockers and has the size to match opposing bigs in the post.
Backing up Teske at the ‘five’ is senior Austin Davis. Davis is a physical post player who can finish strong at the rim but isn’t particularly technical. He’ll provide a high-energy option off the bench for the Wolverines.
The 2019-2020 installment of Michigan is notably athletic but lacks a refined scorer, especially while Wagner’s sidelined. Howard’s emphasis on pushing the ball up the floor will cater to the team’s athleticism but its half-court offense may be suspect.
The Wolverines will undoubtedly rely on their tested veterans like Simpson, Livers and Teske. But the development of last season’s fringe contributors — Brooks, DeJulius, Johns Jr. and Castleton — will largely dictate how far Michigan progresses in Howard’s first year.