Livers readies for role as Michigan’s focal point
Zavier Simpson’s graduation in May ushered the Michigan men’s basketball team into a new era.
The ramifications of his absence have been repeated ad nauseum, but for good reason — it’s nearly impossible to quantify his impact. Michigan’s offense was predicated on Simpson’s role as a floor general and shot-creator. It goes without saying, then, that this year’s team will operate differently.
Early indications point to more of a multifaceted approach.
“There’s more playmakers,” senior forward Isaiah Livers said Friday. “(Simpson) did a tremendous job leading the offense last year and creating plays for others. This year it’s kinda different. … It’s going to be multiple guys bringing the ball up the floor, multiple guys can start a play, multiple guys can guard any position.”
With Wake Forest transfer Chaundee Brown receiving immediate eligibility earlier this month, Michigan features one of the most prolific trios of wing players in the nation with Brown, Livers and sophomore Franz Wagner. Now, they figure to be the cornerstones of this year’s group.
“We’re the focal point,” Livers said. “We’re probably gonna be the people that other teams are gonna be focused on and scouting.”
For Livers, being the primary option comprises an unfamiliar role. Throughout his first two seasons, Livers was a rotational piece, starting in only 25 of 75 games. On rosters headlined by the likes of Moe Wagner, Ignas Brazdeikis and Charles Matthews, he wasn’t needed to put up points. His value, instead, rested on defense.
Last year, Livers stepped further into the limelight, emerging as Michigan’s most potent threat when healthy. He scored 12.9 points per game, tied for a team-high. Still, he played second fiddle to Simpson. Livers excelled in catch-and-shoot situations and while running the floor, but dribble-drives and general playmaking were largely lacking.
Over the offseason, Livers sought to address his weaknesses. For the second consecutive summer, he worked with Micah Lancaster, a skill development trainer who has worked with NBA All-Stars like Kyrie Irving and Karl-Anthony Towns. This time around, Livers focused on sharpening his ball-handling and quickening his footwork.
“You watch some of his drills and stuff and it’s really challenging,” Livers said of Lancaster. “But that’s why I keep going back to him, because he always has something that I can’t do.”
In this year’s offense — one likely to feature a fluid approach without a single ball-dominant point guard — ball-handling and footwork are all the more important for Livers. In the past, Simpson’s shot-creating ability masked some of Livers’ deficiencies. This year, he will be asked to do more on his own.
Yet rather than press, Livers is making a concerted effort to maintain a similar approach from prior seasons.
“I can’t deviate from the script (Michigan coach Juwan Howard) creates,” Livers said. “I don’t have to force anything, force any shots or force my dominance on the defensive end and get in foul trouble, because I trust what Coach Howard has implemented so far.”
Added Howard: “He always had that mindset coming out here with a great attitude, working hard, being a great leader. … We expect a fun year from him and a big year, because we’re gonna need him. And he knows it. We trust Isaiah.”
As Michigan wades into the upcoming season, Livers is conscious of the voids Simpson, as well as co-captain Jon Teske, left behind and his role in filling them. At the same time, he is confident in the pieces around him to ease that transition.
“You can’t just scout two players ’cause there’s other players on this team that can make a lot of plays and make you hurt,” Livers said.
When listing Michigan’s plethora of wing players, Livers named everyone from Wagner to senior walk-on forward CJ Baird. He praised the new-look backcourt, lauding the shot-making abilities of graduate transfer Mike Smith and veteran expertise of senior Eli Brooks. And of this year’s freshmen, he noted that they are more advanced in their development than he was at their age.
For Livers, the talent around him serves as a reminder that being the lead man is, in part, a balancing act.
“That’s definitely something I have to keep telling myself,” Livers said. “I really don’t have to come out here and do the most and try to show the world who I am. That’ll come as it goes. Let the game come to me, as Coach Howard tells me.”
As the season looms, only time will tell whether he can.
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