Michigan men's basketball: What (we think) we've learned so far

Monday, October 29, 2018 - 7:33pm

Michigan coach John Beilein will look to a host of players to replace last year's lost production.

Michigan coach John Beilein will look to a host of players to replace last year's lost production. Buy this photo
Evan Aaron/Daily

It has become a trademark of John Beilein-coached teams: They’re hard to figure out. At least at first.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t try.

The Michigan men’s basketball team has now opened parts of three practices to the media and most recently opened the last hour of practice Monday night to the public. Fans were treated to various drills, a 30-minute, full-court five-on-five scrimmage between Maize and Blue teams and a three-point shooting contest between sophomores Isaiah Livers and Jordan Poole. (Poole drained twelve treys in a row to cruise to the victory.)

With the obvious caveat that the Wolverines have yet to play a game, here are five observations to draw from the last month of availability and Monday’s practice in particular:

This is Zavier Simpson’s team

He might not be Michigan’s best player, and he certainly doesn’t have the most pro potential on the team. But the junior point guard’s importance is unmatched.

During five-on-five drills after the Wolverines’ media day on Oct. 22, Simpson was his typical ball-of-fire self, constantly barking at players after defensive stops, all the while leading with his signature ferociousness.

While he was much more toned down on Monday, his influence was still obvious. In one sequence, he leapt to snare an errant pass with both hands before finding sophomore guard Eli Brooks with a perfect outlet pass, leading to a Livers alley-oop finish.

Defensive intensity will always be Simpson’s calling card, but Michigan’s practices have also shown a player very much in control of the offense, who at the same time is aware of his limitations.

While not necessarily explosive, Simpson has shown a knack for crafty finishing — before scrimmage drills at the past two open practices, he could be seen working on unorthodox flip shots from almost underhand angles. And during this Monday’s scrimmage, he showed the physicality necessary to drive past freshman guard David DeJulius for layups on multiple occasions.

Simpson’s main weakness — his shooting — didn’t seem to impair his unit’s offensive production on Monday either, as efficient passing, off-ball movement and a solid pick-and-roll connection with junior center Jon Teske made up for this deficiency. He’s a different kind of floor general than Beilein has had in years past. That much was clear last year, but this year, it’s even more apparent how Simpson’s molded Michigan’s identity.

Big men will be a focal point

The aforementioned Simpson-Teske two-man game dominated the Maize team’s offensive sets, and if Monday was any evidence, the Wolverines may rely on their big men quite heavily for production. What that actually entails, though, is still up for debate.

Teske and redshirt sophomore center Austin Davis displayed solid mobility after setting screens and diving to the basket, and both flashed an ability to finish in traffic. Neither showed much ability to score with their backs to the basket, but post-ups usually are not a large part of Beilein’s offenses anyway.

Teske’s improved shooting has been of interest this offseason. In Monday’s scrimmage, he airballed his first attempt from three-point range, but later on, he was able to set his feet and flush a 17-foot jumper with no hesitation. More importantly, though, Beilein could be heard on multiple occasions yelling at the Maize team to set up the pick-and-pop game. Even if Teske isn’t Moritz Wagner from downtown, the Wolverines clearly are confident that they’ll be able to run offense through him.

Ignas Brazdeikis will be counted on

Brazdeikis started at power forward during Michigan’s closed-door scrimmage at Toledo last Saturday, per The Athletic’s Brendan Quinn. It’s a sign that the Wolverines want to get their prized freshman on the court in any way they can.

It’s pretty clear why — Brazdeikis simply knows how to score. Not only is he athletic, skillful and physical, but he possesses a relentless determination to attack the basket, getting to the line multiple times during Monday’s scrimmage. For a Michigan team with a dearth of shot-creators, Brazdeikis’ aggression will be essential.

However, Brazdeikis also functioned as a ball-stopper, and there was generally less offensive movement on his Blue team with him in the game — almost every time Brazdeikis got the ball, he put his head down and drove straight to the basket. In an offensive system that relies on constant motion and generating open shots, Brazdeikis will still have to refine his raw scoring ability.

Livers still expanding his game

Players and coaches alike have wanted the sophomore forward to take more offensive initiative this season. Monday’s scrimmage was encouraging in this regard — but it was also a reminder that it won’t happen overnight.

In one offensive set, Livers received the ball alone at the top of the key, with Charles Matthews just out of position to close out. Livers paused for a second too long and ended up passing out of the situation, prompting Beilein to shout, “Shoot that, Isaiah!”

One possession later, Livers made up for his indecision. Curling to his left, he received a pass on the right wing and put up a catch-and-shoot three without any hesitation, catching nothing but net. The Wolverines hope he eventually won’t need a reminder to do so.

Adrien Nunez might have a role

The freshman guard from Brooklyn, N.Y., on the other hand, doesn’t need to be told twice to let it fly, which might explain why he started the scrimmage for the Maize team on Monday.

Nunez might be the least-heralded member of Michigan’s freshman class, but one could argue he’s already the best pure shooter on the team. He has a quick, smooth release with terrific elevation and little excess motion. With Duncan Robinson gone to the NBA after drilling 237 treys over the last three years, Nunez is the closest thing the Wolverines have to a like-for-like replacement as a shooter.

Nunez missed all three of his 3-point attempts in the 30-minute scrimmage, but those three attempts were diverse — they came from the left corner, off a screen and four feet behind the arc — and displayed what Michigan will need from him this season. If those shots start to fall, Nunez could find himself in an integral role sooner than later, considering the Wolverines’ team composition.

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