Simpson's passing opens up Michigan's offense

Friday, March 22, 2019 - 8:26pm

Junior guard Zavier Simpson passed Trey Burke on Michigan's all-time assists leaderboard Thursday night.

Junior guard Zavier Simpson passed Trey Burke on Michigan's all-time assists leaderboard Thursday night. Buy this photo
Katelyn Mulcahy/Daily

DES MOINES, Iowa — Zavier Simpson smirked. He extended his right arm and flicked his wrist, a motion instantly recognizable as that of his hook shot.

But this wasn’t on the court, it was in the locker room. And the question the junior guard had been asked wasn’t about the shot. It was about his passing, and how he’d developed that aspect of his game.

Thursday night against Montana, Simpson extended his arm and flicked his wrist, a hook shot in the making. But instead of directing it toward the rim, he found junior center Jon Teske for a wide-open dunk to cap off a 10-0 run for Michigan.

The hook-shot alley-oop pass — used to trick the defense into thinking he’s shooting the ball when in reality he’s distributing it — is just the latest addition to Simpson’s arsenal. And while Simpson is more known for his defense and leadership, his passing game is just as vital to the Wolverines. Against the Grizzlies, he got his 412th through 421st career assists. It was his sixth game with double-digit assists in the last nine and with it, he passed former guard Trey Burke on the all-time leaderboard.

“Who knows how long this season can go,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “But for him to get there or even being in that company really says something.”

After beating Montana, 74-55, Michigan will face No. 10 seed Florida — a team that already has a level of familiarity with Simpson.

Gator assistants Darris Nichols and Jordan Mincy both saw Simpson play in high school — Nichols as a Florida assistant and Mincy when he was at Kent State in Simpson’s home state of Ohio. The Gators know of Simpson’s lack of size, at just six feet tall, and hope to exploit it. But that’s easier said than done.

Having watched him develop, they know his attitude and they’ve seen the intricacies in his game. They know beating him won’t be easy.

“It’s definitely gonna be difficult, especially knowing he’s kind of the motor behind the engine,” Mincy said. “And he gets them going, he definitely sets up opportunities.”

Added Nichols: “He has unbelievable court vision so you have to limit his vision and his ability to just find especially all the shooters that they have. … You’ve just gotta limit his ability to get everybody else involved.”

Like all great point guards, Simpson sees every corner of a court. But he also sees plays that could boost his teammates’ confidence, and that can be just as important. He sees the game first, his teammates second and himself third — the epitome of unselfishness. And when he can’t create looks for himself, he puts others in a position to succeed.

Against the Grizzlies, he didn’t just feed Teske and freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis at the basket. He also noticed that sophomore guard Jordan Poole was in a bit of a slump and made sure to get him the ball in an open look. Poole hit the three.

Simpson’s approach to plays like that is to win first. But once the team is in a good position to do so — as the Wolverines were on Thursday, up 11 early in the second half against an inferior team — he tries to get guys going, get them open looks so that they can see their shots going in.

“He just gives guys confidence,” said assistant coach Saddi Washington. “Some guys just have that ‘it’ factor in terms of their leadership and … there’s a lot of trust because they know he has their back and he’s always gonna be fighting for it.”

In practice, Simpson goes just as hard as he does in a championship game, playing with his usual confidence and his usual flow. That mentality has permeated to the scout team, which could spur their improvement in a similar way to how Simpson himself has improved.

After all, there’s a reason Simpson didn’t see a ton of the court his freshman year, or even at the beginning of his sophomore year. He took extra dribbles before passing to the open man and didn’t yet have full command of Michigan’s offensive blueprint.

But now that he does? It’s like choreography, the way Simpson distributes the ball for easy points, whether that’s by chest passes, bounce passes or, yes, even decoy hook shots. That’s the reason his assist numbers have exploded going into March. And now, with the Wolverines in the dance, Simpson’s passing will be vital in opening up an offense that has at times been stagnant.

“He definitely tries to put us in situations where we’re able to be successful,” Poole said. “Being able to have a guy who’s able to put us in situations to make shots, make easy shots?

“It’s something that only every scorer asks for.”