For college basketball programs around the country, the past six months can largely be described by one word: hectic. With their postseason upended by the coronavirus pandemic in mid-March, coaches and players alike were thrown into an early offseason full of unknowns.
Michigan was no exception. The Wolverines’ offseason was particularly turbulent — two key seniors graduated, three players transferred from the program, two more transferred in, incoming recruits committed and then decommitted, four freshmen tried to integrate themselves into the program despite limited contact with teammates and coaches and two players tested the NBA Draft waters.
Forward Isaiah Livers was among that final grouping. After investigating his draft prospects, Livers announced in July that he would return to Michigan for his final season. For the Wolverines and second-year coach Juwan Howard, his return promised a sliver of continuity amid tremendous turnover.
“It was a great afternoon when Isaiah stopped into my office and told us he would be returning,” Howard said in a statement following the news. “The opportunity for Isaiah, and his family, to take a deep dive and learn as much as they could about professional basketball is a blessing. … For us, we not only get a skilled and experienced veteran back, we get a true leader and one of the best young men I have met.”
Howard’s high praise indicates how important Livers was to Michigan last season. When healthy, the 6-foot-7 Kalamazoo native was a consistent deep threat and explosive transition player, finishing tied for the team lead with 12.9 points per game. Unfortunately for Michigan, his junior season was marred by injury. A lingering groin injury and later an injured ankle forced Livers to miss 10 games, of which Michigan lost five.
Assuming he can stay on the floor, Livers could be in for a big year. And, with a lot of new faces, his production and leadership will be critical to the Wolverines’ success.
The Daily broke down some of his best moments as a junior and where the NBA-hopeful could still improve.
One of Livers’s best performances of the season came early on in the championship game of the Battle 4 Atlantis.
Michigan, unranked at the time, overwhelmed then-No. 8 Gonzaga with a barrage of 3-pointers to secure the tournament trophy. Livers was key to this effort, shooting 5-for-8 from deep, 8-for-11 overall and racking up 21 points.
In this late-game sequence, Livers all but secures the Wolverines’ win with a deep triple. As the defense collapses on point guard Zavier Simpson, Livers patiently bides his time beyond the arc and gradually moves away from his defender. By the time Simpson finds Livers for the spot-up look, the Zags’ defender is too far away to adequately contend the shot. Livers, who is at least five feet behind the line, possesses the range to knock it down, even if he does get a fortuitous bounce.
Livers’ subtle movement and shooting prowess is on display once again in this clip.
Much of Michigan’s offense last season was predicated on the decision making of its primary ball-handler, Simpson, meaning the Wolverines’ perimeter players had to primarily operate off the ball. Livers was especially good at this.
In a tight game against Oregon, as Simpson drives into the paint, Livers makes an intelligent run towards the corner, where Simpson locates him for a wide-open look. For Livers, who shot 40.2 percent from three last season, they don’t come much easier than that.
In addition to making himself available for catch-and-shoot opportunities, Livers also showed good instincts on hard cuts into the lane.
As senior center Jon Teske retrieves the ball from Simpson at the top of the key, Purdue guard Jahaad Proctor hedges out to deter Teske from taking the three — a shot the big man is capable of hitting. Proctor’s slight hedge opens up enough space for Livers to dive into the lane, collect Teske’s two-handed dart and finish at the rim.
Though credit is due to Teske for his awareness and the pass, Livers’s own awareness creates the chance. Time and time again last season, Livers showed a unique ability to read the defense and make smart cuts into open spaces.
Earlier in that same game, Michigan runs a high-ball screen — stop me if you’ve heard that one before — but instead of involving Simpson and Teske, Livers sets it for guard David DeJulius. Livers fades off the pick back to the three-point line looking for the pass back from DeJulius.
As Livers gets the ball, the Purdue defender closes out to contest the anticipated shot. The defender runs out at an angle though, leaving the baseline wide open for Livers to attack off the dribble. Livers meets resistance at the rim in the form of the Boilermakers’ Trevion Williams but finishes through contact for two.
Livers is athletic enough to make plays like this on a more consistent basis. He can certainly shoot the ball at an impressive clip but without Simpson, who finished third in the country in assists, Livers will have to take matters into his own hands. Whether that means creating shots off the dribble or looking to drive into the paint more, Livers will likely have to shoulder more of the playmaking responsibility this season.
Livers’s range from three is one thing but his threat in transition is another entirely.
In his first season in charge, Howard implemented a fast-paced, transition offense that accentuated the speed of Simpson and DeJulius and the athleticism of players like Livers and freshman forward Franz Wagner.
In a 25-point blowout of Northwestern in February, Livers had two rim-rattling dunks on the fastbreak. It was just his second game back after re-aggravating his groin injury from earlier in the season. That didn’t seem to stop him though. On this play, it’s off to the races following a block by Teske. DeJulius, Livers and two other Wolverines sprint down the floor as the Wildcats struggle to get back. DeJulius catches Livers in stride, who then posterizes an unlucky Northwestern player.
“Every time I run down the middle, (DeJulius) is always giving it back to me,” Livers said after the game. “So I already knew. Let me run a little bit and see what (Northwestern forward Pete) Nance was going to do. He shadowed more towards Eli. I was there in my takeoff zone and went up off one. It’s exciting to get two dunks to finish a game without getting hurt.”
A perfect segway to the next clip.
Livers was starring in an increased role as a junior before injuring his groin on a dunk attempt against Presbyterian on Dec. 21.
The reckless abandon with which Livers attacks the rim is part of what makes him so electrifying in transition but also became an area of concern a season ago. After missing six games due to the initial tweak, Livers returned against Illinois.
Early in the second half, Simpson played a bounce pass from halfcourt to Livers who elevated to flush it down. Instead, he was fouled on the attempt by an Illini player and fell awkwardly under the basket. Livers, wincing in pain as he hobbled to the free throw line, had reinjured his groin, forcing him to sit out the next three games.
Livers is a high-flyer and his explosiveness an integral part of his game, but Michigan, and Livers himself, cannot afford another season plagued by injury. As difficult as it is to turn it on and off, it may be wise to reign in his attacking nature just a bit.
In returning for his senior season, Livers has a chance to lead the way for the Wolverines and improve his draft stock along the way. As long as he can stay on the court and create his own shots more frequently, he could be a nightmare for Michigan’s opponents.