On his first day as coach of the Michigan men’s basketball team, Juwan Howard asked Eli Brooks whether he would prefer to play point guard or shooting guard.
“I always said whatever gets me on the court,” Brooks recalled telling Howard during a Zoom call with reporters Tuesday.
At the time, there were open minutes at shooting guard, with Jordan Poole having bolted from Michigan for the NBA. Point guard, meanwhile, belonged to Zavier Simpson.
So Brooks, a natural point guard, played the cards he was dealt. He cemented himself as the starting shooting guard, flanking Simpson. Brooks was never going to be Poole — he is both less dynamic and less flamboyant — but his defensive prowess earned him a key role.
“He’s probably one of the best defensive guards in the league,” assistant coach Howard Eisley told The Daily last week. “Guys like that, they’re usually pretty hard to get off the floor.”
Indeed he was. Brooks made himself indispensable on the defensive end, often drawing matchups with the opponent’s marquee player — a role that could evolve as he plays more point guard this season. Without Brooks on the floor, the Wolverines were vulnerable. When a broken nose forced Brooks out of action last February, Wisconsin guard D’Mitrik Trice torched Michigan from the perimeter, scoring 28 points.
Acing the defensive assignment translated to increased playing time, with Brooks averaging 32 minutes per game, the second-most on the team. He logged over 35 minutes on nine separate occasions.
Brooks’s scoring touch soon followed suit. The numbers — 10.6 points per game and a 36% clip from beyond the arc — aren’t eye-popping. But he did what was asked of him, offering steady production on offense.
Now, entering his senior year, Brooks’s role has changed.
As Michigan wades into the post-Simpson era, there is a void to be filled. Brooks, graduate transfer Mike Smith and freshman Zeb Jackson are all vying for playing time at point guard. Out of the three, only Brooks has experience in the Big Ten, let alone in Howard’s system. He will be expected to serve as a lead ball-handler and facilitator at times. The Wolverines will need his offense to match his defense, both in terms of consistency and quality.
Brooks feels up for the challenge.
“I’m confident at either position,” Brooks said. “In practice, we play two different teams, so sometimes I’m the point guard, sometimes I’m the shooting guard. Even last year with (Simpson) being there, I got a lot of reps at both ends and (the coaches) like to see people on and off the ball.”
Eisley maintained that no one has an upper hand in the point guard competition. Regardless, Brooks is making a concerted effort to improve as a point guard, assuring he’ll be ready if and when called upon to lead the offense.
“Point guards can score for themselves out of ball screens and make decisions out of it for others,” Brooks said. “Like I said, I have to do a better job of seeing the floor and seeing the open man and not singling out a one-sided situation on a ball screen. You’ve got to see both sides.”
For Brooks, that entails watching film with a particular attention to detail.
“He has a very high basketball IQ,” Eisley said. “He sees the game from a coach standpoint of the moment, and he’s able to see things happening before they develop.”
Earlier this month, during Michigan’s first practice of the year, associate head coach Phil Martelli pulled Brooks and the rest of the seniors aside. He told them to take a snapshot of the moment — the last first practice of their college careers.
“It still hasn’t hit me,” Brooks said. “But it feels like I’ve been here forever.”
Brooks was a freshman on the 2017-18 team that finished as the runner-up in the NCAA Tournament and a sophomore on the 2018-19 team that saw its season end in the Sweet Sixteen. In both go-arounds, his impact was minimal.
Last year, Michigan didn’t get a chance to write its March chapter, its season truncated before the postseason due to the COVID-19 pandemic. To compensate, the NCAA DI Council extended an additional season of eligibility to all winter sport student-athletes. When asked about the proposition of returning for another year, Brooks seemed uninterested.
This year, then, presents itself as one final opportunity. Brooks admitted that much on Tuesday.
“This is the last season to do anything, so making sure that we have the opportunities to get to the championship, doing the right steps,” Brooks said. “I know everybody on the team wants a championship … I think (there’s) urgency for everybody, because coach (Juwan Howard) wants everybody’s last season to be memorable.”
For that to come to fruition, Brooks will have to play a vital part, building off last year’s strides. Michigan’s success may very well hinge upon his ability to run the offense and how long it takes for him to acclimate to that role.
Last season, Brooks proved himself to be a bona fide option at shooting guard, which makes this year’s transition a rarity. It’s not often that a dependable starter willingly switches positions ahead of his senior season. Michigan, though, has no other choice.
The change doesn’t faze Brooks.
“I don’t think it’s gonna be that big of a jump,” Brooks said. “We got a lot of players around. Not necessarily making crazy passes, just making the right play because we got a lot of talent around me and all the guards. Just make the right play.”