It was supposed to be simple for Zavier Simpson.
Sit behind Derrick Walton Jr. for one season and start the next – like learning to drive with a permit before getting the keys to a new car. That was the expectation for the highly touted, four-star recruit from Lima, Ohio.
But Simpson barely saw the court during his freshman season, and when he did, he failed to establish himself offensively. Simpson was apprehensive with the ball, shot 37.2 percent and averaged just 1.6 points per game.
And then Simpson wasn’t given the keys. John Beilein, in fact, brought in someone else to take over.
“If there was an experienced player that we felt was a Michigan fit and was a guy with a lot of experience, we thought we better be sure,” Beilein said during last Wednesday’s Media Day. “We got a pretty good front line coming back here. Let’s make sure we have that quarterback.”
That quarterback was Jaaron Simmons – a former Ohio University star known for his scoring and distributing ability.
Pundits have projected Simmons to be one of the Big Ten’s best players this season. Little attention has been paid to Simpson.
And with Beilein naming freshman Eli Brooks as another viable starting point guard, Simpson’s role seemed even more unclear.
Six months after he saw the sophomore unfit to start, however, Beilein believes Simpson has made the necessary steps.
In last week’s open practice, Simpson joined forwards Duncan Robinson, Charles Matthews and Mortiz Wagner, along with guard Muhammed-Ali Abdul-Rahkman – four projected starters – on a team. Last year’s open practice also saw the five projected – and eventual – starters on a single team.
Per a source to The Athletic’s Brendan Quinn, the same five from Tuesday’s practice began Sunday’s closed scrimmage against Toledo.
So what gives? For one, Simpson isn’t timid on offense anymore.
“Definitely more assertiveness,” Adbul-Rahkman said of Simpson. “He’s got a year under his belt, so he’s more aggressive. When you’re in for limited time, you’re always going to be a little bit tentative because you don’t want to make a mistake because you know you’re coming out soon. He’s definitely shown aggressiveness this year.”
That was clear in the open scrimmage. Simpson continuously drove to the basket, using his quickness to get into the lane and generate scoring opportunities. And even when his layups were blocked, Simpson kept driving.
That confidence wasn’t there a season ago.
“I think he looks a lot more comfortable out there,” said sophomore guard Ibi Watson. “He’s really getting to play like his normal self, and that’s a common theme with most of us in our class.”
Simpson may not have received a lot of playing time last season. But he still has more experience in Beilein’s complicated offensive system than his competitors.
Brooks is a freshman. Simmons, who officially signed in May, has had even less time to adjust.
And that’s where Simpson can also be valuable to the Wolverines – as a teacher.
“Yeah, he’s someone we definitely look at for help,” Brooks said. “Definitely in practice when we go over plays and just knowing what you can do out of the offense is the biggest thing I learn from Zavier.”
Added Simpson: “I was obviously here a year more than (Simmons) was. He’s coming into a new system, so it’s probably tough for him. I was in that position last year, so me being able to help him individually – I just thought that was a good idea.”
If Beilein’s 10-year tenure in Ann Arbor is any indication, the Wolverines could need significant contributions from at least one of their point guards. Two out of three of Michigan’s Sweet 16 appearances this decade have seen dominant players in that position – from Trey Burke in 2013 to Walton last March.
Will Simpson be as good as Burke and Walton this season? Probably not. Simpson, though, does possess the knowledge and leadership to help Simmons and Brooks make plays in Michigan’s offense – in addition to adding his own defensive and slashing abilities.
Simpson may not say it publicly. But it’s likely that he doesn’t want to just be the teacher — that he wants to be the one taking and calling the shots. And that will be dependent upon whether this newfound aggressiveness pays dividends on the end of the court that matters the most.
It’s now time for Simpson to take his new car for a spin.
Mark Calcagno can be reached on Twitter @MWCalcagno.