Zavier Simpson was the undisputed leader of the Michigan men’s basketball team a season ago. As he went, so did the Wolverines.
Given the then-senior point guard’s career accomplishments — namely leading Michigan to the 2018 National Championship game, three consecutive Sweet 16 appearances, two Big Ten Tournament titles, playing in a school record 146 games, finishing second in program history with 667 assists and as the all-time winningest Wolverine with classmate Jon Teske — and his confident “bulldog” aura, it’s no wonder why his teammates followed his lead.
With Simpson and Teske now gone, Michigan has had to replace that loss of leadership. Just weeks before the Wolverines are scheduled to tip off, it appears they’ve not only done that, but developed a deeper and more well-rounded group of leaders than they had at this time last year.
“I think early on it was the coaches but now it’s starting to become more player led,” senior guard Eli Brooks said. “… The coaches lead the larger points but our players lead our own little pods.
“… I think just everybody has stepped up, every position has those two or three leaders that bring up points in the individual breakouts. (Michigan coach Juwan Howard) always preaches that ‘It’s your team, you have a vote in it, too.’ I’ve seen a lot more guys speak up in practice so that’s been something that’s been really good.”
Nowadays, not many college programs feature a roster as experienced as Michigan’s. Between Brooks, senior wing Isaiah Livers, fifth-year senior center Austin Davis and two transfers entering their last year of eligibility — guards Mike Smith from Columbia and Chaundee Brown from Wake Forest — the Wolverines have five key rotation players of senior standing or higher. Add in juniors Brandon Johns Jr. and Adrien Nunez and sophomore forward Franz Wagner, who started 27 games last season, and you’re looking at one of the most veteran teams in the Big Ten if not the country.
Experience doesn’t always equate to leadership, though — especially when viewing it through a one-size-fits-all lens. As opposed to Simpson’s vocal and, at times, uncompromising leadership style, Brooks has a more subtle approach.
“I think I made a jump in that area, just speaking up, not necessarily in the same way that (Simpson) did but (with) teaching points and trying to get involved on that end,” Brooks said. “I try to teach them through it. Everybody has their different leading styles but sometimes they do need to change their different roles so I think that’s the area I can make the largest impact.”
Like Brooks, it has taken time for Livers and Davis to find their voice within the program. As a freshman, Livers was one of first players off the bench but is now the team’s most versatile weapon. Davis’s rise from riding the bench to now being a key contributor and mentor was less expected, but equally welcomed.
“I can’t point to one specific lightbulb moment, it’s been kind of a gradual rise to that type of (leadership) position,” Davis said. “I’ve been very lucky to have a lot of great leaders to set the example for me in the past four years of being here, all the way from (Derrick Walton), Zak Irvin and (Duncan Robinson) early on, going up through (Moe Wagner) and especially (Simpson) and (Teske). They’ve all been tremendous leaders and been great examples to try to model some of the ways they’ve led.”
Despite recently joining the team, the additions of Smith and Brown — who have played a combined 176 college games — give Michigan’s youngest players even more teammates to look up to.
“I can teach the young guys a lot of things they basically don’t know,” Brown said. “A lot of things they pick up on the fly, I tell them, just simple things they’ll catch on to that I’ve seen and things that work in this basketball conference.”
Added freshman forward Jace Howard: “We have leaders from top to bottom. … These guys are great. In terms of just the simple things like (Davis) putting his arm around you when he’s talking you through a play or (Brown) giving out a detail when you think you did the play right. In the locker room I feel like it’s just a very comfortable place in terms of its been an easy transition. They made our freshman experience a lot easier in terms of being able to take us under their wing. … The seniors don’t always have to be the nice guys … you don’t always have to be accepting of new faces but they have been which has been great.”
And if, for whatever reason, Brooks, Livers, Davis, Brown and Smith aren’t enough of a mentoring presence, there’s a little bit of Simpson in Wagner. After being named to the All Big-Ten Freshman Team and surveying his chances in the NBA Draft, Wagner returned to the Wolverines a confident player — one who displays the same competitive edge as Simpson.
“To kinda see what (Simpson) did, how much he did, how vocal he was, how much he talked with different people and the communication that you gotta have with different people,” Wagner said. “… Also sometimes being the guy that is not liked by everybody on the team. I think that’s a huge part of being a leader is you gotta say something that’s not always liked… I think part of that is being more vocal and kinda stepping into a leader role.”
So no, the two winningest players in program history are no longer in Ann Arbor. But in terms of leadership, Michigan may be better off.