Coming into the year, the departure of Derrick Walton Jr. was perhaps the most painful roster hit for the Michigan men’s basketball team.
Jaaron Simmons was supposed to make it hurt a little bit less.
The former Mid-American conference star was coming off a season in which he averaged 15.9 points, 6.5 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game for Ohio — Walton-esque numbers. Landing an experienced graduate transfer in Simmons was another example of coach John Beilein’s keen, seldom-praised recruiting eye.
Because of his polished body of work, Simmons was the early front-runner for the Wolverines’ starting point guard spot. In addition to Simmons’ past production, the 2016-17 season inspired little confidence that then-freshman point guard Zavier Simpson could shoulder extra responsibility.
But fast forward nine months since Simmons’ announcement, and it looks like an experiment gone wrong. His current statline of 1.4 points, 1.4 assists and 0.7 boards is beyond falling off a cliff. It’s hitting rock bottom. Until recently, he sat behind Simpson and freshman Eli Brooks.
Being relegated to the role of the backup’s backup wasn’t a shock, even to the casual observer. Simmons looked uncomfortable, either with sloppy ball-handling or an inability to create a shot for himself, a skill that was on display with the Bobcats. After registering 10.9 minutes a game through the first eight games, that number dipped further to 6.2 in the next 11 contests, five of which he didn’t play in. Coach’s decision.
“We had different rules (than Ohio) that he wasn’t picking up as quickly,” Beilein said Sunday. “… He’s handled it like a champion. I told his parents they should be so proud of how he’s handled it. He gave up a lot to come here to play on the big stage. It hasn’t worked out so far.”
Against Maryland on Jan. 15, though, it appeared that Simmons had turned a corner. With 2:47 remaining in the first half, down 14 points in Michigan’s worst first-half performance to date, Beilein subbed Simmons in. At the time, Beilein’s decision was a head-scratcher — did he have a good week of practice? Was there an injury to Brooks or Simpson? Either way, it worked. Simmons capably piloted a 6-2 run, narrowing the halftime deficit to 10, and scored his first field goal — a buzzer-beating layup — since Nov. 29 at North Carolina.
The choice became clearer.
“We needed Eli to get his confidence back,” Beilein said. “… Where Jaaron, we put him on the scout team, he did some really good things. We just made that flip. Eli watched the game a little bit and we let Jaaron go. He’s given us some things. He’s playing better defense.”
In Michigan’s following two games, Simmons’ numbers were hardly showy — most wouldn’t bat an eye at a combined six points and two rebounds in a two-game span — but they display a previously unseen progression in his game. He has assumed the No. 2 role over Brooks as the first point guard off the bench against Nebraska and Rutgers.
In Sunday’s contest versus the Scarlet Knights, Simmons shot the ball four times in eight minutes, tying a season high, while Brooks didn’t see the floor. It’s what regaining confidence looks like after the toughest stretch of his college career.
“Even though he didn’t make his shots, all of them looked good,” said junior forward Moritz Wagner. “I told him to keep shooting, it looked great. Jaaron’s a really good player, he averaged like 18 points last year. I never averaged that many points. We all know he can hoop. I’ve been very impressed with the way he’s handling adversity this year. That’s the sign of a great teammate and he doesn’t care about any person or agenda. He just plays.”
Added Beilein: “I think down the stretch, if he makes a couple 3s (against Rutgers) that he makes in practice, I think we’re talking about him a lot more right now, and we will.”
It remains to be seen whether Simmons’ trajectory will continue to trend upward. If it does, it’s a change that the Wolverines would welcome with open arms. Simpson is not the starting point guard that Walton was — an offensive lynchpin playing 35 minutes a game. Simpson averages just 21.7 minutes per game. Having a guy who can come in when Simpson struggles could allow the Wolverines to make some noise come March.
A confident Jaaron Simmons can be that guy.