At some point for Zavier Simpson, something clicked.
It could have been before the Michigan men’s basketball team took on UCLA, when Simpson’s defense against Bruins guard Aaron Holiday earned him extra minutes. He took advantage by adding a career-high 15 points in the comeback win.
Simpson matched that total against Iowa last week, and it got him the starting spot that he’d lost after a lackluster start to the season.
On Tuesday, against No. 5 Purdue, Simpson dropped 15 points again in a last-minute, one-point loss. And it was the manner in which Simpson scored those points that was most impressive.
With 5:34 left and the Wolverines down by three, junior forward Moritz Wagner corralled an offensive rebound off a missed free throw. He kicked it out to Simpson, who calmly waved Wagner over to set a screen. When Wagner did set the screen, Simpson dribbled to his right, drawing 7-foot-2 Boilermaker center Isaac Haas — who was guarding Wagner — to pick him up.
A few passes later, Simpson had the ball again with the towering Haas guarding him. Simpson eyed him, rose up and drilled a 3-pointer.
A little under a minute later, with the score still tied, senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman drove into the lane and kicked it out to Simpson, who was deep behind the 3-point line. The sophomore calmly rose up again and hit another.
They were clutch shots that you might expect to come from Wagner or redshirt sophomore guard Charles Matthews, but maybe not Simpson. Yet, with the improvements Simpson has made in his offensive game, and the control he’s beginning to take over his position, the shots shouldn’t come as a surprise.
“Everyday he’s learning he needs to evolve as a player, and he’s doing that,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “I like how receptive he is to it, but he’s never gonna give in. He’s gonna be more hardworking than anyone we have. And it paid off a little bit tonight.”
At the beginning of the season, Simpson struggled. After a game against Southern Mississippi where he was held scoreless with only one assist in 22 minutes, his minutes were severely chopped. Simpson started the next game against LSU, but he played just 10 minutes and again had 0 points.
Meanwhile, freshman Eli Brooks began to look more and more comfortable. He took Simpson’s starting spot just five games into the season, and it wasn’t until recently that Simpson took it back.
But now Simpson’s beginning to command respect. His 3-point percentage of 43.3 is the second-highest mark for the Wolverines, and his 5.7 points per game are a respectable sixth-best on a team that has plenty of other offensive options.
“He’s just learning right now how you play at this level as far as a big-time high school player (who) really had success and all those things,” Beilein said. “But just like when you go to the pros, there’s a whole other level of understanding of the game.”
With all that being said, Simpson will likely never be a go-to offensive player. But nobody’s asking him to be. Michigan just needs some sort of offensive threat from its point guard position in order to have a well-rounded offense.
That could mean hitting a tough layup in traffic, like he did in the first half against Purdue. It could mean distributing and protecting the ball — Simpson’s 2.77 assist-to-turnover ratio ranks him 39th among all NCAA Division 1 players.
Or, it could mean a clutch 3-pointer when his team needs it most.
Tuesday’s game may not be enough to prove that Simpson can be that kind of point guard all season, but if his recent performances are any indication, he may be as sure a bet as the Wolverines have.