Xavier Simpson scored 65 points in a high school game last year, but the only memories he recalls from that performance were his first two shots, both layups that he missed wildly.
The freshman guard doesn’t like making mistakes. He’d rather pick up a box score and see a zero in the turnover column beside his name than some ridiculous stat, like 65 points or a triple-double.
As Michigan moves on from relying on the basketball minds of Caris LeVert and Spike Albrecht, a perfectionist with great vision like Simpson will bring fresh ideas to a Wolverine backcourt looking for a change in identity.
At the prep level, Simpson showed that he has all the intangibles — excellent ball handling, solid perimeter defense and efficient passing — to become a star collegiate point guard.
But the one trait that has impressed Michigan coach John Beilein the most is his quickness. While many freshmen initially struggle to speed their game up to the college level, Beilein doesn’t expect that to be a problem for Simpson.
“He’s very, very quick in small spaces,” Beilein said. “He’s almost like a running back who can hit the hole, cut and get into spots. He’s really good. He really sees the game very well.”
It’s no surprise that comparisons between Simpson and a young Derrick Walton Jr. have been a part of any conversation involving the freshman, given the similar skills they left high school with.
“I feel like I can model my game around (Walton),” Simpson said. “We’re similar in some areas and different in some areas, but at the same time he’s been in my shoes three years ago. It’s good to have someone there that can help me through certain situations.”
While it’s easy to imagine how Simpson will fill the role as Walton’s understudy, Beilein wants to cast the freshman in a bigger part from the start.
By playing them together, Beilein hopes the combined quickness of Simpson and Walton can push the tempo of any game to the benefit of the Wolverines.
“Derrick knows (Simpson) is the heir-apparent here and Derrick’s going to be challenging him,” Beilein said. “You should look forward to seeing both of them in the backcourt at the same time. We’re going to let Derrick come out to hunt shots and let ‘X’ run the team. You could see that more than you’d ever expect.”
In addition to shaping his game around Walton’s, Simpson looks to a close friend who is about to start his NBA career for inspiration.
Phoenix Suns guard Tyler Ulis and Simpson both grew up in Lima, Ohio. They’re both undersized guards who, as kids, developed past-first games that focus on minimizing turnovers and mistakes. The two remain in contact today, as Simpson continues to look up to and praise Ulis’ strengths.
“His assist-to-turnover ratio,” Simpson said. “The small plays he makes, the IQ, and the plays he makes at different times. His awareness to the defense. He told me growing up to try not to pay too much attention to the person who’s guarding you, see what the other defenders are doing.”
During his freshman year at Kentucky, Ulis earned a 4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, and since Walton started 36 games his first year, using Ulis’ stats as a measuring stick for Simpson will be more rational. If the freshman can replicate the production Ulis delivered coming off the bench for a Wildcat team that went 38-1, he could turn Michigan into a top contender in the Big Ten and beyond.
Sometimes this season, he’ll draw from Walton, other times from Ulis. But by season’s end, don’t be suprised if Simpson has a brand and style all his own.