[Photos/graphic: Marc-Gregor Campredon]
The team preview posts begin with Michigan's biggest hole to fill. Derrick Walton was nothing short of spectacular in his final season running the point for John Beilein.
Ever since Michigan picked up Ohio grad transfer Jaaron Simmons this spring, the expectation has been that he'd step into the starting spot. At least for the moment, however, this is an open competition with sophomore Zavier Simpson and freshman Eli Brooks. John Beilein at last week's media day:
“It’s all three. We have a scrimmage coming up Sunday. I have no idea who I’m gonna start, it could be any one of those three. That is the honest truth. I would expect that to be revolving a little bit and hopefully somebody wins it down the line. We might have a quarterback controversy.”
So far Beilein has gone with experience within his system; Simpson started last week's exhibition. While it looks like a two-man race between him and Simmons, expect to see all three point guards on the floor as Beilein does his usual early-season tinkering with lineup combinations.
"None of those guards came in and said ‘okay, I’m the guy.’ Maybe it’s because they’re playing so hard against each other, really. There is a war going on out there every day and it’s really good."
Beilein is certainly hoping someone steps to the forefront. As Michigan fans well know, his best teams in Ann Arbor have all featured excellent point guard play.
[Hit THE JUMP for individual player previews.]
Simpson has already shown potential as a defensive stopper. [Campredon]
Measurables: 6'0", 185
Base Stats: 8.7 MPG, 1.6 PPG, 46/26/71 2P/3P/FT%, 0.6 REB/G, 37 assists, 19 turnovers, 20 steals
Key Advanced Metrics: 15.6% usage, 9.6% shot, 100.6 ORating, 18.4 assist rate, 24.6 turnover rate, 3.8% steal rate, 5.7 fouls/40 minutes
No, that's not a typo: the program announced over the offseason that the Artist Previously Known As X is now using his proper birth name spelling, Zavier. I will no doubt screw this up several times over the course of the season. Bear with me.
The big question with Simpson is whether he's added enough to his offensive game to be a full-time player under Beilein. At least in practice, the early returns have been positive, according to Beilein:
“He’s doing better. He’s shot the ball really well. [Last year] he really helped the team defensively, I know that. Offensively, still, there’s some things that like most freshmen, you were still evolving. He’s done a much better job of that stuff. He’s a high-energy guy. ... He’s like Derrick Walton numbers as far as his intensity in practice. Skill level has improved a great deal and he’s a great kid to coach.”
The most important skill Simpson has to hone is his outside shot. He made only 5-of-19 three-point attempts last year even though opponents figured out they could dare him to shoot; his release looked goofy and he didn't seem comfortable putting the ball up at times. There's hope for improvement; he was a big-time scorer in high school and his shot form looked notably better at the media day open practice. Whether that carries over to games is yet to be seen. Simpson's only three-point attempt in the exhibition was, unfortunately, an airball.
Even with an improved shot, Simpson will be more inclined to attack off the dribble than pull up for a jumper. He flashed some potential as a pick-and-roll ballhandler late last year. He snuck past the Big Ten's best shot-blocker, Reggie Lynch, for a layup in the Big Ten Tournament. His stature is going to prevent him from being a completely reliable finisher—Grand Valley State blocked one of his layup attempts in the exhibition—so he's going to have to display strong passing acumen, something he did in the BTT title game:
With improved efficiency, Simpson could function as the starting point guard in this offense so long as he's surrounded by quality shooters who can space the floor for his drives. He doesn't need to be a star on offense, both because there are better scoring options—namely Moe Wagner, Charles Matthews, and Duncan Robinson—and because Simpson is already one of the better perimeter defenders Beilein has had at the point.
Simply put, Simpson is a gnat on defense. He's already adept at navigating the pick-and-roll, one of the most difficult concepts to grasp on that end, and his lateral agility is such that it's difficult to get by him. He's also got active hands. According to Synergy, he graded out in the 80th percentile as a primary defender last season; by comparison (and in a much larger sample), Walton was in the 58th percentile. While Simpson needs to cut down on fouls, Michigan doesn't need him to stay on the floor for 35 minutes, so he can maintain his aggressiveness. He should be a defensive upgrade, even if that won't make up for the offensive dropoff from Walton. In an ideal world, he's probably coming off the bench so Beilein can cherry-pick his matchups and/or deploy him as a situational defensive stopper, but if he wins the job over Simmons it likely means his offense has reached a decent place.
Simmons won't have to shoulder as much of the load as he did at Ohio. [Campredon]
Measurables: 6'1", 185
Base Stats (at Ohio): 36.0 MPG, 15.9 PPG, 46/35/72 2P/3P/FT%, 3.5 REB/G, 200 assists, 123 turnovers, 29 steals
Key Advanced Metrics: 27.8% usage, 99.7 ORating, 34.5 assist rate, 22.0 turnover rate, 5.4 fouls drawn/40 minutes
Simmons is not only adjusting to a new system after grad-transferring from Ohio; he's also settling into a new role after being The Guy for the Bobcats over the last two years. Simmons took on usage rates well over 25% in each of the last two seasons, and while his efficiency suffered for it, his production was remarkable; he's posted top-25 assist rates in each of the last two years while averaging 16 points a game over that span.
Simmons was brought in largely for his ability as a pick-and-roll ballhandler; the high screen and its many potential variations was the staple of Michigan's offense last year as Walton and Wagner kept defenses totally off-balance. While not quite on the level of Walton, Simmons was still quite good as a P&R ballhandler last year, grading out in the 70th percentile, per Synergy. He's also a capable scorer when left to his own devices, reaching the 79th percentile on isolation plays.
There are two main concerns with Simmons. The first is his outside shot; his three-point percentage dipped from 42% to 35% when he took on more of the scoring load last year. He actually seems more dangerous shooting off the bounce than spotting up—he graded out in only the 28th percentile on catch-and-shoot opportunities. That's reason to worry, as is his form—he has a slow and sometimes inconsistent release because, as a right-handed shooter, he swings the ball past his left hip before bringing it up to release.
The other is how he adjusts to the higher level of competition. Beilein:
“Oh, boy. First of all, they’re playing man to man, it’s a very good man to man at Ohio U, but some of the principles are different. He’s trying to learn some of those principles. The MAC is a pretty strong league, as you know, but maybe the length and size of people is something he’s adjusting to—and I’m talking about people in the gaps and the whole idea. It might just be one inch or two inches but it does really make a difference whether the center is 6’8” or 6’9” or 6’10” or 6’11”, or if the wing is 6’6” or 6’7”. He’s working on it every day. He’s right in the hunt right now. None of those guards came in and said ‘okay, I’m the guy.’ Maybe it’s because they’re playing so hard against each other, really. There is a war going on out there every day and it’s really good.”
Simmons may have to wait behind Simpson while getting acclimated to the offense. He'll get plenty of time with the starters in the early going, however, and if he develops a rapport with Wagner the job is ultimately his to lose. He's one of two huge wild cards on this team. With more talent surrounding him than ever before, he could be an all-conference player; with a difficult offense to learn while facing better competition, he could finish his career as a backup. The guess here is he'll end up closer to the former than the latter.
Brooks could get some of his minutes at the two. [Campredon]
Measurables: 6'0", 170
Recruiting profile: 3-star, #39 point guard, #201 overall (247 Composite)
Brooks appears to be the third man in this three-man derby. While his total minutes played in the exhibition were comparable to Simpson and Simmons, he spent a good deal of that time playing off the ball, and he got third crack at running the point with the first team.
That doesn't necessarily mean Brooks is in line for a spot on the end of the bench, however. He's a Pennsylvania high school legend after scoring over 2,000 points in four years of varsity ball at Spring Grove, and Beilein has taken note of his ability to put the ball in the bucket:
“His percentages for a guard, I think he’s shooting 50% from two. That’s really good for a guard. And threes, he’s shooting a high percentage from both spots. He’s shown a real unique ability to catch on very quickly to many things.”
Notably, freshman two-guard Jordan Poole didn't see any minutes until walk-ons time in the exhibition; that indicates he's on the path to a redshirt. Unless Ibi Watson takes a huge leap forward from his rough freshman year, that leaves some minutes available at shooting guard; Brooks could work his way into some smaller two-PG lineups. A larger role will probably have to wait until next year, but don't sleep on Brooks, who fits a similar profile as Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, another uber-productive Pennsylvania high school player who flew under the recruiting radar.