Maximizing Zavier Simpson Comment Count

Matt Way July 5th, 2018 at 9:35 AM

[Photo: Marc-Gregor Campredon]

Fresh off a Title Game run, Michigan and John Beilein have plenty of re-tooling to do. Losing several rotation members, the team’s likely starting lineup of Zavier Simpson, Jordan Poole, Charles Matthews, Isaiah Livers, and Jon Teske played only 29 possessions together (15 on offense, 14 on defense) last season per Hoop Lens. That particular lineup struggled mightily, but given the sample size, there’s little real conclusions that can be drawn from those minutes.

We can, however, look at each player and their successes in 2017-18 for clues as to how next season’s starting lineup might operate.

Here, we start with the returning floor general.

Simpson made significant strides in his sophomore season, especially on the offensive end of the floor. The Ohio native doubled his two-point field goal attempts per 100 possessions while improving his shooting on those attempts from 45.8 percent in his freshman year to 56.2 percent last season.

The point guard’s increased efficiency resulted largely from his masterful work in the pick-and-roll. Simpson’s operation on high screens was important due to the less reliable outside shooting around him – Michigan’s three-point shooting dropped from 38.5 percent in 2016-17 to 35.7 percent a year ago. Losing Duncan Robinson, Moe Wagner, and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, Michigan will rely on Simpson off the dribble even more in the fall.

Simpson’s most valuable asset is his first step and general quickness. His quickness is particularly advantageous when there are fewer defenders that can potentially impede his route to the basket. That primarily comes in two forms – in space and along the short side of the court. The latter is perhaps less intuitive because it results in less space to operate. But defenses generally commit less manpower to those areas.

[Hit THE JUMP for Simpson torching MSU, his growing rapport with Jon Teske, and much more.]

At no point was Simpson’s quickness more on display than in his fine performances against Michigan State. Those two victories provide a blueprint for what we can expect the type of situations he will be put in next season.

Late in the first half in East Lansing, Michigan initiates action on the opposite half of the court before Matthews switches the ball to Simpson. The initial action and the threat of Wagner along the perimeter keeps the paint clear. Simpson takes advantage immediately by beating Cassius Winston to the sideline and Gavin Schilling is late to help because he’s forced to stay home on Wagner:

Simpson can be invaluable in this spot as a secondary playmaker. If opponents defend the play on the opposite half of the court, the middle of the floor is generally going to be open for Simpson to do his thing.

At the beginning of the second half, Michigan makes a more conscious effort to clear the middle for Simpson on an inbounds play. After his initial drive fails, he kicks it out to MAAR who purposefully clears out the short side of the court and joins the crowd of shooters at the top of the perimeter. Livers makes himself available to screen for MAAR, which keeps Jaren Jackson at bay to provide a clear path to the basket resulting in free throws:

The threat of Simpson along the sideline is no secret to opponents and it’s an important tool for Michigan to use in the pick-and-pop game.  When screens are run toward the middle of the floor, defenses have more options in terms of providing help to stunt a drive.

When Michigan ran screens toward the middle of the floor in the first half, State was able to easily recover and prevent deep looks:

Contrast that with an earlier possession where Wagner ran a screen toward the short side. Nick Ward was obligated to cut off the sideline drive and thus had no chance to recover and contest the resulting three-point attempt:

Now, that’s not to say that Simpson wasn’t ever successful in the middle of the court. He was, in fact, quite productive on numerous occasions against State while driving through the center. But that success rarely came in the form of a completed screen.  Most often, Michigan cleared space in the middle by slipping screens or simply clearing space underneath what looked like a pick-and-roll.

In the Big Ten Tournament, Wagner slid to the rim perfectly in the second half. Schilling had to pause to contain Simpson because Winston was still recovering and Simpson hit Wagner with a perfect bounce pass for an easy layup:

In East Lansing, Wagner didn’t even attempt to set a screen but he cleared space for Simpson by simply shifting underneath him. In doing so, he moved Ward out of the middle and created a driving lane for Simpson. Jackson and Bridges had to stay home on shooters just enough to give Simpson a clean look at a clutch runner.

One of the other ways that Michigan used middle screens to aid Simpson became a staple of the offense later in the year as the game began to slow down for Jon Teske.

During a tie game, Teske set a middle pick for Simpson and then slid down to the paint and sealed his man. Recognizing that Winston was off-balance, Simpson crossed over and drove at Teske who had already cleared a red carpet to the rim:

A similar play was successful in the Big Ten Tournament against Lourawls Nairn. Simpson resets after the first screen went nowhere, Teske slips the second iteration, and Simpson drives to the side that he knows his teammate will have sealed off. The result is again an easy layup:

The success that came from clearing out on middle screens is important. Sure, Zavier is incredibly quick. But if Michigan is only running action toward the sideline and baseline for him, opponents will inevitably scheme for and limit it. Variation in screens provide limitless opportunities, especially for someone like Simpson who is exceptionally adept at setting up and reading picks.

Zavier’s offensive game really flourished when he began to use his teammates to misdirect defenders.

Early at the game in Madison Square Garden, Michigan ran a basic action to the right to free up Livers. Ever aware, Simpson recognized that Ward’s back was to him because he was watching the screen and he took full advantage by streaking past both Ward and Winston to the rim:

Later in the same game, Simpson used misdirection in a slightly different way. When Teske returned to the ball as a screener, Zavier moved Winston that way with a quick shoulder fake which opened up just enough space for a driving lane and two points:

At State, Simpson moved the help defense by simply pointing Teske to where he presumably wanted him to screen. It didn’t move the primary defender, but it did shift Xavier Tillman away from the driving lane that Simpson ended up taking.

Subtle moves like those in the last two clips became commonplace for Zavier late in the season. His recognition and manipulation of defenders on high screens created easy penetration for Simpson and open looks for his teammates.

With fewer proven shooters returning in the fall, Simpson’s strong play on the perimeter will be a necessity if Michigan hopes to replicate its success in 2018-19. The coaching staff will need to continue to vary the ways in which they create space for Simpson to maximize him. If they do, Zavier will make things a whole lot easier for his young teammates.



July 5th, 2018 at 9:55 AM ^

Teske showed flashes at times last year, but I really wish we had someone a bit better at Center for next year. That could be a major liability, just because he's so limited athletically.

True Blue Grit

July 5th, 2018 at 10:29 AM ^

Yeah, he is what he is athletically.   But he is a very good defender and solid rebounder.  So, we'll be fine with him there.  If Beilein and the coaches can work with him to develop a short range jump shot (like 10 footers or so) and continue to have Simpson look for ways to feed him the ball on breaks to the basket, he can increase his scoring average.  I doubt though he'll ever be a proficient 3 point shooter.  


July 5th, 2018 at 11:14 AM ^

This will be the most fascinating aspect of the offense next year.  How well does the ball-screen offense work when neither the PG or C is an effective outside shooter?  

I guess Darius Morris and Jordan Morgan were effective together.  But this will be an interesting off-season for Beilein to tinker with offense given that he has so few proven shooters on the court.  (Meanwhile they're drooling over this potential defense....)


July 5th, 2018 at 2:10 PM ^

Darius Morris was much taller and a better passer (at the moment) than Z and not nearly as good defensively, but the main thing to remember is that Morris and Morgan were part of an average team (21-14).  We expect & hope for more now.  

I thought this article was going to be something different, but, imho, for Z to improve the team he needs to develop a reliable catch and shoot jumper.  Preferably from 3 pt. land.  

The other thing that he can improve is his offensive PG play.  He improved tremendously over the year, but he faces new challenges this year without Wagner and Rakhman to help him and lots of freshmen-rarely used players to integrate into the offense.

 I'm figuring that this latter (PG skills) might be the easier of the two opportunities for him to capitalize on, but I would never count him out on either one as he is a tremendously hard worker.  


July 5th, 2018 at 10:00 AM ^

Great write up. I'm excited to see how Beilein deploys his new freshman talent to supplement this kind of pick-and-roll play. What freshman is going to step up and provide that firepower from 3 to make the pick-and-roll or pick and pop game really go?

Indy Pete - Go Blue

July 5th, 2018 at 12:40 PM ^

Thanks for the excellent info and presentation Matt. Z was the X factor last year, regardless of his first initial.  I am thrilled that we will have him for 2 more years. His incredible quickness was apparent even in his very limited minutes as a true freshman. His leadership and his Z-fense set the tone for the team. We are very lucky to have him.


July 5th, 2018 at 12:46 PM ^

Well. I will continue to be the rainer on this Simpson parade. He has a huge achilles heel on the offensive end of the floor-he, pretty much, can't shoot outside of 12 feet. Additionally, he is at best an average passer as is his general court sense...and these are traits that one either has or doesn't-not easily taught. He was exposed during the NCAA tournament and his deficiencies will be fully exploited this coming year. This is a different year and teams will be fully prepared by playing him soft away from the basket and making him prove he can do more than make layups. I would love to see his game come together but I believe it is a very long-shot...pun intended. I absolutely love his dynamic defense but you cannot play PG at this level and be such an offensive liability. 


July 5th, 2018 at 5:18 PM ^

I know this game inside out, backward, forward, upside down...I played the position and have coached and officiated the game enough that I do not need to see more than a couple clips. I went to their opening tournament game in Wichita-where we live. He got figured out as the tournament went along.The kid is an offensive liability...bordering being a huge one. You can massage him with your partisan fandom as much as you wish but this is the reality. And here, the problem is that playing the point well is an innate skill and he does not have it-he shows flashes but it is not there on a consistent can only coach it into being to a certain extent. Interestingly, DeJulius and Brooks have it. This is going to be a huge coaching challenge for Beilein. I am most curious how this is going to play out.


July 6th, 2018 at 9:16 AM ^

So what if he completely shuts down the opposing point guard?? Same with the other commenter who was down on Teske.  We know that Teske and Simpson are limited on offense, but they are both excellent on defense. 

Zavier went 4/8 from the field while holding the national player of the year to 3/8 from the field.  That is pretty damn good.


July 5th, 2018 at 12:56 PM ^

Awesome write-up! I love Simpson. He embodies the blue-collar feel to the team that out-worked just about everybody in their incredible tournament run. 

I have to ask, is anyone getting ads before the GIFs for the first time? What's going on with that?


July 5th, 2018 at 7:02 PM ^

I went to the father and son basketball camp and Beilein mentioned that Simpson's shooting form is because he looks over the ball when he shoots. He said they teach to look under ball and that they were working on that with him. Sounded like he expected his form to look very different this year.


July 5th, 2018 at 10:54 PM ^

I know one dude got a bit blasted for criticizing Z's shooting in a harsh manner.

(Know I'm saying all this as a season ticket holder who got giddy about last year's team in early December - largely when Z won back the starter's role)

Simpson's many positives, as described, were essential in the upcoming two banners.

However, it is totally fair to note that if he doesn't improve his shooting numbers, he has a worrisome ceiling and this team will struggle.  Sure, if we can pepper the floor with shooters, we're probably in great shape and contending for a B10 regular season title.  But that's kind of a big "if."  An "if" that requires Matthews to take steps forward as a shooter and an "if" that goes at odds with the inevitable loss of 3-pt shooting from the 5.  

The best way that Michigan and Beilein maximizes Zavier Simpson is to get him up to 60+% from the line and 32% from three.  The former a 8.6% bump, the latter a 3.4% bump*.  That's doable - not small jumps, though. Essential jumps for this team to be considered B10 favorites and Final Four contenders.