[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.