Beilein: Simmons a ‘really special addition’ to UM

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Looking ahead to next season, Michigan coach John Beilein knew he had to make a move.

With heart-and-soul point guard and leader Derrick Walton Jr. graduating, the Wolverines lacked experience at the head of their offense.

So without wasting any time, Beilein scoured the graduate transfer market and landed former Ohio University guard Jaaron Simmons.

“I’m very excited about his personality and his desire to lead. It was very hard for him to leave Ohio University … but the fact is if Jaaron doesn’t come here, he ends up probably somewhere else in the Big Ten,” Beilein said last week at a season-ending press conference. “He’s just fundamentally sound. … As a person, I just wanted to coach the kid after spending an hour with him; just the leadership, the desire to win. I can’t even tell you who he reminds me of.

“I have a sense he’s going to be a really special addition to this team, not just because of talent level, but because of his desire. He has not played in the NCAA Tournament and he would love to be an NBA player. He sees that there’s a plan here for him to do both. He’s excited and we’re excited.”

It’s the first time during Beilein’s tenure at Michigan he has added a graduate transfer to his roster. In recent years, it’s a move Michigan has been on the other end of, with Spike Albrecht (Purdue), Max Bielfeldt (Indiana) and Jon Horford (Florida) all transferring elsewhere to play their final year. The latest is Mark Donnal, who will attend Clemson next season.

Beilein noted the dynamics of bringing Simmons, who averaged 15.9 points and 6.5 assists at Ohio last season, into the fold and having a player walk into a leadership role as a newcomer is “brand new for us.”

“We thought very much about it,” Beilein said. “If I had any doubt in our visits with him that he was not going to be a good locker-room guy, I wouldn’t care if he was even a better player than he is — he’s a good player, All-MAC first team.

“But when I met and spent time with him, there was a no doubt. On his official visit here, he clicked with our players really well.”

Beilein said he talked to both sophomore-to-be Xavier Simpson and incoming freshman Eli Brooks before pursuing Simmons. While Beilein raved about Simpson’s improvement and is “extremely high” on Brooks, he added there was concern how Simpson — who was slotted to take over the starting role — would handle the news.

Simpson appeared in all 38 games last season as Walton’s backup and averaged 1.6 points and one assist in 8.7 minutes, but his playing time fluctuated throughout the year.

“We made a decision and said … Moe Wagner and D.J. Wilson had about the same freshman year you (Simpson) had, maybe even not as good and look where they are now,” Beilein said. “You just got to be patient and work at your game.”

According to Beilein, there was never a thought about waiting until the May 24 NBA draft deadline passed to offer Simmons because there’s more to the transfer process with a fifth-year player compared to an underclassman. Beilein also pulled the trigger on Simmons fully aware he would be closing the door on any 2017 recruits.

“We went all-in with him knowing we had that scholarship,” Beilein said. “We had to commit to him 100 percent and I made that decision rather than (wait).”

While Simmons brings much-needed experience to the backcourt, and will serve as a mentor to Simpson and Brooks, Beilein said he won’t be handed the starting job and the role is up for grabs.

“Jaaron has four years of experience between Houston and playing at Ohio. He’s been well-coached at both spots, so obviously he’s getting used to his new teammates and a different system,” Beilein said. “But I know one thing — he’s extraordinary in ball screens and we like to do it, too. He wants to win. You like guys that prioritize winning over their own stats.”