Ann Arbor — Eli Brooks didn’t know what to expect this early in the season.
As a true freshman, Brooks entered a three-man competition for Michigan’s starting point guard spot behind sophomore and heir apparent Zavier Simpson and grad transfer Jaaron Simmons.
And due to the intricate workings of Michigan coach John Beilein’s system, seeing significant minutes in the first few weeks seemed unlikely for Brooks.
But eight games into the schedule, Brooks will make his fourth consecutive start Wednesday night in what will arguably be Michigan’s most difficult nonconference game against All-American Joel Berry II and No. 13 North Carolina in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
“You always want to play against the best of best,” Brooks said Tuesday. “It’s definitely something that I’ll take as a challenge.
“It’s always been a dream to play there. My dad grew up a North Carolina fan, so he’s going to have to change a little bit and root for Michigan. But it’s going to be great to play in Chapel Hill.”
Brooks’ goal during the early portion of the season was to take things slow and soak up as much as he could from his teammates, particularly Simpson’s vision and Simmons’ veteran mindset. And if the opportunity to start ever arose, he’d make the best of it.
That moment came in the second game of the Maui Invitational following Michigan’s lone blemish — a loss to LSU — against Division II Chaminade. From that point on, Brooks has helped lead the Wolverines (6-1) to three straight wins.
“He makes the other four guys better,” Beilein said. “His assists aren’t better — the numbers aren’t even close — but the ball moves better and he talks better behind the defense. He really makes the other four guys better at this point, and that’s the goal with both Jaaron and Z.”
Despite having just six assists to four turnovers through seven games, Brooks gives the starting lineup another 3-point shooting threat and can make opposing defenses pay when they slip under screens. There’s also an ease and simplicity to his game that allows everything to run smooth.
“He kind of reminds me of (former Michigan guard) Spike Albrecht sometimes because he’s so solid in everything he does and has such a high IQ,” junior center Moritz Wagner said. “He’s a little more athletic than Spike — don’t tell Spike that — but it’s unbelievable. You can tell he’s so bright when you tell him one thing he’s going to do it next time. He’s also not afraid to tell me what to do and the others and that’s a very important part, too.”
Senior Duncan Robinson said when Brooks is on the floor, he has an understanding when to take 50-50 shots and other times when it’s better to slow it down and work the offense.
And it also helps that Brooks knows how to play off the ball as well, which allows teammates like Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, Charles Matthews and Wagner to operate with it in their hands.
“He’s never in a rush and understands how the ball needs to move and the concept of it not sticking,” Robinson said. “He has always been poised and calm even in big moments.
“He’s humble and confident at the same time, which is a deadly combination.”
Simpson started the first four games of the season before being replaced by Brooks and utilized as a defensive stopper off the bench, while Simmons has seemingly struggled in every area.
And while the numbers aren’t pretty, Brooks boasts the most productive stat line of the bunch. For the season, Brooks is averaging 3.4 points and 1.3 rebounds in 14.1 minutes, and has scored at least five points the past three games.
Meanwhile, Simpson has 21 assists, seven turnovers and is averaging 2.9 points and 1.1 rebounds in 17.1 minutes, but has scored just four points in 75 minutes over the last five games.
Simmons has 10 assists, seven turnovers and is averaging 1.3 points and 0.7 rebounds in 11.1 minutes, but has been held scoreless the past four contests.
With the point guard battle still far from settled, Beilein said the plan for Simpson now is to keep the ball moving, shoot it when he’s open and play lockdown defense without fouling. As far as Simmons, Beilein was frank that his stats in practice and games haven’t merited him more playing time.
“He (Simmons) just hasn’t performed at the level I know he can perform at,” Beilein said. “We just keep working with every day hoping all of a sudden his performance will match the ability we believe he has.”
Until that time comes, Brooks appears to be the front man running the show.
“I think he didn’t realize it in the beginning because I think he just wanted to play day by day,” Wagner said. “Then he realized I’m going to have a chance to play a little more than I thought and I told him to take a lot of pride in that and embrace that role. He’s really embracing it and I think he’s doing a good job.”