Ann Arbor — It might be the offseason, but junior guard Zavier Simpson’s intensity doesn’t take a day off.
During two-on-two drills at Michigan’s practice last week, Simpson was by far the most vocal and fierce player on the court.
He screamed “And-1!” after scoring under the basket between redshirt junior wing Charles Matthews and freshman guard David DeJulius. He shouted, “Yes sir!” after an errant pass by DeJulius flew out of bounds. He dove to the floor after poking the ball away from DeJulius near the 3-point line.
“He's crazy, but that's who he is,” Matthews said with a grin. “That helps this team go, so I love and respect that.”
Simpson didn’t spare a single soul and didn’t pull any punches when it came to handing out verbal jabs to light a fire under his teammates throughout the two-hour session.
He let Matthews know he was talking too much after Simpson drove and kicked the ball out to sophomore forward Isaiah Livers for a 3-pointer. Later, he emphatically stomped around after stripping freshman forward Brandon Johns on a drive that led to a turnover.
"I'm going hard at everybody. Anybody that's not on my team (at practice),” Simpson said. “It's nothing personal. You just got to go hard. You got to push them. You got to push your teammates and they're pushing me as well.
“Charles is kind of a laid-back guy, but once he sees me trash talking, you'll see him go to his team like, 'Hey, we're not losing this game. X is over there (talking).' There are things like that you just got to get stirred up quick. It's like when you're about to play a game and you go bump the opponent just to get them going. That's what I'm trying to do every day. Whoever is not on my team, I’m trying to push them. I'm either going to make or break them. I'm either going to help them or I'm going to break them. I try to do that every day by bringing energy.”
With last season’s captains — Moritz Wagner, Duncan Robinson and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman — all gone and just four upperclassmen on this year’s roster, Simpson has taken it upon himself to become even more of a vocal leader.
“I take a lot of ownership in that because we got five walk-ons that know what they're doing but don't have enough authority to say things just yet,” Simpson said. “We got five freshmen who are kind of confused. I've been in their position before so I understand what they're going through. If it's not about energy, I don't get on them as much because I already know where their head is at. This (practices) and off-court activities such as Bridge Program, their minds are full right now.
“It's important for guys like me, Charles, Jon (Teske) and Austin (Davis) to lead the team. Jon and Austin aren't guys that are very talkative, so it's important for myself to just try and bring that energy, try and bring that trash talking to make guys who aren’t on my team competitive.”
In the practices leading up to Michigan’s trip to Spain, Simpson has been teamed up with freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis, freshman guard Adrien Nunez, Livers and Teske.
With Teske being the only other veteran on his squad, Simpson said he prods the big man every day to use his voice because he doesn’t want to feel like he’s the only one talking and nobody has his back. While it has been an adjustment for Teske — who would turn red in the face or become shy whenever he talked his freshman year, according to Simpson — he has been starting to come out of his shell.
“It's been a big step for me. I know that I got to get out my comfort zone because I'm a little quiet, but I know Zavier and Charles are always pushing me every day to speak more on the court,” Teske said. “Coach Yak (Luke Yaklich) is always yelling at me, Coach Saddi (Washington) is telling me to speak up more and that's what I'm doing.”
Of course, being the loudest voice only goes so far, and Simpson doesn’t want to just talk the talk. He remains one of the Big Ten’s most ferocious and smothering defenders, but leaves a lot to be desired on the offensive end.
While he averaged team highs in assists (3.7) and steals (1.3) last season, he struggled to create his own shot and ranked among the worst on the team in shooting 3-pointers (28.6 percent) and free throws (51.6 percent).
As a result, Simpson said he has tweaked his shooting form and feels more confident after spending the offseason improving his finishes, his inside game, his pull-up jumper and his free-throw shooting. Simpson’s father, Quincey, told The Detroit News in May the two were focusing on getting his release point higher on his jump shot and perfecting the mid-range game.
“That's one kid you don't have to worry about is he in the gym working. He is a worker bee and that's part of what makes him really good,” Washington said of Simpson. “All the guys have taken steps forward. Obviously, we still have a lot of room to grow and a lot more work to do before our first game in November rolls around. I would think we're pretty pleased with it being so early in the season with our preparation and with our individual talent.”
If that wasn’t the case, Simpson might have something to say about it.