Michigan guard Eli Brooks takes freshman seesaw ride in stride
Ann Arbor — From backup to starter to backup to bench, nobody went on more a roller-coaster ride last season at Michigan than guard Eli Brooks.
As a freshman, he began the 2017-18 campaign as one of two point guards — along with grad transfer Jaaron Simmons — jockeying for minutes behind starter Zavier Simpson.
It didn’t take long for Brooks to replace Simpson in the lineup. After a loss to LSU in the Maui Invitational opener, Brooks handled the starting duties from late November to early January, a span of 12 games where he logged at least 18 minutes seven times.
But starting the second half at Iowa when Big Ten play resumed, Simpson reassumed the top spot, and Brooks’ playing time took a severe hit. He played double-digit minutes just once the rest of the way and ended up sitting 10 of Michigan’s final 20 games as Simmons became the No. 2 option.
“He handled it last year really well and it was hard for him; he got chances to go back on the scout team and really get reps in,” Michigan coach John Beilein said earlier this week. “One of the reasons, remember, he played was flow. He just understood flow. …He just sees the game slower than others, and that's a good thing.”
That didn’t necessarily show in his stats. Through non-conference play and two early Big Ten matchups in December, Brooks averaged 3.5 points, 1.7 assists and 1.3 rebounds in 15.9 minutes and shot 32.7 percent from the field over 15 games.
Once the calendar turned to January, though, he averaged less than half a point and half an assist in 4.5 minutes and his shooting percentage dipped to 18.2 percent over 16 games.
“I think every player — even myself when I played in college (at Kent State) — we all hit that wall once upon a time and you try to get through it and he just couldn't get out of that funk,” assistant coach DeAndre Haynes said.
Brooks wrapped up his freshman year averaging 1.8 points, 1.1 rebounds and one assist in 10 minutes while shooting just 30.2 percent from the field — including a team-worst 24.4 percent from 3-point range — in 31 games.
However, it’s not uncommon for a freshman point guard to have a rough go of it at Michigan. Simpson had his ups and downs his first year, and so did Derrick Walton Jr. before him. For most, it’s a nonstop learning process — both adjusting to the college game and navigating Beilein’s intricate system — and Brooks’ indoctrination was no different.
“It taught me a lot, just trying to get back in the gym and focus on the little things that held me back from playing,” Brooks said of last season. “I think I lost my confidence a little bit, and that showed in my play.
“I’m just trying to get my confidence back through practice and just continue to have good practice leading up to this year.”
So far, those practices have been stacking up. Haynes said Brooks has regained what he brought to the table early last season and Beilein noted he has been one of the best players on the team throughout the fall.
According to Haynes, Brooks also has been a better leader. He’s constantly teaching and talking to the five-man freshman class and has set an example by never taking time off in practice.
“Last season he went through a little bit of a slump, but he got back up,” Haynes said. “I think he's learning a lot from what Muhammad (-Ali Abdur-Rahkman) taught those guys last year. His confidence right now is at an all-time high. He's one of our guys we can dial up right now. He's coming off with confidence off ball screens, he's making shots.
“Right now, he's one of our better defenders along with (Simpson). He learned from what he went through last year and now he's stepping up big.”
Beilein said he’s unsure whether Brooks will back up at point guard along with freshman David DeJulius, play at the two behind sophomore Jordan Poole or spend time at both spots, something he did last season.
Regardless, Brooks packed 15 pounds onto his frame to better guard multiple positions and is comfortable playing off the ball, adding “being able to play at the same time as (Simpson) opens up a lot of things.” More importantly, he said he has renewed confidence in his jumper and has shot the ball as well as anybody in practice, according to Beilein.
Add a year of familiarity in the system and a better understanding of his role to “fill in the gaps, be stable and be reliable,” Brooks' shooting numbers, playing time and impact could all see an upswing this season.
“Coach B is high on him right now and the things he's doing is really helping our guys out,” Haynes said. “Whatever he did to go home and come back and clear his head has been great for him because he's doing a hell of a job right now.”