Ann Arbor — Be more aggressive.
Sophomore forward Isaiah Livers heard those words time and again last season from Michigan coach John Beilein.
And it’s a phrase Livers took to heart throughout the offseason.
“I settled a lot my freshman year and I was not as aggressive as maybe Coach B would’ve liked, but now I feel like I know how to use my gifts,” Livers said this week. “I'm still learning how to use more of my gifts, like just how to get by people, finish on people, just have more of that dog attitude.
“I think right now and since the summer I've embraced so much of that. I went to the basket already more this year than I did last year, so that's definitely a big change in my game.”
In 40 games, including 22 starts, Livers attempted two more shots beyond the arc (58) than inside the 3-point line (56) and only made 12 trips to the free-throw line in 604 minutes on the floor.
He averaged 3.4 points and 2.3 rebounds in 15.1 minutes per game and had three double-digit scoring performances — all of which came in consecutive Big Ten games before he took over the starting forward spot in place of sharpshooter Duncan Robinson.
Some of Livers’ tentativeness can be attributed to the ankle injury he suffered at Northwestern toward the end of Big Ten play. While he only missed one game, Livers admitted the injury messed him up and he rushed back sooner than he should’ve. As a result, he scored more than three points just once over the final 14 contests and, as assistant coach Luke Yaklich put it, “never really got his mojo back offensively.”
But regardless if Livers was a reserve or a starter, he was largely relied upon for his defensive versatility, especially down the stretch when Robinson was playing well and packing an offensive punch.
"I was probably the fifth option in that starting five, honestly. I didn't have any designed plays, not any like I do have this year,” said Livers, who was limited for a couple weeks this month with a slight ankle sprain.
“It's just a major change for my sophomore year. Last year it was more of get us that offensive rebound, guard the best forward that they (opponents) have and shoot your open shots. I was like a role player last year and I didn't mind it. I learned so much being a role player.”
This season, though, his role is expanding, and it must. With scoring threats Moritz Wagner, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Robinson all gone and two freshmen — Ignas Brazdeikis and Brandon Johns — learning the ropes at the four, the days of simply hanging out in corner and waiting for a kick out pass are over for Livers.
And Livers knows it. It’s why he spent the spring and summer on campus dedicating time to his body by working out with strength and conditioning coach Jon Sanderson and refining his basketball skills by putting up plenty of shots in the gym.
“Last year he understood the offense and he understood things, but he didn't have a smooth flow about his game last year. I think he'd be the first to tell you there was some hesitancy at times in his game,” Yaklich said. “But from what we saw in Spain and then what we've seen so far in practice, he has developed a confidence about him that he didn't have last year, and you develop confidence because of the work you put in. He has put in the work all summer long and now he is reaping the benefits of that.”
It also helps that Livers has been spending time around Brazdeikis, the top-ranked recruit in Michigan’s five-member class who probably has enough confidence for the entire team.
Livers said just witnessing Brazdeikis’ approach and never-back-down attitude since the start of open gym has rubbed off on him.
“One goal I had over the summer was just going after it,” Livers said. “I was always a passive basketball player and now I'm turning into a more aggressive basketball player and just being more assertive. Watching (Brazdeikis) I learned a lot more how to do that and it's helping me, too."
That should benefit everyone, especially in the early going as Livers enters the season as the only experienced option at the four.
“He's shooting the ball better and defensively he likes the game,” Beilein said of Livers. “He's a very bright young man, very bright in school. He thinks the same way defensively. He sees things around him and educates the other guys. That's the biggest thing. He probably has more of a sense of a veteran than a lot of sophomores would have.
“He's got more confidence in himself and he's going to have to really help us.”