Niyo: Leaner Isaiah Livers ready to shoulder heavier load for Michigan

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Sometimes less means more. And for Michigan’s Isaiah Livers, that’s certainly the plan entering his junior season.

The weight is off, mostly because the wait is over. But knowing he’s going to be asked to do more of the heavy lifting for a retooled roster as Juwan Howard makes his debut as Michigan’s head coach, Livers spent the last six months reshaping his body and his game.

Now he’s eager to see just how that’ll look on the court, where a role player who filled every gap and plugged every hole in John Beilein’s roster the last couple years now steps into the Wolverines’ starting lineup as arguably its most pivotal player.

Michigan forward Isaiah Livers listens to the instructions for a drill at practice Thursday at Crisler Center.

This still will be Zavier Simpson’s team, as the senior point guard runs Michigan’s offense and sets the tone with his tenacity. Fellow senior Jon Teske, meanwhile, provides a presence in the middle that Howard’s counting on as he reintroduces himself to college hoops. And the arrival of freshman Franz Wagner — Moe's younger brother who put off a pro career to give college a try — is the wild card that everyone’s waiting to see play.

But it’s Livers, perhaps more than anyone, who’ll decide just how good this team is as Michigan’s program makes a major transition — from John Beilein’s lengthy tenure to Howard’s homecoming, and from a team that lost its top three scorers to the NBA Draft last spring to a Big Ten squad that no one's quite sure what to make of just yet.

“The last two years, I had to play my role and do what I had to do,” Livers said.

But now, well, “it just feels so much more comfortable,” he adds, with a smile that suggests he really means it.

Livers shed 10-12 pounds over the summer in anticipation of a role reversal that’ll have him playing starter’s minutes — he averaged less than 23 per game last season — and playing more on the perimeter.

Howard actually calls Livers a “big guard” now, both because of the way the 6-foot-7 Kalamazoo native shoots the ball — Livers hit 42.6 percent of his 3s  last season to lead the Wolverines — and also “how he moves out on the floor.”

Toned and taut

He’s moving much easier now at a leaner 228 pounds. But also, he says, because of the time he put in over the summer with personal trainer Micah Lancaster, who runs a skills academy in Grandville, Michigan, and has worked with the likes of Kyrie Irving and Dwyane Wade.

“There was a lot of motivation behind it,” Livers said. “Some of those early mornings, sometimes you just naturally ask yourself, ‘Why? Why am I getting up this early?’ It’s because I have a team to prepare and go to war with — I love these guys.”

Lancaster’s program focuses on role-specific training, and weekly multi-tasking sessions targeted weaknesses in Livers’ game, specifically his ballhandling. That’s something he’s going to need to improve to help diversify Michigan’s offense this season beyond the Simpson-centric ball-screen actions that were a staple last season.

 “I mean, I always had some bit of raw talent on the perimeter. but it feels like I’m a lot more solid with it,” Livers said. “I just put a lot more time and work into it, instead of just my shot. I worked on ballhandling and getting to the basket, little stuff that if they shut (Simpson) out, and I have to initiate the offense, I can. Whatever I’m asked to do, I’m prepared for it.”

The early signs seem to confirm as much, though the real tests await, beginning next month when the regular season tips off.

Michigan forward Isaiah Livers goes to the basket at practice.

“But I think he had a great summer, getting his body together, really working on his ball skills to try to make sure he has more of a comfort level out on the perimeter, making plays,” said Saddi Washington, the lone holdover among Beilein’s assistant coaches. “I just think his overall game, we should see some steps forward. For the first two years, he’s kind of been that sixth man that we really relied on to be steady. And now that he’s evolving into a bigger role for us, I’m excited for him.”

Still, Washington admits, Livers’ ability to create offense — for himself and for his team — “will be a work in progress throughout the season.” Along the way, it’ll be up to the coaches to “put him in situations where we create leverage for him, whether it be in a ball-screen situation or some quick-hitter actions and coming off pin-downs and stuff like that.”

“I just know he’s really locked in and excited for his opportunity to kind of step forward and be Batman, in some regards, this year,” Washington added.

If he can, there’s no telling what that might look like. Livers’ usage rate on offense was less than 16 percent last season, second-lowest among Michigan’s seven rotation regulars. But his effective field-goal percentage and true-shooting percentage led the team. How will that change if he’s more than simply a spot-up shooter whose finishes at the rim mostly came in transition?

Time to shine

“Isaiah, I think he has a chance to be a star player, not just a good player,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said at Big Ten media day earlier this month. “He’s gotta take another step up.”

If he does — if he can attack the basket at one end and switch screens at the other -- his head coach says anything is possible.

“Isaiah’s got talent, man,” Howard said. “He’s skilled. He’s a big wing that can play inside and outside.”

And much like the ex-roommate whose jersey number he reclaimed — with Jordan Poole playing for the Golden State Warriors, Livers is back to wearing the No. 2 he wore as a prep standout at Kalamazoo Central — Howard sees pro potential here.

“I feel like he has a chance to play at the next level,” Howard said. “He can shoot the basketball. He’s a pure, high-character kid. He asks questions, he wants to get better. I’m gonna utilize him. He’s gonna have a chance to score. But I want him to also be a two-way player.”

Maybe even a go-to player? Time will tell. But for Livers, who says he feels his confidence "rising with each practice," all that matters at the moment is "being the player I know I can be."

Twitter: @JohnNiyo