Michigan's 'engine' Zavier Simpson firing on all cylinders
Ann Arbor — There has been no shortage of descriptions used for senior guard Zavier Simpson.
He’s the head of the snake on offense. He’s a ferocious pit bull on defense. He’s the conductor who handles the controls at both ends.
And as No. 5 Michigan has transitioned from one system to another under first-year coach Juwan Howard, Simpson has also been the glue that has seemingly helped hold everything in place.
"I feel like it's been going well,” Simpson said Tuesday when asked how the team has adjusted to Howard’s new offense.
“I mean, everyone is pretty much out there comfortable. I think everyone's stats have risen a little bit, so that right there shows a lot of comfortability and adaptation."
Simpson’s certainly have. Heading into Wednesday’s Big Ten matchup at Illinois, most of his offensive numbers are up across the board.
He’s averaging a career-high 12.3 points per game, which ranks third on the team. He’s shooting a career-best 57.3 percent (43-for-75) from the field and 43.5 percent (10-for-23) from 3-point range — marks that are both roughly 13 percentage points higher than his career averages heading into the season.
He’s also whipping passes from all angles with either hand to the tune of 8.7 assists, which ranks No. 2 in the nation. Along with that, though, has come an uncharacteristic 3.8 turnovers per game, an average that's nearly doubled compared to last season.
While former coach John Beilein certainly had a lower tolerance for turning the ball over and flashy passes than Howard, the latter has been more forgiving and has allowed Simpson to play through more mistakes.
"I feel like I have freedom with both of the coaches,” said Simpson, who couldn’t pinpoint a reason for his higher turnover rate.
“Both of the coaches trust me 100 percent, so it's not like I have more freedom here, more freedom there. Both of them trust me. They put the ball in my hands and trust my decision-making."
As a result, it hasn’t been any easier for opponents to slow Simpson down in Michigan’s ball screen offense, though he acknowledged teams are keying in on him.
Last week, Louisville coach Chris Mack admitted his defensive game plan centered around keeping Simpson out of the paint and neutralizing his playmaking ability as much as possible. The strategy worked and led to one of Michigan’s worst offensive performances in years.
“Obviously (opponents) are going to do that because me and (center) Jon (Teske) are seniors and we've been doing this for a couple years,” Simpson said. “That's what comes with it.”
It’s something Simpson could see once again against the Fighting Illini. Illinois coach Brad Underwood — who called himself a “big Zavier Simpson fan” — noted how Howard has turned the offense over to Simpson and is “the engine that makes them go” with his passing.
“It’s a great challenge of playing a great passer. It’s how much do you commit to him? How much do you commit to stopping him?” Underwood told reporters on Tuesday. “He’s a problem. He’s been that for everyone he’s played. The problem is he’s made all of those guys very adept at shooting the 3. We have to be solid on him. We have to keep him in front, make him work. You’ve got to have a presence with him all the time and you’ve got to do that early because he’s an elite passer.
“He will throw passes tomorrow with a velocity that very few players in college basketball do. He puts them right on the spot, right on the money. There are very few passes he delivers that are not where the offensive player on his team can do something with it.”
It's been a staple of Simpson’s game that has flourished under Howard and the new coaching staff. But it's not the only area Simpson believes he has improved.
Simpson listed his IQ, his ability to see different actions, his jump shot and his play in the pick-and-roll on the offensive and defensive ends as other areas where he has grown.
He credited first-year assistant coach Howard Eisley, who played 12 seasons in the NBA and works with the team’s guards, for his continued development this season.
“I just want to keep learning,” Simpson said. “Coach Howard Eisley has helped out a lot. He has helped out tremendously and I just want to keep learning from him. Every single day, I just want to take as much pieces of knowledge as I can and be able to grow as a person and as a basketball player."
Simpson noted Eisley, a Detroit native, has a “laid-back” personality and it took time for them to build a bond. But now, Simpson said their relationship is “real strong” and the two regularly spend time around one another.
"His teaching style is real laid back,” Simpson said. “I don't want to say he lets you do whatever you want, but he just kind of throws a couple hints in there every now and then. But those hints are things that guys can help improve their game dramatically, so that's why I appreciate him.
“He's definitely a player's type of coach. On the sideline when I come out the game, he’s always talking to me about things I see. And after the games, he's watching film with things that I can learn.”
Howard said Simpson and Eisley are “headstrong kind of guys” who are smart at their craft and competitive to their core. He added there are plenty of similarities between the two, considering Eisley was a “tough-nosed competitor that people sometimes never recognized but always found a way to make an impact on the game” during his time at Boston College and in the pros.
Those parallels have led to a fruitful relationship that has paid dividends for both Simpson and the Wolverines.
“He does a tremendous job in everything he does,” Teske said of Simpson. “I think just his confidence level right now is continuing to grow and the coaches trust in him to lead the team.
“Coach Eisley has played ball for a long time. That's one thing that X wants to do, so he's just continuing to pick his brain on how to be a better point guard, how to read the floor. X is only going to get better."
Michigan at Illinois
Tip-off: 9 p.m. Wednesday, State Farm Center, Champaign, Ill.
Records: No. 5 Michigan 8-1, 1-0 Big Ten; Illinois 6-3, 0-1
Outlook: Michigan has won 14 of past 16 meetings in the series, including the last four…Illinois lost its last two games to Miami and Maryland by a combined three points. The Fighting Illini lead the country in rebounding margin (plus-15.7 per game) and are led by freshman center Kofi Cockburn (15.4 points, 10.7 rebounds).