Ann Arbor — At numerous points this season, Michigan coach Juwan Howard has called senior guard Zavier Simpson his “Tom Brady.”
On the surface, there are some parallels. Both Simpson and Brady, the former Wolverine and New England Patriots star quarterback, are unflappable leaders. Both have strong work ethics. Both are driven and determined to do whatever it takes to succeed.
And just like Brady’s record-setting career in the NFL, Simpson is climbing his way up the record books. He entered Friday’s game at Iowa three assists away from passing Rumeal Robinson’s career mark of 575 and moving into second place on Michigan’s all-time assists list.
"He's one of the best players in the country, one of the best point guards there is,” Howard said Thursday. “He's a smart, crafty guard that knows how to take advantage of a defense. He's great at reading ball screens. He's great at reading coverages overall. He wants to make the right play to put us in position to score.
“Yeah, at times he makes mistakes just like any player, but I'm so happy he's playing for us. I knew before I took the job that I was getting a point guard that was one of the best point guards in NCAA basketball."
Heading into play Friday, Simpson leads the nation in total assists (142) and assists per game (8.9). He has dished out at least 10 assists five times this season and, per KenPom, he has assisted on 47 percent of his teammates’ field goals when he’s on the court, a rate that ranks No. 3 in the country.
At his current pace, Simpson would top Gary Grant’s record of 6.88 assists per game and finish the regular season with 275 assists, which would best Trey Burke’s single-season mark of 260. He would also reach the 700-assist plateau, but a postseason run likely would be needed to surpass Grant’s career total of 731.
In addition to chasing those records, Simpson needs 86 rebounds and 113 points to become the first Wolverine to record 1,000 points, 500 rebounds and 500 assists.
"I mean, he puts so much work into it,” redshirt junior center Austin Davis said of Simpson's passing. “He's been incredible. He always has his head up looking for teammates. There’s not a selfish bone in his body.”
According to junior walk-on forward C.J. Baird, Simpson’s vision, IQ and feel for the game are what make him one of the best facilitators in the nation.
And, of course, it helps that Simpson has been surrounded by a talented cast throughout his career, from NBA players like Moritz Wagner and Duncan Robinson to current teammates Jon Teske and Isaiah Livers.
“He does a really good job of knowing where you're going before sometimes you even do,” Baird said. “Sometimes he leads you with a pass that you may not have seen that opening or even as a fan you may not see that opening, but he sees the game so well that he can throw that pass to you and you're going to be there. I think his understanding of his teammates has allowed him to climb up that (assist) list as quickly as possible.”
While some of that is natural ability, Baird credited much of Simpson’s passing prowess to the hard work he puts in on a daily basis. Baird said Simpson “works out with a purpose” and incorporates a lot of game situations into his workouts to hone his craft as opposed to just running through drills for hours.
That has helped Simpson make some of his extraordinary feeds look rather ordinary.
"I think the one (pass) that continually amazes me is when he comes off a ball screen, hook passes it across the court, throwing his whole body and it's right on the money to the shooter,” Baird said. “That's the one that amazes me every single time.
“I'm sure there's some fancier stuff, but that takes so much precision and timing to get the power on the ball, to get the exact shooter's position for different shooters, too. Like for Franz (Wagner) it'll be higher, Eli (Brooks) it'll be a little lower. It's unbelievable.”
With half the regular season still to be played, Simpson has plenty of time to drop more dazzling dimes as he continues his climb up the assist list.
“I think it's really important to understand that there's probably even a lot more than all of us have seen that he can do,” Baird said. “I'm really looking forward to seeing what he can do for us in the future.”
Michigan career assist leaders
731: Gary Grant (1985-88)
575: Rumeal Robinson (1988-90)
573: Zavier Simpson (2017-20)
539: Antoine Joubert (1984-87)
499: Derrick Walton Jr. (2014-17)