Michigan will have at least two shots — and possibly as many as four chances — to extend its NBA Draft streak.
Zavier Simpson and Jon Teske, the program’s two all-time winningest players, have exhausted their eligibility and are moving on to pursue professional careers.
Isaiah Livers declared for the draft last month and is testing the waters while maintaining his eligibility. However, Livers was blunt and told the Big Ten Network it would take a guaranteed contract from an NBA team for him to forgo his senior season.
Franz Wagner could take a similar approach to go through the pre-draft process and gather feedback. Last month, coach Juwan Howard said Wagner was weighing his options and the German product has until April 26 to decide whether to enter his name for draft consideration.
Livers — and Wagner if he declares — will have until the NCAA’s early entrant withdrawal deadline on June 3 before they must make a final decision to stay or go. But that date, like much of the NBA’s scheduled events, could be in flux due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Wolverines have had at least one player selected in each of the past four drafts, with Caris LeVert (2016), D.J. Wilson (2017), Moritz Wagner (2018) and Jordan Poole (2019) all being first-round picks and Ignas Brazdeikis (2019) garnering a second-round selection.
The odds of Michigan notching another draft pick this summer appear long. None of the four Wolverines’ names have appeared in two-round mock drafts by ESPN, Sports Illustrated and The Athletic. And only Livers and Teske are listed on NBA Draft top-100 boards, with Livers ranked No. 88 by The Athletic and No. 96 by ESPN, and Teske No. 85 by ESPN.
Here’s an early look at each Wolverine’s pro prospects heading into an uncertain pre-draft process.
The senior guard upped his offensive production with a career-high 12.9 points per game while shooting 47.6% from the field and 36% from 3-point range, both career-best marks. He also proved to be a master facilitator, ranking third in the nation with 236 total assists and 7.9 assists per game.
According to Synergy, Michigan had the fourth-highest scoring pick-and-roll offense in the country at 28.5 points per game and Simpson was the most productive pick-and-roll passer, generating 13.7 points per game.
But Simpson, an All-Big Ten second team selection, has his share of concerns. He doesn’t get to the line a lot and isn’t a good free-throw shooter (59% over four years). Despite the improved 3-point shooting this past season, it’s a limited sample compared to his career average of 31.4%. And he also has size limitations (6-foot, 190 pounds) that are out of his control.
“It seemed like (coach) Juwan (Howard) gave them a little bit more freedom as guards more so than what (former coach John) Beilein was running, so I think you saw how good of a passer Simpson is,” Sports Illustrated NBA Draft expert Jeremy Woo said.
“I don't think anyone questions his toughness, his leadership. Obviously, he's extremely competitive. … He's going to have to hit open shots. He's not super dynamic scoring off the dribble. You know what he is now.”
ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas noted there has always been a premium on shooting in the NBA. While that’s not a strength of Simpson’s, Bilas said if he continued to improve in that area he “could absolutely” make an NBA roster.
“Zavier can come in and run a team,” Bilas said. “I think he's a good defender and a very good pick-and-roll guard. I think he's going to have to improve as a shooter to stick.”
Woo said he could see a team rolling the dice on Simpson and seeing how it goes, with the best case being a two-way deal or Exhibit 10 contract down the road.
“He's the type of guy I think teams will at least want to take a look at in camp,” Woo said. “Then if he goes overseas, he'll be very good over there.”
The senior center’s season was seemingly a tale of two halves as he took on a more prominent offensive role and was utilized more on the block under Howard. Teske got off to strong start in the first two months, averaging 14.4 points and 8.4 rebounds and shooting 65.4% on 2-point attempts over 13 games.
“There was time early in the season that Jon Teske was starting to create some NBA buzz as a guy that could play pick-and-roll, defends pretty well and he was showing signs of being an emerging 3-point shooter,” college basketball analyst Tim McCormick said.
But that buzz faded when Teske couldn’t sustain that output once Big Ten play picked up after the new year. Over the final 18 games, he averaged 9.6 points and 5.6 rebounds and connected on 45.1% on shots inside in the 3-point arc as he struggled to convert around the rim.
By the end of the campaign, Teske saw his shooting numbers regress — going from 61.3% on 2s and 29.9% on 3s as a junior to 54.4% on 2s and 24.6% on 3s as a senior. He also had rough defensive outings when he was left on an island and wasn’t as effective as a rim protector, finishing with 57 blocks compared to 75 the year before.
With all that said, Teske is still a viable pick-and-pop threat and was the fourth-most productive individual roll man in the nation at 4.1 points per game, according to Synergy.
“He's a good passer and a solid position defender so I think he can find a place in the NBA,” Bilas said. “For any player you have to show that you have an NBA skill. For a big guy, if you can show that you can step away and shoot, if you can rebound your position, if you can protect the rim, things like that. Teske can step away and shoot it so he can stretch the floor at a five spot, and he's got very good size.”
ESPN college basketball analyst Seth Greenberg said he thinks Howard’s contacts will help Teske “open up doors,” while Woo noted Teske’s 7-foot-1 size alone will give him a chance to become a team’s third center.
"I don't think everyone realizes how huge he is. He's massive,” Woo said. “He can shoot a little bit, but he's not a super dynamic offensive player. He's not as great of a finisher as you would hope for someone as big as he is. He takes up a lot of space and there's something that can be said for that.
“I'm not sure there's enough offensively with him for a team to get excited enough to be like there's a real reason to get this guy. Defensively he's good but in the NBA it's different because you have to do so much more in space.”
Like Simpson, Woo thinks Teske will go undrafted but will have an opportunity to make an impression with a team at camp. Woo added he could see Teske being a good G-League player right out the gate.
The junior forward was viewed as a breakout candidate and was well on his way before injuries threw him off track. Livers was averaging 14.6 points and shooting 50% from 3-point range through the first 11 games — highlighted by a 22-point outing against Creighton and 21-point effort against Gonzaga — before he suffered a left groin injury.
That was just the first of three lower-body injuries, along with his hip area and right ankle, that ultimately cost him 10 games and sidelined him for nine Big Ten contests. Despite the setbacks, Livers still managed to finish the year as the team’s top 3-point shooter (40.2%) and leading scorer (12.9 points) as he battled to stay healthy.
“He came back (from injuries) and he was just OK,” Woo said. “He can shoot it and he's big (at 6-7), which those are two things that help. You'd hope he was a little bit more dynamic. Defensively he's not a great athlete. He might be a guy who is a really good college power forward but then you go to the NBA and the type of guys you're guarding in that role are different.
“I think there are concerns about fit. If you can really shoot, teams can find a place for you and hide you defensively. He's a little bit slow. I'm willing to give him a pass because being hurt all year, it's hard to come back and be in your best shape.”
Woo added beyond Livers’ shooting there are questions about his auxiliary skills, like his rebounding and playmaking ability.
“Can he do those things?” Woo said. “Those are the types of things that teams will want to see because if he's going to have a chance to be a shooter off the bench, you're going to have to be more dynamic than he is right now.”
Greenberg and Bilas both said Livers has a good feel for the game and has an NBA skill set with his ability to stretch the floor and play off the ball.
“He's an NBA player. It's just a question of when,” Bilas said. “He's a very good all-around player. He just needs to continue to refine his game.”
Woo said he thinks it would be best for Livers to get in his best shape, return for his senior year and play an even bigger role to put himself in the conversation to be a second-round pick next year.
After opting to leave Germany and pass on a pro deal with Alba Berlin, Wagner arrived in Ann Arbor with high expectations and a reputation of being an outside shooter. However, things got off to a rough start when he fractured his right shooting wrist before the season.
While it took time for him to round into form and adjust to a different playing style, the freshman wing was playing as well as anyone in the Big Ten down the stretch before the postseason was cut short due to the COVID-19 outbreak. He averaged 11.6 points and 5.6 rebounds in 27 games and earned a spot on the conference’s All-Freshman team.
“He wasn't really good until the Big Ten season, but, man, he's got potential,” McCormick said. “He's a very good defensive player. I had no idea he can rebound. He was Michigan's leading rebounder in Big Ten play, which is surprising.”
While Bilas called Wagner “a good talent,” he and Greenberg both stated Wagner (6-9, 205) needs another year to work on his body and get stronger. Woo added he doesn’t think Wagner is close to being able to help an NBA team but thinks he’s a player teams have real interest in.
“He made progress over the course of the year, for sure,” Woo said. “He's super skilled. He shot 61% on 2s and that's pretty good, especially playing in the role he plays where it's not strictly layups. He's efficient. I think he'll shoot it better from 3 (31.1%) as time goes on.
“He's a guy who is really highly regarded playing overseas. There are some teams who think had he stayed overseas he could've been a first-round pick this year because the college level is tough.”
Woo said one of the knocks on Wagner is he can be “a little soft” at times and noted that’s something a player can grow out of. Another key area for Wagner, according to Woo, is to play with the same consistency he started to display toward the end of the season.
“I think people are going to keep questioning his toughness until he starts to prove he can play through mistakes and bring more of a maturity on the floor,” Woo said. “I don't doubt the skill level with him. I think it's a matter of being efficient with higher volume, which I would hope is a natural progression for him.”
Like Woo, McCormick doesn’t think Wagner — or Livers — is ready for the NBA. McCormick, a former Michigan standout and NBA veteran, advises players to be as finely tuned as possible when they enter the draft because late first-round picks and second-rounders are expendable commodities.
If Wagner were to declare and stay in the draft, Woo said he could be taken in the second round based on his upside. If Wagner comes back, Woo said the hope is he takes a big leap and becomes the main guy for Michigan.
“I think that's within the realm of possibility,” Woo said. “If that happens, I think he'll ultimately be in the first (round) conversation. Not the lottery, but he could be a guy who could be a first-rounder in a year if all goes well for him.”