'It should be interesting': Eli Brooks OK with any role in Michigan's versatile backcourt
When Michigan coach Juwan Howard first arrived in Ann Arbor last year, he posed a question to Eli Brooks.
Would you prefer playing at the one or the two?
“I said, ‘Whatever gets me on the court,’” Brooks recalled Tuesday.
Fast forward to now, where the biggest question facing the Wolverines heading into the 2020-21 season is how — and with whom — they’re going to replace former starting point guard Zavier Simpson. While Brooks is one possible solution, his answer is still the same one year later.
“I'm confident in either position,” Brooks said. “In practice, we play two different teams. Sometimes I'm the point guard and sometimes I'm the shooting guard, even last year with X being here. I get a lot of reps at both ends and they (coaches) like to see people on and off the ball.”
Brooks, of course, has done both throughout his career. Under former coach John Beilein, Brooks spent most of his minutes at point guard his freshman year and handled the starting duties for a 12-game stretch before he split time at both guard positions off the bench as a sophomore.
Then last season under Howard, Brooks moved into a full-time starting role at the two alongside Simpson and flourished. He averaged a career-high 10.6 points per game, made a team-high 52 3-pointers while shooting a career-best 36.4% from beyond the arc, and earned a reputation as a pesky perimeter defender.
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Regardless of where he plays in the backcourt, the senior said he’s put an emphasis on fine-tuning his decision-making in ball screens on offense.
“That's something that I've made a conscious effort to watch film and get better on that end, just seeing the right paths,” he said. “I’m trying to take things off film and seeing where I can improve on, who I'm missing and just trying to see the floor a little better.”
Brooks dished out 59 assists last season, a mark that ranked second the team and well behind Simpson’s total of 236.
Yet, if Brooks is put into a spot where he ends up playing heavier minutes at the one and has the ball in his hands more often, he knows he’ll need to make strides as a scorer and a playmaker in pick-and-rolls to be effective.
“All good point guards can score for themselves out of the ball screens and make decisions out of it for others,” Brooks said. “I have to do a better job of seeing the floor and seeing the open man and not singling out a one-sided situation, like on a ball screen you've got to see both sides.”
There’s no doubt the Wolverines will need to find a way to make up for Simpson’s shot creation and distribution abilities. As the dominant ball-handler, he posted the fifth-highest assist rate in the country last season, per KenPom, by assisting on 43.4% on Michigan’s made field goals when he was on the floor.
While Brooks primarily served as a catch-and-shoot and catch-and-attack option last year, he’s not fazed at the idea of being asked to initiate the offense and facilitate more.
"I don't think it's going to be that big of a jump just because there's so many other people that can go in the ball screen as well,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of players around, so not necessarily making like crazy passes, just making the right play because we have a lot of talent around me and all the guards.”
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One of those other guards is Columbia graduate transfer Mike Smith, who is another candidate to take over Simpson’s spot.
Brooks described Smith as “very outgoing” and easy to get along with, which is part of the reason he was recruited by Howard.
“I think he complements me really well because we both can play on the ball and off the ball,” Brooks said. “His ability to shoot, his shooting numbers throughout practice have been pretty impressive.”
Smith was equally complimentary of Brooks. Smith said the two defend one another in practice and he credited Brooks for already making him a better player.
“We're trying to figure out how each of us play together and it's going well,” Smith said last week. “I think the chemistry is going really well between me and Eli because he has confidence in me and I have confidence in him. I think that's everything the team needs playing in that one-two spot, if that's the case when the lineup comes out.”
And whenever it does, Brooks is ready and willing to fill whatever backcourt role that’s required.
“There's a lot of different combinations that could happen, just like last year with three guards or just one guard,” Brooks said. “It should be interesting.”