'Freak athleticism' could make Zeb Jackson a factor for Michigan in freshman season
When it comes to understanding what it’s like to be a point guard under Michigan coach Juwan Howard, there’s one person who knows best: Zavier Simpson.
Fortunately for freshman Zeb Jackson, that just happens to be the same person he grew up with, is good friends with and whose dad he played for on the AAU circuit.
“Me and him (Simpson) talk about it all the time,” Jackson said Friday on a Zoom call with reporters. “We laugh about things that we know. Like after X being here at Michigan, he knows a lot of the things that Coach Howard teaches and a lot of other things coaches teach. It's repeated so I talked to him a lot about the things that happened this year and how they're similar to when he was playing.
“The biggest thing he told me was just not to overthink anything. Coach Howard allows us to play basketball so when I go out there, the biggest thing X told me is just hoop basically.”
Simpson flourished under Howard during his first season at the helm. As the engine of the offense and the team’s primary ball-handler, Simpson averaged 12.9 points and 7.9 assists per game — both career highs — while establishing himself as one of the nation’s top distributors.
But with Simpson gone, Michigan must find a way to replace his production, facilitation and shot creation. Earlier this week, Howard named Jackson as one of options to take on the decision-maker duties, along with grad transfer Mike Smith and senior Eli Brooks.
“It's not an easy job, but I definitely feel like I'm getting more comfortable every day,” said Jackson, who plans to play a combo guard role. “I'm learning a lot from Eli and Mike. It's definitely a lot to learn, but I definitely feel like I'm prepared for it."
While the conversations with Simpson have helped, so did Jackson’s time at Florida prep powerhouse Montverde Academy, which has won four national titles and churned numerous NBA Draft picks in recent years.
The decision to transfer from Maumee (Ohio) Valley to the famed program for his senior season put him in different position. He went from being the star player who played a leading role to another Division 1 prospect who came off the bench on a roster loaded with top-50 recruits, including Cade Cunningham (Oklahoma State), Scottie Barnes (Florida State), Day’Ron Sharpe (North Carolina), Moses Moody (Arkansas) and 2021 Michigan signee Caleb Houstan.
“The adjustment was definitely tough for me because the situation didn't go as I planned it to, but we had a really good team and every day for me was competitive,” said Jackson, who added Montverde’s environment was much more college-esque.
“In the long run, it helped me a lot. I know a lot of people probably couldn't see it but behind the scenes it definitely helped me a lot preparing me for this level of basketball.”
Jackson noted his biggest strides weren’t necessarily basketball related because he already felt prepared skill-wise to make the jump to college. Rather, going up against top talent on a daily basis tested his mettle and toughened him up mentally.
Since arriving at Michigan’s campus, Jackson said he has focused on improving on the “little things,” like cutting down the length of a pass, learning his teammates’ tendencies and getting used to the sweet spots where wings or bigs want the ball.
He’s constantly asking questions and taking in teaching points from his teammates, even those not at his position. When he’s on the sideline watching a drill, he keeps an eye on the other guards and Brooks, who Jackson said “does a lot of the little things correct.”
But when he’s on the floor, there are some things the 6-foot-5 Jackson brings that Smith and Brooks can’t.
"Zeb is an explosive athlete. You look at him and you don't think he can 360 windmill or put the ball between his legs and 360. It's amazing how much of an athlete he is,” senior forward Isaiah Livers said Friday.
"Mike and Eli can't wake up and go to the basketball court and just whip on pants or outside shoes and windmill. It's that freak athleticism. A guy gets past him, we don't have to help as much as you do when a point guard can't jump as much because he's going to go up and grab the ball off the rim. He's going to block their shot.”
Unlike most freshmen, Jackson isn’t afraid to speak up and use his voice on the court, according to several teammates. Livers and Smith both described Jackson as a natural leader.
Another word that has been used multiple times to describe Jackson’s game is shifty.
“He's very quick, very twitchy,” Livers said. “I don't really know how to describe it because I closed out to him a couple times and I'm not going to lie, he got me. He'll go one way and go back the other way and I'm like, 'Damn, this dude is quick.' He's the shiftiest dude since Jordan (Poole). That's why I'm very excited to see how he turns out.”
And Livers isn’t the only one.
“He's going to help this team, for sure, this year, next year,” Smith said of Jackson last month. “I think the sky is the limit for him if he continues to work and understand and buy in to everything that coach is telling him.”