Who will be the voice of Michigan basketball with Zavier Simpson gone?
Michigan didn’t just lose its starting point guard with Zavier Simpson’s departure. The team lost a key piece of its identity, its loudest voice and, most importantly, its undisputed leader.
Just like coach Juwan Howard will be relying on multiple players to replace Simpson’s production, the Wolverines are taking a similar approach to fill the leadership role.
Over the past month of preseason practices, three names have surfaced the most: senior forward Isaiah Livers, senior guard Eli Brooks and fifth-year senior center Austin Davis.
“Eli’s IQ is off the charts and he is willing to share,” assistant coach Phil Martelli said this week. “Austin is always vocal. He’s always pulling Hunter (Dickinson) aside and saying, 'Hey, you know what your foot position on this (should be this).' Isaiah has been good, but I would say one of the challenges is to stay consistently great, not just good, at communicating. He’s another guy, he’ll pull the younger wings — Terrance (Williams) or Jace (Howard) and those guys — and put them in position. Those three have been the most vocal.”
For Livers, it was the next step of a natural progression, considering he was one of Michigan’s top players last season and the team’s other captain, center Jon Teske, also graduated.
Yet, Simpson and Teske couldn’t have been more different. Simpson didn’t shy away from speaking his mind and letting teammates know whether they did something right or wrong. Teske was more soft-spoken and was the “caretaker-type guy” who would pull a player to the side, put an arm around them and offer positive reinforcement or guidance.
But with no dominant voice at the point guard position or on the roster, Livers knows more responsibilities are going to fall on his shoulders and he’ll be needed to step into that void.
“There is no captain in college basketball that was like Zavier Simpson,” Livers said last week. “Right now, I've been trying to find my balance of what kind of leader I want to be. I've been more vocal and I'm taking what Jon Teske does. I feel like I’m using both of their leadership styles and trying to turn myself into the ultimate leader.”
Brooks, on the other hand, has been trying to find his voice. He was referred to as a “silent assassin” by teammates last season because he’s someone who preferred to let his actions speak.
As the only point guard on the roster with any Big Ten experience, Brooks said he has made a conscious effort to speak up in practice — “not necessarily the same way that X did,” he noted — and has tried to get more involved in teaching his teammates through plays when they’re on the sidelines.
“Everybody has their different leading styles but sometimes they do need to change with different roles,” Brooks said last month. “I think that's the area I can make the largest impact."
Brooks added the practices were becoming more and more player-led during the preseason. While the coaches would lead the larger teaching points, the players would command their position groups in individual breakouts, with Livers overseeing the wings, Davis the bigs and Brooks the guards.
“Coach Howard always preaches that it's your team, you have a voice in it, too,” Brooks said. “I've seen a lot more guys speak up in practice, so that's been something that's been really good.”
One of those guys has been Davis, the longest-tenured Wolverine on the roster who figures to play a key role while serving as a mentor to freshmen center Hunter Dickinson.
Davis said it’s been a gradual rise for him becoming more of a leader and credited the examples some of his former teammates have set during his four years in Ann Arbor, from Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin to Duncan Robinson and Moritz Wagner to Simpson and Teske.
“They've all been tremendous leaders,” Davis said. “I continue to try to model some of the way that they led that has shown success.”
Aside from the “obvious leaders,” as freshman wing Jace Howard called them, the Wolverines have four senior walk-ons and brought in two more upperclassmen in transfers Chaundee Brown and Mike Smith. There’s also sophomore wing Franz Wagner, who Martelli said has a “real way of expressing accountability.”
Add it up and there's no shortage of leadership qualities on the roster — but just no one quite like Simpson.
“I think it helps everybody now to see what X did last year, how much he did, how vocal he was, how much he talked to different people, the communication that goes into being a leader that you have with the coaches and your teammates every day at practice,” Wagner said last month. “Also, sometimes being a guy that's not liked by everybody on the team. I think that's a huge part of being a leader is you've got to say some things that aren't always liked by people that you say it to. Holding people accountable, I think that's a huge part. We talked about that a lot during quarantine as a team that you gotta have people that are willing to learn and aren't necessarily pissed off when somebody tells you something that's going to better the team, that you did something wrong or something like that. It's just for the better of the team, it's nothing personal.
“I think we've got a couple of guys that are stepping into a leader role and I kind of like that we don't just have one guy that is very vocal but a lot of different people that talk to freshmen and talk to people who ask questions. I think we have a good dynamic going.”