'Feisty' Mike Smith quickly finds fit, comfort in Michigan's offense
One of Michigan’s biggest preseason questions centered on replacing Zavier Simpson and everything he did.
Though the Wolverines have played only one game against a Mid-American Conference opponent, grad transfer Mike Smith has the look of someone who is capable of being the answer.
In his debut as Michigan’s starting point guard, Smith put together a sterling stat line in Wednesday’s season-opening win against Bowling Green: 16 points, team-high eight assists, one turnover, 4-for-6 shooting and a plus-10 rating in 31 minutes.
“I felt really comfortable out there,” Smith said Friday. “I think we run the offense in practice so much that I felt really comfortable to run it out there against somebody else. We scrimmage against each other a lot. It felt like it was us doing it in practice, so I felt really comfortable.
“I think I played well, really efficient. Obviously, there are areas that I could grow, but I think I played well for my first game."
It’s the type of performance Michigan coach Juwan Howard likely envisioned when he dipped into the transfer portal this offseason and pursued Smith, who spent four years in the Ivy League at Columbia.
Though Howard never got the chance to watch Smith in person, he viewed plenty of film and “trusted his eyes” during the evaluation process. What Howard saw was one of the best shooters at his position, an experienced guard with “amazing vision” and a player who produced against Power Five competition.
Simply put, Howard saw someone who belonged and could fit the bill.
Against Bowling Green, Michigan’s offense provided a familiar sight with a healthy helping of ball screens. But this time instead of Simpson, it was Smith who was getting plenty of opportunities to make plays for himself and others.
More: Freshman Hunter Dickinson gets 'locked in,' has impressive debut for Michigan
He used screens to get to the rim and finish. He got into the paint and found open teammates. He was credited for being the key to the offense’s effectiveness, with Bowling Green coach Michael Huger citing Smith’s ability to penetrate the lane and break down the Falcons’ defense time and time again.
"I like it, man,” senior forward Isaiah Livers said. “He's very feisty. He gets downhill, draws fouls. He's a great shooter. He's a great passer as we've seen, eight assists. …He was making some great reads, great passes. I credit him watching the film."
Yet, Smith’s offensive role is much different than what he was used to at Columbia. During his time with the Lions, he was a high-usage player and high-volume shooter who was asked to carry the scoring load out of necessity.
That’s not the case at Michigan. With the offense able to run through multiple players who can handle the ball and make plays, Smith doesn’t have all the pressure on his shoulders and doesn’t have to do everything on his own.
"It was nice,” Smith said. “Obviously, it was a little different at Columbia, but I learned a lot from there being able to do that. Now, not having to be able to do that here is great. It's a nice feeling to be able to facilitate and to pick and choose when I want to score.”
Smith noted he often didn’t look for his own shot against Bowling Green because he continuously made reads and found the open man. Wednesday’s outing marked just the seventh time in 93 career games he recorded at least eight assists. His six shot attempts were also tied for the second fewest he has taken in a game — and less than a third of the 19.3 field-goal attempts he averaged last season.
After looking at the film from the opener, Smith said he could’ve had a few more assists if he wasn’t “so anxious” and was more patient on ball screens. He also pointed out he needs to be more aggressive on the ball on defense.
But even though Smith admitted he was nervous for his first game as a Wolverine, it hardly showed as he made a seemingly smooth transition and meshed with his new teammates.
"I basically told him, ‘Be yourself, play your game. Coach Howard went out and looked for you for a reason. He likes what you bring to this team,’” Livers said. “I don't want to him to bottle himself up to be a pass-first point guard when he's a score-first point guard. We like when he's aggressive because that opens up shots for me, Franz (Wagner), Chaundee (Brown), Eli (Brooks), Big Hunt (Dickinson).
“When he's aggressive, we're all going to be aggressive and we're all going to be with him. We like the way he plays basketball."
And if Smith continues to play like he did on Wednesday night, he can be the point guard solution the Wolverines and Howard are hoping for.
“There are a lot of guys (on the team) that can score the ball and play the game of basketball at a high level and at the next level,” Smith said. “Obviously, it's only the first game but everybody stepped up and everybody played their role. Everybody did what they were capable of doing and it showed out there.”
Oakland at No. 25 Michigan
Tip-off: 6 p.m. Sunday, Crisler Center, Ann Arbor
Records: Oakland 0-3, Michigan 1-0
Outlook: This is the first meeting between the teams since 2011 and Michigan has won six straight in the series…This will be Oakland’s fourth game in five days. The Golden Grizzlies have been outscored 139-60 in the first halves this season and their average margin of defeat is 31 points.