Throughout his first season coaching the Michigan men’s basketball team, Juwan Howard wasn’t shy about equating senior guard Zavier Simpson to Tom Brady.
From a leadership standpoint, the comparison was fitting. After taking over as the team’s starting point guard midway through his sophomore season, Simpson was the Wolverines’ unquestioned leader. Like Brady, Simpson was the heart and soul of the roster and an icon for the program itself. Seemingly every one of his teammates had a personal story about his intensity or work ethic.
“Well, when you have a guy like Zavier Simpson, and I have to start with him first because his leadership is special, you’re truly going to miss him,” Howard said during a Zoom call with reporters last week. “A vocal leader but also a guy who can lead by example.”
With Simpson now gone, Michigan must turn to new faces for leadership. Official practices don’t begin until Wednesday, but a few players stepped up during preseason workouts. Unsurprisingly, Howard rattled off seniors Eli Brooks and Isaiah Livers and fifth-year Austin Davis — who have a combined 10 seasons of college basketball experience — as some of the loudest voices early on.
While much of the void left by Simpson will fall squarely on the shoulders of current seniors, Howard also singled out a lone underclassman: Franz Wagner. A year ago, he was still making the cultural adjustment to an entirely new country. Today, he’s ready to step up as a leader in what could be his last season of college basketball if he picks up where he left off as a freshman.
For that, he has Simpson to thank. And he’s not the only one. As Michigan gets ready to begin practices without Simpson for the first time since 2016, his leadership style lives on in teammates who watched closely.
“It helps everybody now to have seen (Simpson lead) last year,” Wagner said during a Zoom call Tuesday. “Kind of seeing what he did, how much he did, how vocal he was, how much he talked with different people, the communication that goes into being a leader, that you’ve got to have with the coaches but also with your teammates everyday at practice.
“Also, sometimes being the guy that is not liked by everybody on the team. I think that’s a huge part of being a leader, is you’ve got to say something that’s not always liked by the people you say it to. Holding people accountable, that’s a huge part. We talked about that a lot during quarantine as a team. You’re going to have people who are willing to learn and aren’t necessarily pissed off when someone tells you something that’s for the better of the team.”
Gone are the days of one booming voice echoing off the Crisler Center walls. Without Simpson, the Wolverines’ hierarchy of leadership is set to transform entirely. Livers, Brooks and Davis may not have played major roles in 2017-18, but their experience during Michigan’s Final Four run could prove invaluable. Incoming transfers Mike Smith and Chaundee Brown, meanwhile, started a combined 165 games at Columbia and Wake Forest, respectively.
Together, that accounts for a collective voice.
“We have a very, I would say, experienced group,” Howard said. “I don’t second guess at all on (whether we) will have a leader. As time goes, we’ll know and be defined on who will be a true leader.”