The Michigan Wolverines are in a transitional year with first-time head coach Juwan Howard as they move into a new era for the program. There are always going to be bumps and bruises along the way when a coaching change occurs, especially replacing an iconic figure in team history in John Beilein. But Howard has something that most first-year head coaches do not have.
He has a leader.
He has a winner.
He has senior point guard Zavier Simpson.
Simpson, who is 64-17 as a starter at Michigan and 35-3 clip at home, had one of the best games of his career in the 84-78 double-overtime win over Purdue on Thursday night at Crisler Center. While quiet early on, Simpson took over late in regulation and in both overtimes to finish with 22 points and nine assists to will his team to victory.
“I’m not surprised,” Howard said after the contest. “I have one of the best point guards in college basketball. We have one of the best leaders in college basketball. One of the toughest competitors in college basketball. A kid that has been counted out so many times, but he always figures it out, rises to the occasion when needed.
”We trust him. His teammates follow his lead with his energy. He’s always active with his effort. I’m not surprised by his performance.”
Purdue head coach Matt Painter, who has been coaching in the Big Ten almost as long as anyone in the conference at this point, said that Simpson shares the DNA of some of the better leaders — and winners — that he’s seen.
“He’s just a winner,” Painter said. “He won in high school. He’s won here. That’s just who he is. Guys that are winners — guys like Mike Conley that came through the Big Ten — if they score 4-6 points, it’s no big deal. If they have to score 24, then so be it. That’s what winning’s about. He’s the type of guy that’s a leader. He can defend, he can pass, he can will his team to a victory.”
As a senior leader on a team that is filled with younger players still growing into their roles, Simpson could do the hero ball routine every night and to a certain extent, it would be understandable. But he has faith in the players that are around him and says that he puts his ego aside to get others involved until he knows it is time to attack.
“I trust the players I’m surrounded by. I trust them to be able to kick it out, knock it down, drive. Whatever they do, I trust for them to do that,” Simpson said.
”That’s just about making the right play, putting my pride aside and as you see, come out in overtime, second half and score more. Sometimes you’ve got to put yourself aside, be unselfish and come out and do the best you can to make the right play.”
Freshman Franz Wagner, still finding his way as one of those young pieces moving forward sees the multi-faceted approach from Simpson and respect the leadership and stability he brings to the court most every night.
“He makes it easy for everybody. He gets in the lane, he makes plays for others, he makes plays for himself like he did (on Thursday night),” Wagner said. “It was big time. That’s what we need from him. His play on the court is one thing, but the biggest thing is that we have that leader in him. He likes that role and he really embraces it.”
So what makes Simpson so successful? Howard uses a baseball comparison to explain how his point guard takes what the defense gives him and goes from there.
“It always boils down to his experience. He’s a gamer. It’s his fourth year as a senior. He used to play for a coach that had a phenomenal sense — a lot of it was a lot of read and react. And it’s somewhat similar to what we run offensively, too, but instead, yes, we use a lot of ball screens and he’s practiced it. He knows where the reads are. There are times, like they all do, they all make mistakes. They try to make the right play. Sometimes it’s a home run play, but he makes singles, too. We’re gonna continue to keep practicing it. He watches film, he knows it.
“But the thing I’m impressed with the most is that he’s always ready to work. He’s always ready to practice. He don’t miss any practices. That right there, you’re just gonna cheer for a guy like that, because the matter of fact that he’s wired the right way. Give credit to his dad and to his mom for instilling those types of values in a guy that’s gonna bring his work ethic each and every day to practice and to games.”
In Simpson, Howard has an extension of him on the court of all times, but it is much more than that. He has his limitations and we have seen that play out in his almost-four seasons with the program, but the load that he has to carry this season is much larger than the typical senior point guard.
He has to lay a foundation for a new regime that he only will play under for a season while also finishing his own career on a high note. Simpson wants that burden and is willing to take it on.
“Well, he knows he cannot be the quietest guy on the court,” Howard said. “He also knows that each and every possession, he has a coach that’s gonna be counting on him to provide leadership. He embraces that. It’s not like he’s running away from that challenge. Yes, it’s big shoulders he has to carry with all of the accountability that I’ve given him, all of the trust I’ve given him. But he’s earned all of it.
“We’re just happy that we have our Tom Brady playing for us.”
That would be the second of three times in the span of 11 or so hours that Howard would make his feelings known on who he compares him to.
“I never forget when I called Zavier’s mom and we had a nice conversation. She was excited about me getting the job and having a chance to coach her son and teach him about growing as a player but also growing as a man. And I welcome that challenge. I embrace that. Then she said one other thing that was very important. She was like, ‘You know what? The two of you’s birthday was close to one another.’ And my grandmother was always big on astrology, so we both are Aquarius. We both can be bull-headed, I will also add stubborn. I know I’m stubborn — my wife will tell you that. And we also are both tough-nosed competitors.
“But the beauty of it is that we both trust one another. I’ve earned his trust. I’ve watched him, I’ve been a big fan of his game. Coming in, like you said, I inherited a special player that I know is gonna fight every night, is gonna compete from start to finish and is gonna lead like no other.”