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At Michigan, Zeb Jackson is ready to leave his mark

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The freshman guard’s athleticism has already impressed his new teammates.

City Of Palms Classic Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

One Ohio point guard out, another one in.

Such is the case for this year’s Michigan men’s basketball team, which will welcome freshman guard Zeb Jackson to the fold after bidding farewell to Zavier Simpson last spring. As Ohio natives from Toledo and Lima, respectively, Jackson arrives in Ann Arbor with big shoes to fill following Simpson’s storied career.

Simpson emerged as the program’s heart and soul after taking control of the starting point guard job midway through the 2017-18 season. He guided the Wolverines to the 2018 national title game and 2019 Sweet 16, and as a senior, he racked up the third-most assists in the nation. Simpson and classmate Jon Teske ultimately became the program’s all-time winningest players, though their careers were cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With Simpson gone and guards Eli Brooks and Mike Smith entering their final season, Michigan’s future at point guard remains uncertain.

Enter Jackson, who has maintained a close relationship with Simpson.

“Me and him talk about it all the time,” Jackson said during a Zoom call with reporters Friday. “After (Simpson) being here at Michigan, he knows a lot of things that coach Howard teaches and a lot of things that other coaches teach. It’s repeated. I talk to him a lot about the things that happened this year and how they’re similar to when he was a player at Michigan.”

Growing up in Toledo, Jackson established himself as one of the state’s top high school players. He averaged 25.4 points across 76 games at Maumee Valley Country Day en route to a pair of sectional titles and three All-District selections. But after earning 2019 District Player of the Year honors, he decided it was time for a bigger challenge.

So, with more than 1,600 career points under his belt, Jackson transferred to Montverde Academy in Florida for his senior season. There, he shared the court with five-star recruits Cade Cunningham, Scottie Barnes, Day’Ron Sharpe, Caleb Houstan and Dariq Whitehead. It was a steep increase in talent, and as a result, Jackson found himself coming off the bench.

“The adjustment was definitely tough for me because the situation didn’t go as I planned,” Jackson said. “But we had a really good team and every day for me was competitive. 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 and prepared me for this level of basketball.”

As a senior, playing at a higher level helped Jackson prepare for the college level. That’s helped him impress his new Michigan teammates so far, and according to senior wing Isaiah Livers, Jackson is the Wolverines’ “shiftiest player since Jordan (Poole).”

“You look at him, you don’t think he can 360 windmill (dunk) or put the ball in between his legs and 360,” Livers said Friday. “It’s amazing just how much of an athlete he is. It makes me miss my young legs — I’m just playing. But he’s very skilled. He actually talks a lot for a freshman and it’s surprising because I always compare myself to my freshman year, me, Jordan, Eli, we talked but we didn’t talk like he did. He’s a natural leader. He’s going to have a bright future.”

Now, Jackson walks into a college program with a wide open backcourt. Brooks is the only returning ball-handler with Big Ten experience, as Smith arrived over the summer as a graduate transfer from Columbia. Jackson, who is 6-foot-5 and left-handed, offers a much different look than either of the upperclassmen.

Jackson enters his freshman season with a real chance to crack the rotation. With tip-off mere weeks away, Simpson left him one piece of advice.

“He just told me not to overthink anything,” Jackson said. “Coach Howard allows us to play basketball. When I go out there, the biggest thing (Simpson) told me was, ‘Just hoop,’ basically.”