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Previewing Michigan’s backcourt in the post-Zavier Simpson era

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Breaking down how Juwan Howard and the Wolverines can fill the void of their departed program cornerstone.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Nebraska Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

When the Michigan Wolverines take the floor this season, it will mark the beginning of a new chapter for the team’s backcourt.

Gone is Zavier Simpson, who emerged as the program’s heart and soul after taking control of the starting point guard job midway through his sophomore season. Simpson guided Michigan to the 2018 national title game and 2019 Sweet 16 during his two NCAA Tournaments as the team’s starter, and as a senior, he racked up the third-most assists in the nation as the Wolverines ushered in the Juwan Howard era. By the time he and classmate Jon Teske had their careers cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they had already become the program’s all-time winningest players.

Now, Michigan faces the challenge of replacing its program cornerstone. On a 2020-21 roster that features six newcomers, who’s responsible for filling the void?

Mike Smith

After capping off his Columbia career as the nation’s sixth-leading scorer a season ago, Smith arrives in Ann Arbor with the chance to make an immediate impact as a graduate transfer. Like Simpson, Smith spent much of last season with the ball in his hands.

The fundamental difference? Smith was a dominant scorer, whereas Simpson did most of his damage as a facilitator. Smith averaged 22.8 points on 43.2% shooting as a senior, establishing himself as an effective three-level scorer despite his 5-foot-11 frame. Asking him to replicate that stat line would be a tall order after transferring from a last-place Ivy League team to a Big Ten contender, but he averaged 19.7 points across three games against high-major opponents Virginia, Wake Forest and and St. John’s last season.

One area where Smith can shine, though, is his playmaking. Surrounded by subpar talent on a Columbia team that lost 13 of its 14 conference games, he still managed to post 4.5 assists per game. Besides Simpson, nobody on last year’s Michigan team averaged more than two. Smith will be surrounded by significantly better shooters and frontcourt pieces this season, and if he assumes Simpson’s role as a primary ball-handler in Howard’s screen-heavy system, he could become a valuable piece of the Wolverines’ offense as both a facilitator and scorer.

Eli Brooks

After a breakout junior season that saw his scoring average leap from 2.5 points to 10.6, Brooks’ senior season will start at a sort of crossroads. He excelled in his role off the ball last season on both ends of the floor, but with Simpson no longer in the fold, Michigan could very well call on him to be the team’s primary ball-handler.

Brooks established himself as a legitimate catch-and-shoot threat last year, eclipsing the 20-point mark on four separate occasions as he shot 41% from the field, 36% from beyond the arc and 73% from the free throw stripe. His best game of the season came when he posted 25 points and canned five 3-pointers during the Wolverines’ trip to Iowa City in February.

However, Brooks’ impact was felt most on the other end of the floor. As a senior, he can establish himself as one of the conference’s elite two-way guards.

“(Brooks) is our anchor,” Howard said after a February loss to Wisconsin. “... I’m surprised Eli is not mentioned as one of the best defensive players this season because he has been the anchor of our defense. Just his presence — we saw how we missed his activity, we missed his energy, being able to guard guys and attention to detail when it comes to the scouting report.”

Added Franz Wagner: “Eli is the best defender on our team. He brings it every night.”

Zeb Jackson

As the final player to commit to former head coach John Beilein, Jackson has the chance to carry on a legacy of dominant point guard play in Ann Arbor, following in the footsteps of Darius Morris, Trey Burke, Derrick Walton Jr. and Zavier Simpson. As the Wolverines explore different ways to replace Simpson, Jackson may be able to get a head start sooner rather than later.

The 87th-ranked recruit in the 247Sports composite, Jackson could find himself in the rotation as a true freshman. He spent his senior season at Montverde Academy (Fla.) in Florida after averaging 24.8 points and 7.9 rebounds as a junior at Maumee Valley Country Day School (Ohio).

Jackson grew accustomed to playing around high-level talent during his time at Montverde. In his lone season, he played alongside three five-star prospects in the class of 2020. He also enters his freshman season as Michigan’s tallest option at point guard, measuring in at 6-foot-5.