Michigan coach John Beilein talks about his team's upcoming road game at Penn State, and the importance of not taking the Nittany Lions lightly. James Hawkins, The Detroit News
Ann Arbor — Junior guard Zavier Simpson wiggled his way into the lane and was met by two towering Rutgers defenders at the basket.
With seemingly no clear shot and nowhere to go, Simpson made something out of nothing. He rifled a left-handed bounce pass that tight-roped the baseline and landed on target into the awaiting hands of freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis in the corner for a wide-open 3-pointer.
Not only was the dish around a defender a thing of beauty due to the precision and degree of difficulty, but it was something teammates wouldn’t have seen from Simpson a year ago.
And of Simpson’s 143 assists so far this season, it’s the one that stands out the most to junior center Jon Teske.
“Watching him back in AAU and high school, I remember watching highlight videos and he'd always be able to pass. But now that he's running this team, his court vision is off the charts,” Teske said Monday. “He can find anyone. He threw that baseline pass to Iggy and I'm not even sure how he found him. A couple times in transition he'll throw it right over the top and they're right on a dime, too.”
When No. 6 Michigan (22-2, 11-2 Big Ten) hits the road to take on Penn State (8-15, 1-11) on Tuesday night, Simpson will have a chance to tie his sophomore season total of 150 with seven more assists — an astonishing feat considering it took him 41 games to reach that mark in 2017-18.
Yet, Simpson has established himself as one of the premier passing guards in both the Big Ten and the nation. He ranks No. 21 nationally in total assists and No. 23 in assists per game (6.0).
Even more impressive than that, he ranks No. 13 in the nation and leads the conference in assist-turnover ratio (3.33) with a whopping 100 more assists than turnovers through 24 games.
While there’s been no shortage highlight-reel passes from wraparound feeds in the paint to bullets that whiz across the court, the assists Michigan coach John Beilein appreciates the most are the ones that are so simple that they don’t stand out.
“You can be on a fast break and you can come down and you can hit Jordan Poole at 25 feet or you can just wait for him and take one more step and hit him at 21 (feet) because we don't want him to have to dribble,” Beilein said. “He used to do that all the time. He'd just see an opening, hit it and the guy was 28 feet from the basket. Now he's got to dribble in for a 3.
“That little feel that probably a lot of people wouldn't appreciate he understands. And then in the pick-and-roll game, he's got to look at the basket, he's got to see the roll guys, got to see the opposite corners, got to see the guy trailing up behind. He's looking at three things at one time and nobody is perfect at it, but he's getting exceptional right now at making the smart decision.”
Earlier this year, Beilein noted there were numerous instances last season Simpson would look too much for his own shot when other teammates were open, or he’d try to set a guy up but throw him the ball at the wrong time.
That lack of recognition and struggle to deliver passes that were on time and on target held Simpson back.
“That was the big thing in his freshman year and even why he did not start last year,” Beilein said. “There was this one extra dribble, there was this little delay that he wasn't just making simple plays. It was the guy who can go to the major leagues and be a singles hitter was trying to hit home runs all the time.
“It was really getting in his way. Once he started to appreciate how effective he can be by doing less and just hitting the open man, that's why his number is the way it is right now.”
Simpson has dished out at least 10 assists twice this season, has handed out at least five assists 19 times and has finished with more turnovers than assists in a contest twice — and one of those came against Minnesota on Jan. 22 in the only game he didn’t record a single assist.
Simpson credited his numbers to his heightened sense to feel where his teammates are on the floor without having to look, particularly in pick-and-roll situations and off ball-screen action.
“We've got a couple thirsty guys on our team, so they know when I have the ball I'm going to try look to get them some buckets,” Simpson said earlier this season. “When I have the ball, they're always trying to find open seams, the open lanes to get points.
"So, whether that's back door, whether that's spotting up, whether that's rolling up, they know when I have the ball that I'm very selfless and the ball most likely is going to them if there's a wide-open (passing) lane.”
Of course, having more comfort in the system, a greater understanding of the offense, stronger chemistry with teammates and a better feel for making the right play all helps.
And when that all comes together, moments like that baseline pass at Rutgers go from unexpected to undeniable.
“You can tell that he made a leap from his sophomore year to his junior year because Coach B is giving him the confidence to go out there and lead the team,” Poole said earlier this season. “He's definitely being extremely aggressive, and we need that at the point guard spot.”
Michigan at Penn State
Tip-off: 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Bryce Jordan Center, University Park, Pa.
Records: No. 6 Michigan 22-2, 11-2 Big Ten; Penn State 8-15, 1-11
Outlook: Lamar Stevens leads Penn State in scoring (18.9) and rebounds (7.9) and has scored at least 20 points in 11 games…The Wolverines have won eight straight in the series, including the first meeting between the teams this season, 68-55, on Jan. 3 in Ann Arbor…Michigan’s 22 wins is the most through 24 games in program history.