THE THREE GUARD LINEUP
Juwan Howard’s era / Wolverines Express
It came almost as a surprise and because of Franz Wagner’s injury, but it looks like Michigan three guard lineup has come to stay. Besides being bound to suffer defensively against bigger matchups, does it really work? I was unconvinced after the game against Appalachian State, when the Wolverines rushed shots and throw away a healthy lead in the last 10 minutes against a 2–3 zone. On paper, any of three guys is close to an elite shooter, and that should be Adrian Nunez’s part to play at least until Franz returns. The Dominican wing has been hot-cold until now, starting every game but playing little in the second halves, offering himself as open and catch & shoot guy, but rushed at times, with percentages in need of rising up. There are also questions on Nunez’s on-ball creation, on his strength, and his D stand and reactivity still need plenty of work. In such scenario, waiting for Wagner and with freshman Cole Bajema working on his physicality and frame, Juwan’s three guard lineup has had time to gel and they are winning over sceptics like me.
However you want to picture it, Michigan basketball stars, breaths and ends with Zavier Simpson on the ball. He runs the play, bullies rivals and bosses teammates holding them accountable in defense. It’s taken him some time to come around Howard’s new ideas, as he showed with a slow start this season, but there are very few players at college level who run an offense (9 assist per game so far) and control the tempo as Zavier does. Simpson understands the game as a way to link with others on both ends, and he easily creates advantage for his teammates. Surely he’s one of the best players in the nation at running the PnR. Period. Give him time to read D reactions off the screen and he will thread the needle for the bigman, pick spots and defenses apart kicking to the open shooter, or attack the rack all the way finishing with either hand. We still haven’t seen that marvellous baby hook this season, but hopefully it’s only a question of time. In addition to Zavier’s leadership and swag, his defense always comes around and raises the team level keeping teammates on their toes. Lately there’s been also some improvement in his shooting form: just a bit of flick on his stroke that makes his release more natural and efficient, 40% although still slow and in a little sample.
It was about time for junior Eli Brooks to get serious minutes in maize & blue, and increasing those from 12 to 31, numbers have multiplied under Juwan Howard. In just four games Brooks has performed a variety of offensive roles, off the dribble and off the screen. From shotmaker who knocks down open threes and creates his own buckets in the lane, to skilled playmaker who dictates games with the PnR even with Zavier Simpson on the court. Eli has also shown high IQ and defensive awareness matching up bigger players, with good activity over passing lanes and quick hands with one steal per game to the date. Having in mind that Brooks’ job in the past was more about bringing some spark from the bench, as a regular starter he will be asked to keep his versatile approach and two way production every night, even if can’t score consistently or regardless the number of shots he takes. Some adjustment might be needed when Franz Wagner comes back to the lineup, but Brooks seems equipped to make his mark in this roster after a couple of years of learning curve with Beilein.
The last member of Michigan ‘just above 6 feet’ backcourt line is sophomore David DeJulius. Actually the 5th Wolverine in minutes played, he’s adjusting to come off the bench providing ball movement, shooting streaks, and some toughness on the defensive end. Dejulius is a classic PG by nature, physically well built but still growing his strenght and frame, and and with a fair share of dibble, vision and swag. Although he’s taking a more off-the-ball role at the moment to suit Zavier and Brooks’ creative upside, that could really help his confidence and shooting form from behind the arc expanding his arsenal. There is little question in my view that with Zavier gone next season he will be taking over the PG spot and hold his own on the back of this experience.