For the last three seasons, Michigan had been on the wrong end of the graduate transfer market. For those who don’t follow the ins-and-outs of college basketball in the summer, graduate transfers have become coveted free agents who have a lifespan of exactly one year. They either are looking to play a higher level competition, had a problem with their coach, or want to try one more university before making a move to the NBA.
In Michigan’s case, all four players (including this season) left on relatively good terms with John Beilein, but a lack of playing time and need for development found each of these players with a new team the following season. Co-captain Jon Horford departed after the 2013-14 season, playing one year with Florida after developing a newfound 3-point shot. Max Bielfeldt left the following year, as Beilein opted to give more minutes to younger big men Ricky Doyle, Moritz Wagner and Mark Donnal (Bielfeldt would go on to win the Big Ten and Sixth Man of the Year at Indiana).
Spike was the next to go, playing his final year on a Sweet 16 Purdue team to make way for Derrick Walton and Xavier Simpson. Mark Donnal is the fourth departure in four years, as Beilein has an army of big men at his disposal and was more interested in developing Austin Davis and Jon Teske rather than play Donnal eight or ten minutes a game.
Which brings us to Jaaron Simmons. In classic secretive Beilein recruiting fashion (see covert operation to Berlin to recruit Moritz Wagner), Michigan was able to land one of the best available players in the graduate transfer market. Simmons brings an immediate presence as a veteran point guard, something Michigan relished last season with Walton. It’s clear Xavier Simpson wasn’t ready to be handed the keys to the car just yet, and that doesn’t mean Simpson might not be a great contributor for Michigan at some point. Just ask D.J. Wilson, who had two wasteful years before a stellar junior campaign in which the Sacramento native could get drafted.
Simmons himself is a bit of a journeyman, starting his career at Houston before transferring for his last two seasons at Ohio. His numbers the past two seasons are pretty consistent, averaging 16 points, seven assists and four rebounds per game. He’s a prototypical undersized Michigan point guard at only 6’1”, but his toughness, ability to drive to the basket and passing vision make him a luxury this late in the recruiting process.
While the front court remains in flux, Michigan’s backcourt is coming together nicely after Wolverines’ fans were worried it could be Michigan’s weakest area. Simmons appears to be the day one starter when he steps on campus, though he did declare for the NBA draft without an agent and will very likely take his name out soon. Simpson remains the clear backup, as he played terrific spot minutes behind Walton as the season went on. I’d expect to see a 30/10 split between Simmons and Simpson, and both guards being undersized makes it difficult to play them together. Eli Brooks could challenge for this position as well, but if he can’t crack the rotation early, he could be a prime candidate to redshirt.
At shooting guard, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman played 31 minutes a game last season and I don’t expect that number to change too much. Michigan fans thought MAAR would have to shift to point guard for more minutes, but having him off the ball makes him a much better player. MAAR was the only starter who failed to average double figures for the season, so look for him to play much better next season. Jordan Poole, the national championship winning wing from La Lumiere High School ranked 48th by ESPN, will likely be MAAR’s backup, but Ibi Watson will look to build off of a disappointing freshman campaign and compete for the job as well.
Charles Matthews will be the starter at the “3”, though I expect this position to look like a guard similar to how Zak Irvin played the position this season. Matthews is the prototypical Beilein guard/wing, a 6’5” excellent athlete who just couldn’t find enough minutes at Kentucky and chose the Wolverines instead. His playmaking ability at a wing position is something Michigan didn’t have with Irvin, and he’ll be the best guard defender on the floor when he plays. Duncan Robinson gets the nod behind Matthews, but I’d expect Robinson to get some minutes at the “4” as well. Robinson’s shooting and veteran play are too good to keep him off the floor, but Michigan definitely loses something defensively with Robinson.
Overall, Michigan’s guard rotation will feature some combination of Simmons, MAAR, Matthews, Simpson, Brooks, Poole, Watson and Robinson. That’s eight guys, and Beilein already knows what he’s getting out of MAAR and Robinson. Simmons and Matthews are the other semi-known commodities at other schools, and starting those three guys together will give Beilein three players that are at least juniors or older. Irvin and Walton averaged 35 minutes per game last season with Irvin playing the most in the entire country, so Beilein will look to lighten the load for his guys. The depth at the guard position, with the hope that one or two other guys emerges from this group, could make Michigan’s guards one of the best and most intriguing groups in the entire country.