Take a glimpse at an NBA roster, and there’s a solid chance you’ll see a Michigan alumnus.
Jordan Poole, who famously sent the Wolverines to the Sweet 16 in 2018 with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer, is an NBA champion and was traded to the Washington Wizards this offseason. Duncan Robinson has made two NBA Finals appearances with the Miami Heat. The Wagner brothers — Franz and Moritz — play for the Orlando Magic. Of course, Isaiah Livers is entering his third season with the Detroit Pistons.
The list goes on, including a pair of Wolverines (Kobe Bufkin and Jett Howard) drafted this summer. But Poole, Robinson and the Wagners are all former teammates and friends of Zavier Simpson, the winningest player in Michigan basketball history. The 6-foot point guard is still anchoring himself as a professional basketball player, four years after graduating. And he’s optimistic that his breakthrough will come with the Pistons.
“We’re all really close, so just being able to hear their experiences and being able to maintain those relationships is good,” Simpson told the Free Press via phone Wednesday. “But at the same time, I’m always thinking to myself, ‘It’s my time to crack that level.’ It’s my time to get my two feet into the league and showcase who I am as a professional and as a player, and that I can help an NBA team. That motivates me every single day, to know that I was doing the same grind with these guys three or four years ago, and now they’re at a different level reaching their peak.
“I feel like it’s only a matter of time before I have an opportunity to showcase that and be able to go to the next journey of my career.”
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Simpson — known for his hook shot and standout four-year career — is grateful to be close to home. The Lima, Ohio, native signed an Exhibit 10 contract with the Pistons in July, giving him an opportunity to compete for a more permanent role during training camp.
He has spent the past few weeks training at the Pistons’ practice facility in Midtown and Michigan’s athletic facilities in Ann Arbor. Since his college career concluded in 2020, he has had cups of coffee in the NBA. But being just 40 minutes from Ann Arbor, and two hours from his hometown, makes this opportunity stand out in a different way.
“It’s tremendous,” Simpson said. Being able to be back here, it’s almost like home. Being able to play for the University of Michigan and have a tremendous career, and being able also to come here in Detroit and also play. It’s phenomenal. I’m excited, I love it and obviously the new coaching staff is coming in, which is phenomenal. Blessed to be a part of it, and it’s home so just want to keep working and do the most I can with the opportunity, and leave the results to the results.
Simpson has been leaning on the advice he’s gotten from Isaiah Livers, his teammate who also played four seasons at Michigan from 2017-21 before the Pistons selected him in the second round of the 2021 draft. He attended Livers’ wedding earlier this summer, and the two were exchanging texts during Simpson’s interview with the Free Press.
“He knows a lot about the organization because he’s playing there, and I’m just here to soak up as much information as I can so I can have an opportunity and whatever that presents,” Simpson said. “We talk a lot about it, but at the same time I just have to make sure that I’m staying ready.”
Prior to officially signing with the Pistons, Simpson joined the team during Las Vegas Summer League in early July. His trademark steadiness with the ball — he’s second all-time in Michigan’s record book with 667 assists — was on display in the desert, as he was fourth on the roster in assists per game despite only averaging 11.9 minutes.
Beyond showcasing his game on the floor, Simpson also embraced a leadership role in Vegas. It’s a bit ironic, considering Simpson was also battling for his place in the NBA. But he has long prided himself on his leadership and was a multi-year captain at Michigan. He’s been around long enough to know the ins-and-outs of Summer League, and his younger teammates leaned on him as a Vegas veteran.
“Definitely wearing both hats,” he said. “I’m wearing both hats, but at the same time I still feel young because I haven’t been able to hit that next level of success just yet. That’s my goal, but at the same time I’ve been around basketball, winning basketball, doing the right things as a professional since college. I feel a little bit older, but at the same time I have to remind myself I’m still a young guy. I still have to give a little bit more.”
Simpson didn’t play in Summer League the summer following his 2020 graduation, due to the coronavirus pandemic. But he signed with the Oklahoma City Blue — the Thunder’s G League affiliate — the following spring and re-signed with them in fall 2021. He was called up to the parent club eventually, making his NBA debut with the Thunder on April 5, 2022. In four games, he averaged 11 points, 7.5 assists and 1.3 steals.
He spent last season with Orlando’s G League affiliate, the Lakeland Magic. But his taste of NBA action in Oklahoma City showed him that he has what it takes to stick in the league, he said.
Simpson put together an impressive resume at Michigan, helping lead the team to two Sweet 16s and a national championship appearance. As a senior, he became the fourth player in program history to log 500 career assists and just the second to reach 600.
His final season wasn’t without interruption, however. He served a one-game suspension after missing curfew, but that same night on Jan. 26, he received a civil infraction for speeding and crashing the car of Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel’s wife, Chrislan, into a pole around 3 a.m. following a 64-62 loss to Illinois. Simpson initially gave a false name to police, and denied his role in the crash.
Simpson declined to go into specifics about what led to the accident, but he made it clear that he wants to be remembered as a leader and a winner. He’s looking forward to returning to campus and giving guidance to the younger athletes, as former players did for him. And he’s eager to see where his latest chapter in Detroit will take him.
“I just learned how to be in for curfew,” Simpson said. “I just follow the rules for curfew, a lot of things can be avoided. And just listen to the coach. There’s a mandated curfew, so that time is 10 o’clock. I should be in at 9:59 at the latest.
“Sometimes in life you just have to be thankful. A lot of things could’ve happened in a different direction, but it didn’t by the grace of God. Just being able to look at that and be grateful. Grateful for myself, grateful for the team being able to have my back, grateful for the University of Michigan’s coaching staff and our athletic director Warde Manuel being able to have my back and just being there for me. But it goes back to just following the rules. But at the same time, grateful I’m here. That situation is in the past and I’m moving forward.”