ANN ARBOR — Isaiah Livers bounced along the baseline. An open space in the Binghamton zone defense was not hard to find, and Livers found one. He caught a pass just inside the 3-point line in the left corner, took one hard dribble with his left hand, and made a decision his Michigan coaches would approve. As two Binghamton defenders rotated to Livers, he rose above them and dunked.
It came in the first half of a 74-52 win on Sunday, but it was telling. Michigan coach John Beilein said Livers, if presented with a similar opportunity last season, “would have stopped and faded away.”
This year, the sophomore is more aggressive in his new role, which just happens to be whatever Michigan needs in a particular game.
Livers has played three positions on the court this season, sometimes all of them in the same game. At Kalamazoo Central, where he won Michigan’s Mr. Basketball award as a senior, he was used in what he describes as a Ben Simmons or LeBron James type role: He would get a rebound, then bring the ball up the court and initiate the offense.
He sees himself as a small forward at the next level. That, to him, is his natural position. But he started 22 games as a freshman at the power forward spot. This year, he’s the first player off the bench, subbing for either small forward Charles Matthews, power forward Ignas Brazdeikis, or center Jon Teske. The 6-foot-7, 235-pound Livers has excelled regardless of where he plays.
That versatility is why Beilein recently called Livers Michigan’s Swiss Army knife.
Livers scored 17 points on 8-of-10 shooting against Binghamton, adding five rebounds and three assists. He’s shooting 51 percent from the field and 47 percent from 3 on the season.
His defense has been just as valuable. Beilein turns to Livers when the opponent has a mobile or 3-point shooting center that poses a tough matchup for the 7-foot-1 Teske. Livers can still hold up in the paint and has a handful of highlight-reel blocks this season.
In an era where most young basketball players view themselves as ball handlers who roam the perimeter, Livers has realized the advantage of being undersized at certain positions.
In Michigan’s second game of the season, against Holy Cross, Beilein went to a small-ball lineup with Livers at center. “The guy couldn’t keep up with me,” Livers said about his matchup. “And I could keep up with him.”
Through Michigan’s 13-0 start, Livers has only attempted 15 free throws. Beilein and Livers agree that number is too low. “The last thing you want is a tremendous athlete that just shoots it (from the outside),” Beilein said.
For Livers, it’s all about pace. He’s gaining a better understanding of what to do when he gets the ball and not rush into a shot fake. Many teams have not played him as a knock-down shooter, so he’s taken the open shot. Scouting reports could change as the season progresses, and Livers will likely have to lean more on his strength and jumping ability.
The last thing he wants to do is settle for jump shots.
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Livers said recently. “Usually I’m calm now when I catch it and see how the defender is playing me. If he’s closing out super early, that’s an easy shot. If he’s running me off the line, I’m going to go by him and dunk the ball. I’m still learning as I’m going.”
Some of that learning takes place in the first few minutes of games. Livers is on the bench during that time observing, plotting potential opportunities. He knows his name will be called, but exactly when — and for which teammate — changes from game to game.
Beilein said he recently reminded Livers and Michigan’s other versatile reserve, Eli Brooks, that their sacrifices for the good of the team were not unnoticed. “You’re really valuable,” he said he told them. “You win games for us.”
Beilein was appreciative of Livers’ performance on Sunday. “He’s really been key to be able to come off the bench and do a lot of things,” he said. It’s a challenge playing three different positions, even for a player with Livers’ high basketball IQ. Beilein doesn’t expect Livers to be completely comfortable at any spot at this point.
While there’s some concern about putting too much on Livers’ plate, there hasn’t been any regarding Livers’ handling of his “demotion.” He ceded minutes last year to Duncan Robinson during Michigan’s postseason run. But with Robinson gone, Livers figured to start and play big minutes this year.
He started Michigan’s three exhibition games in Spain in August, but an ankle sprain shortly after opened the door for the freshman Brazdeikis to show what he could do at practice. Beilein stuck with Brazdeikis over Livers when the season began. Among the many lessons Livers learned from Robinson was how to deal with personal adversity and still be a great teammate.
Come off the bench? Play three positions? Score, rebound, pass, and defend? A lot has been asked of Livers this season. He’s given Michigan plenty of answers.