Let's get this out of the way: Michigan loses Nik Stauskas, and it's never good to lose a Nik Stauskas. Players that brutally efficient who can also shoulder such a large workload don't come around often; ditto shooters of that caliber. If you're expecting someone to step up and be Nik Stauskas, you will almost assuredly be disappointed.
If you're simply looking for excellent play out of Michigan's starting two and three, however, you should be quite happy this season. Caris LeVert has progressed in a scant two years from beyond-skinny-kid-who's-redshirting to beyond-skinny-kid-who's-too-good-to-redshirt to less-skinny-but-still-very-skinny-#2-scorer to, now, 200-pound-NBA-lottery-prospect. Zak Irvin entered last season as a top-30 prospect and showed absolutely no fear as an unabashed gunner off the bench; even if he doesn't diversify his game as a sophomore, which would surprise, he'll be a critical part of the offense.
LeVert will be the top option this season, and his ability to create off the dribble will be even more crucial with Stauskas in the NBA. Irvin steps into a starting role, and his shooting will be even more crucial with Stauskas in the NBA. While no one man can replace Stauskas, a reasonable step forward from each of these two can go a long way towards doing so.
[Hit THE JUMP for detailed breakdowns of each player.]
Still running, presumably.
Measurables: 6'7", 200
Base Stats: 34.0 MPG, 12.9 PPG, 46/41/77 2P/3P/FT%, 4.3 RPG, 2.9 APG, 1.2 SPG
Key Advanced Metrics: 21.4% usage, 111.7 ORating, 14.0 DReb%, 17.2% assist rate, 14.7% turnover rate
Depending upon where you look, LeVert is already somewhere between a fringe lottery prospect and a top ten pick for the 2015 draft; Michigan is preparing for the distinct possibility this is his last season in Ann Arbor. He has a detailed DraftExpress scouting video, which you should watch. He's a first-team all-conference selection by both the coaches and media; ESPN's Jeff Goodman went so far as to name him an early candidate for first-team All-American honors.
So, yes, LeVert is expected to follow in the footsteps of Burke and Stauskas as this year's breakout superstar. Fortunately for Michigan, he got quite a bit of preparation in 2013-14, emerging as the team's #2 scoring option and—like Stauskas before him—stepping up as one of the team's primary ballhandlers. When Stauskas wasn't going to work at the top of the key, it was usually LeVert taking on that role, and he proved he can generate offense on his own; in fact, his combination of volume and efficiency made him arguably the best Big Ten player in isolation situations last season.
That helps make up for the fact that LeVert isn't as productive as Burke or Stauskas were off of ball screens, though that's admittedly a very lofty standard. LeVert's improvement in the halfcourt this year should come from being better equipped to score in those very situations, and near the basket in general. While Caris improved mightily inside the arc last season, going from a paltry 33% on two-pointers as a freshman to 46% in '13-14, he's still got plenty of room to improve as a finisher, especially if he can add the strength to push through contact instead of pulling up for floaters in the lane.
LeVert should take a step forward in that regard after another summer of Camp Sanderson again produced quite visible results. At 6'7", 200 pounds, he now has the size of an NBA shooting guard, which is remarkable considering he came to campus listed at a (possibly generous) 165 lbs. in 2012. That should benefit him in every facet of the game, especially around the rim. If LeVert can finish more drives at the rim and draw more fouls—his 32.3% free throw rate, which a major improvement over his freshman year, was still rather pedestrian—then he'll be one of the toughest players to guard in the country.
That's because LeVert can also really shoot the rock; he posted a very solid 41% mark from beyond the arc and was lethal from the left side (via UMHoops):
His midrange game, as you can see, could use some work. While those aren't the ideal shots to take, especially in Beilein's layup-or-three offense, as the number one scoring option LeVert is going to have to put up his fair share at the end of the shot clock; finding a comfort zone 12-18 feet away from the basket would make him even more dangerous.
With the ball in his hands more, LeVert is also going to be tasked with more distributing. He was great in this regard in transition last season, but he's got room to grow as a setup man in the halfcourt, per UMHoops:
LeVert was a very good transition scorer (he loved left wing threes in transition), but he was also a great setup man in transition. LeVert’s assist to turnover ratio was 3.6:1 in transition compared to just 1.4:1 in half court offense. While his half court passing was pedestrian, his transition assist-to-turnover ratio was fourth best in the Big Ten.
According to hoop-math, 32% of LeVert's assists came in transition last season; that number should come down as he gets more comfortable passing off of high pick-and-rolls.
Many expected LeVert to develop into a defensive stopper as a sophomore, and while he took strides on that end, he fell well short of being a lockdown guy. As upperclassmen tend to do, he should get better on that side of the floor, especially with the added muscle making it easier to fight through screens and body up opponents down low. His length and instincts allow him to disrupt opponent passing lanes quite a bit; as discussed on the podcast, it'll be interesting to see if John Beilein decides to run out the 1-3-1 a bit more this year, as LeVert is a great steal-and-score threat at the top of that zone.
LeVert also provides solid rebounding for a two-guard on the defensive end; his 14.0% defensive rebound rate actually was a couple points ahead of Glenn Robinson III despite GRIII playing a position that both demanded more rebounding and put him in better position to grab boards. While that certainly says something about Robinson, it also says a lot about LeVert and his ability to use his length; that skill will come in quite valuable this season as M looks to replace the rebounding of Jordan Morgan, Jon Horford, Mitch McGary, and Robinson with a group of freshmen.
Even if LeVert falls short of some of the loftier preseason expectations, he should still be the team's best player and all-conference caliber. If he takes another big leap with his scoring inside the arc and maintains his outside shooting, he should be picking out a suit to wear in the green room.
Still shooting, assuredly.
Measurables: 6'6", 215
Base Stats: 15.4 MPG, 6.7 PPG, 46/43/71 2P/3P/FT%, 1.3 RPG, 0.4 APG
Key Advanced Metrics: 19.4% usage, 25.9 Shot% (!!!), 117.8 ORating, 7.7 DReb%, 4.7% assist rate, 9.3% turnover rate, 10.7% FT rate
To talk about Zak Irvin, we really have to start with Nik Stauskas, because we're going to hear comparisons between the two quite a bit early in the season. Yes, Stauskas was primarily a shooter as a freshman before exploding into an All-American offensive sorcerer as a sophomore. Yes, Irvin was also primarily a shooter as a freshman, and there are hopes he could have a similar breakout this winter, especially since he was a more touted recruit than his Canadian counterpart.
There are significant differences between the two, however. While Trey Burke handled the vast majority of Michigan's ballhandling duties, Stauskas emerged as the team's second option on high screens as a freshman, even on a team that boasted Tim Hardaway Jr.; as a result, he took far more shots inside the arc and got to the line nearly three times as often as Irvin. Meanwhile, this is Irvin's shot chart from last season, via UMHoops:
To say the least, Irvin was perimeter-oriented as a freshman, hoisting 146 three-pointers compared to just 50 two-pointers and 21 free throws. (Stauskas, for comparison's sake, shot 182 threes, 116 twos, and 87 free throws as a freshman.) Irvin's two-point offense also came mostly on the fast break; per hoop-math, he went 7/7 at the rim in transition while going 3/3 in halfcourt sets—the latter being, of course, an absurdly low number of attempts given how much he played.
That's not to say Irvin is incapable of being anything but Just A Shooter™. He simply wasn't asked to attack the rim last year; with Stauskas, LeVert, Derrick Walton, and Glenn Robinson III also out there, Michigan didn't need him to add that dimension to the offense. Irvin attacked the basket more during M's summer tour of Italy, and while he still primarily got his points as a spot-up shooter or in transition, he showed improvement in the facets of his game that really need to come along this year:
Irvin’s most impressive, and perhaps most important, improvement in Italy wasn’t his jump shooting or his lethal offensive efficiency, it was his new-found desire to crash the glass. Grabbing rebounds in Italy wasn’t comparable to grabbing rebounds in the Big Ten, but Irvin grabbed 29 rebounds in four games. Last season he grabbed just 49 rebounds total in 37 games.
“Zak is taking the ball to the basket better, he’s rebounding more — he did not rebound last year,” Beilein said before the tour. “And he’s becoming a defensive stopper. He has some ability to do that. I don’t think he’s proven that in games yet, but most freshmen don’t.”
Michigan still doesn't need Irvin to be a consistent creator—Walton and LeVert will be quite the one-two combo—so if he can absorb the points GRIII scored off cuts over the last two years, that should be more than enough to keep the offense rolling. Irvin's instincts in transition lead me to believe he can do that just fine, even if he won't be as exceptional a finisher as GRIII.
Irvin will get his points; he's a stellar three-point shooter with a nearly unblockable release, and he'll have LeVert and Walton creating openings for him to spot up. Even last season, on a per-40-minute basis, only Stauskas was a more productive scorer than Irvin. He's going to put the ball up—a lot—and with his shooting acumen that's a good thing.
The question then becomes how much he'll improve at everything else. He was a non-factor on the boards as a freshman, and that can't be the case this year; like LeVert, a summer in the weight room should help him there. He looked like a freshman on defense; he should be better as a sophomore, with the added bulk helping him when he slides over to the four. He didn't go to the basket to score in the halfcourt; as outlined above, he'll have to do more of that this year in some form, and how adept he is at finishing around the rim may determine just how far this team can go.