Season in Review: Caris LeVert

Submitted by Alex Cook on August 13th, 2015 at 11:55 AM

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Fuller – MGoBlog

For all intents and purposes, last season was pretty much a disaster. Following the back-to-back upsets at the hands of NJIT and Eastern Michigan, the team went into free fall: starting with that first shocking upset (by what turned out to be a surprisingly adequate NJIT team), the Wolverines finished the year with a 10-15 record, recorded only one Top 50 win, and didn’t even make the NIT.

After the mercurial highs of a two-year run that will go down as one of Michigan’s best ever, this was a sobering crash back to earth. While the disappointment of the season was mitigated somewhat by a feisty group of underdogs who usually acquitted themselves well, even in defeat, against a brutal Big Ten schedule, the absence of the Wolverines’ star – preseason All-America Caris LeVert – loomed large.

Right or wrong, the focus usually falls on the star player when a team underachieves (or, in football, the quarterback is often credited with success or failure regardless of any other variables). Naturally, LeVert received plenty of blame for Michigan’s struggles before his injury, and even though there really aren’t very many useful data points – 18 games, some of which were against cupcakes – he really didn’t play too badly: 14.9 points, 3.7 assists, 4.9 rebounds, and 1.8 steals per game. That he had an offensive rating of 101.1 was disappointing in the context of his 111.7 number as a sophomore, though his usage jumped from 21.4% to 25.9%.

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Two games before LeVert was sidelined for the season, I basically wrote a Leave Caris Alone post (and fully expected him to leave for the NBA at the time):

To state the obvious, this season has been a disappointment. Michigan’s customarily blistering offense has looked stagnant and has been prone to bouts of cold shooting; Kam Chatman hasn’t been able to fill Glenn Robinson’s vacancy at the four; Michigan’s corps of big men have been underwhelming as a whole (even if Ricky Doyle has shown good things); Spike Albrecht and Derrick Walton have been injured and Michigan’s struggled to get consistent production from the point guard spot.

In all fairness, Caris has contributed to the disappointment as well – although, notably, he still leads the team in points, rebounds, assists, and steals. Against NJIT, he put the team on his back to the tune of 32 points (on just 18 FGA) and Michigan still lost; but in other losses against Eastern Michigan, Arizona, SMU, and Purdue, he scored ten points or fewer, often inefficiently. It’s too reductive to place those losses squarely on Caris, but still, better performances (particularly against Eastern and SMU) might have made all the difference.

With what we know now, there were some little things from Caris that led to Michigan’s struggles. He too frequently locked in to one-on-one matchups and though he’s an elite isolation player, his ball-stopping tendencies were noticeable and detrimental. He shot far too much from the mid-range at a poor percentage (33%) as Michigan’s late shot clock offense far too frequently devolved into “Caris, go do something” and the something was often a tough shot off the dribble. It’s not easy to suss out blame for Michigan’s pick-and-roll struggles, but Caris wasn’t successful in what became Michigan’s bread-and-butter with Burke and Stauskas. Passivity was often a fair criticism, as LeVert shot the ball 12 or fewer times in six of Michigan’s seven losses. All of that’s fair, and it’s safe to say that we all expected more out of the Wolverines – and, by extension, LeVert – than what we saw.

[AFTER THE JUMP: nice(r) things!]

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Dressler – MGoBlog

Despite those flaws, LeVert is still a very good player – good enough to be a projected first-rounder in the NBA Draft, even as a senior. His return to Michigan was an unexpected coup, and scouting reports from last season are relevant in terms of getting an impartial evaluation of his game by people who aren’t concerned with Michigan’s win-loss record, or even the quality of the team in general.

From DraftExpress:

As a 6-7 guard who can essentially play all three backcourt positions, LeVert certainly has his strong points as a pro prospect. He's a highly skilled offensive player, showing the ability to handle the ball, operate smoothly at different speeds, find the open man in a variety of situations, and finish plays with a soft touch. LeVert could be viewed by teams as a sort of poor man's Dante Exum, a big, versatile guard who is unselfish and smart and can be used alongside a variety of different types of players, be it on or off the ball. His ability to handle the ball in transition, as well as in pick and roll and isolation situations is very intriguing at his size, and unlike many big guards, he has very good mechanics on his jumper and is consistent in catch and shoot situations.

Their comprehensive LeVert scouting video can be found here. This long piece from CBS Sports’s Sam Vecenie is useful also. Upside and Motor’s Rafael Uehara is a big fan of LeVert, and accurately charts his development:

LeVert has improved his physical profile significantly, adding more mass to his frame in a matter of months. But through the first couple of months of the season, his skill-set hasn’t really expanded the way most were anticipating. That’s not to say he has disappointed. LeVert’s strengths appeared to have solidified even more. But other undeveloped areas of his game seem to have stagnated as weak points.

Most of the positives scouts see in LeVert can be boiled down to three points: his versatility, his size, and his shooting. He stuffs the stat sheet with points, rebounds, and assists, on top of adding a few steals almost every game; theoretically he can play PG at the next level, but his lack of elite vision limits him there a little bit – still, in college, his distribution in transition and in the half-court is a solid plus (though, oddly, he’s still not that great at hitting the roll men on the pick-and-roll despite his size, but that may say more about Michigan’s bigs than Caris).

LeVert is still one of the better high-volume shooters in the country, especially with how much he has to create for himself. Between his length, and the quickness and height of his release, defenders can’t contest shots well, even if he’s being closely guarded. Unfortunately, sometimes that leads to ill-advised mid-range shots that other players simply can’t take, but most of the time, it leads to high-value three-point attempts from a good shooter (38% over his career).

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caris efficiency comps

These ten player seasons graded out as the most comparable to Caris’s junior season – aside from Trey Burke’s outrageous sophomore season, it shows that LeVert’s struggles with efficiency really weren’t that atypical. That his past year was very close to Tim Hardaway’s disappointing sophomore campaign on this chart is a little surprising – but when considering Michigan’s team-wide offensive struggles last year, it makes some sense. Tim stuck out because he was more inefficient than his teammates – LeVert was about as efficient as Irvin and was more efficient than Walton last season.

It’s easy to say that LeVert had a hard time adjusting to the pressures of being the alpha dog, but it’s probably much more complicated than that. My guess is that things would have looked much different with a more experienced frontcourt (and people wouldn’t question Caris’s ability / inclination to lead the team), but he obviously didn’t excel in his first year in the new role. At least he gets another chance at proving he can, especially considering the level of experience relative to last season.

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Like with Walton, it’s a little hard to judge Caris based on this past year. Fortunately, a) he’s still valued as a first-round NBA pick, which suggests that most concerns were amplified because of the losing and not because of how good he actually is and b) there will be more time for this personnel to gel. Michigan lost four of their first ten games in 2014 (including a hideous loss to Charlotte) while Stauskas was acclimating to his role – an adjustment period is necessary when you’re breaking in a new go-to guy.

Michigan likely will be under the radar when basketball season rolls around, though LeVert probably won’t be, especially after he spurned the NBA. I’d expect his overall usage to decline slightly and, with the emergence of Aubrey Dawkins and a healthy Ricky Doyle, Michigan’s most frequently deployed lineup won’t have a noticeable weak spot, especially on the offensive end. Caris’s versatility would help him on any team, but if he ratchets up his aggressiveness on the offensive end, there’s still a chance he could approach the Burke / Stauskas superstar level that we were expecting last year.

Comments

Blukon Cornelius

August 13th, 2015 at 12:10 PM ^

When Michigan received a late commitment from Caris, steeling him from Ohio, I was excited to see what a potential MAC star could do in a much more rugged Big Ten setting.  It seems there's always one or two guys in the MAC that fill up the stat sheet for 4 years, and make some noise on the one or two chances the MAC team may have in the NCAA Tournament.  If given a chance, many of these kinds of guys could at least be a solid to better than solid contributor on a Power 5 Conference team.  Caris has done just that.  On top of being a steal, we get what Michigan has been sorely lacking for many years: a potential impact senior.  Very excited to see what he can do this year.

Lanknows

August 13th, 2015 at 12:24 PM ^

Of course it is going to take a little time to transition from Robin to Batman, as it does for anyone.  Everyone forgets that Nik didn't really step into his own at the start of the 2012-13 season and had to be bailed out at times by Caris (e.g., against Duke).  By late that year he had figured it out - last year, Caris would have to had he stayed healthy.

But going back to the Nik comparison, the biggest reason Caris didn't make a similar kind of jump when thrust into a similar kind of role at a similar age is teammates.  Nik was flanked by Walton, LeVert, Irvin, Robinson, Morgan, and Horford.  LeVert had an injured Walton, Irvin, and a bunch of freshman.

Putting up the numbers he did, in that context portends very well for this coming season.

Michigan will still have to figure out the chemistry and roles a bit, as is always the case but especially when there is a lot of depth and experience on the roster. Once they do, Caris should be one of the top 5 players in the conference.  People really shouldn't be too focused on last year's team struggles and they absolutely shouldn't put the blame on Caris. 

Caris got better, significantly so, as a player - it was the guys around him that changed.

jlbockUM

August 13th, 2015 at 12:34 PM ^

The biggest reason LeVert didn't come close to replicating the Stauskas/Burke role is because Caris is an inefficient player. His vision and passing is limited (especially compared with Nik and Trey), his dribble often takes him nowhere, and he struggles in the pick and roll game of Beilein's offense.
We can appreciate a great Robin, that doesn't mean he'll ever be Batman...and that's okay. Here's hoping Walton or Irvin can take the lead because we've seen how successful a team can be with Caris LeVert in the #2 role.

Lanknows

August 13th, 2015 at 5:30 PM ^

Efficiency has a lot to do with who your teammates are.  Caris isn't the shooter that Nik is, but then who is?  He's playing with efficiency in the same neighborhood as Trey and THJ.  He's far from an inefficient player.  Room for improvement? Sure, but this isn't really a major problem area.

As for vision, Caris isn't Darius Morris but he is probably better than Nik. Stauskas averaged 3.3 assists a 1.9 TO per game as a sophomore.  As a secondary player that year Caris was at 2.9 and 1.7.  Last year, he bumped up to 3.9 assists /2.2 TO per game.  For SGs, both are good passers and creators who keep turnovers in check.

LeVert is this team's best player and he's already pretty proven as a quality Batman, just based off last year, the 2013 Duke game, etc.  Don't confuse the TEAM's struggles with a bunch of raw freshman in the lineup and an injured PG with a problem with Caris.

 

ijohnb

August 13th, 2015 at 1:45 PM ^

FWIW, I think Burke/Stauskus stardom are not interchangeable. Caris could achieve Sauce-level stardom, but Burke is a different ballgame.

Lanknows

August 13th, 2015 at 2:42 PM ^

But you have to consider that Burke was playing besides 5 NBA players (McGary, Robinson, LeVert, Hardaway, Stauskas) and a quintessential senior role player (Morgan) in perhaps the most PG-friendly system on the planet.

Burke was very good -- but he was also very fortunate.

Lanknows

August 13th, 2015 at 5:09 PM ^

But that's still: NBA player, senior, senior, and 3rd soph center.

Of course what Trey did as a freshman was special and can't be compared apples to apples with what supposed to do as a Junior but the level of support is still very very different.  Compare 2012 to 2014...

Let's call Irvin and Hardaway a draw. Let's call junior contributers (Smotrycz and Albrecht/Walton) a draw, even though both PGs were hurt. MAAR and Dawkins might be Douglass/Novak caliber recruits but they were freshman rather than seniors.  And Doyle/Chatman might be a lot better than Morgan/Horford in the end, but again, we're talking about true freshman.

I don't know about you but I think Beilein's a helluva coach, especially when you are talking about player development.  So true freshman vs. senior is just not contest...

I'm not saying Caris is better college player than Trey Burke, because obviously he won the Naismith, but the circumstances are completely different.  There's a very good chance that Caris is a better basketball player than Trey and the fact that any NBA team at this moment would rather have Caris than Trey should tell you something.

Maybe my Caris-optimism will prove misguided but I don't think so.  I expect Caris to contend for conference player of the year and Michigan to win big with him leading the charge this year.

HarbaughToKolesar85

August 13th, 2015 at 10:36 PM ^

Irvin's Robin last year was pretty bad. It wasn't until after Caris's injury that we saw what Irvin can do when he is more assertive. I am all for Levert as the number one but Irvin needs to be post-injury Irvin for the whole year in order for this team to make a deep run in March. People also seem to forget that Irvin developed a really nice mid-range game last year which should continue to help his ascension as a player. I expect that Irvin will provide a better Robin this year than Levert did for Stauskas as a result. I expect that between Levert's return, Irvin's growth, lots of competition for rotation spots, Camp Sanderson (especially for the bigs this year), and Beilein's wonderful in year player development this team will take Michigan back to the Elite 8.