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!]
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.
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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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.