Michigan is off to a rough start this season. Losses to the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Villanova, Eastern Michigan, Arizona and Southern Methodist have the Wolverines at an unusual position as they start Big Ten play on Tuesday. John Beilein lost a lot of older talent to the NBA draft and graduation over the last couple of years, and will be forced to rely on a more inexperienced core as they move forward and look to find their feet before tournament play.
Once he gets those freshmen up to speed, Beilein will be counting on junior Caris LeVert to lead them into conference title contention. Based on the way Tim Hardaway, Jr. and Nik Stauskas looked in their final years in Ann Arbor, there are high expectations LeVert will be the next wing Beilein develops into a first round pick.
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.
LeVert’s top skill remains his outside shooting off the catch, and in a draft starved of floor spacers, his shooting ability is what’s guaranteeing his status as a lottery prospect at the moment. LeVert has a quick trigger off the catch, elevating off the ground in a pinch and releasing at a high point thanks to his height at six-foot-seven. He has shot tremendously well even if the looks haven’t been as clean as they were a year ago, when opponents gravitated more towards Stauskas, hitting 42.3 percent of his 59 three-point attempts, according to Basketball Reference.
LeVert’s excellent shooting opens up opportunities for him to attack closeouts and take advantage of his other above average skill; his passing. LeVert has proven very willing to make the extra pass around the perimeter and able to pass on the move out of dribble penetration. With Stauskas gone — Spike Albrecht has been very limited creating off the bounce and Zak Irvin just starting to develop his floor game — LeVert has dealt with increased ball handling responsibilities this season and done rather well.
I mentioned in his offseason profile LeVert was one of the better players in college basketball assisting out of the pick-and-roll and in transition, and that remains the case. LeVert has a tight handle dribbling from side-to-side, can drive with either hand and shows a high basketball IQ. When Michigan’s offense staled against Syracuse’s zone, LeVert was active trying to get to the middle of the zone and swing the ball quickly around the perimeter in an attempt to ignite some movement.
He has assisted on almost a quarter of Michigan’s scores when he has been on the floor and his 14.7 percent turnover rate is quite low in the context of him ending almost half of Michigan’s possessions (24.3 percent assist rate, 24.2 percent usage rate) with a shot, foul shot, turnover or assist.
His ability to create for others is of particular importance because LeVert has not improved creating scoring for himself. Though he is stronger than he was a season ago, more physical types can still deny him the ball successfully, as Stanley Johnson proved in a few instances when Michigan visited Arizona on December 13th. Once he gets the ball, LeVert has shown flashes of being able to attack the rim with good quickness. One of his 11 baskets against the New Jersey Institute of Technology, he drove through traffic from the left side of the wing to the basket in one dribble. But that has not been the case often. According to Hoop Math, LeVert has taken just 16 percent of his shots at the rim, though he has finished at a nice 74 percent clip when he’s gotten there. And despite an increase in usage rate, he’s drawing shooting fouls at the same pace he did last season.
LeVert was a lousy pull-up shooter and that remains the case through these first 12 games. He proved able to create decent separation from Stanley Johnson and Villanova’s athletes but simply continues to struggle shooting off the bounce, converting just 29 percent of his 62 two-point jump-shots. To add to that, only seven of his 25 three-point makes have been unassisted.
LeVert has always played with good effort on defense but his contributions on that end have been more impactful this season due to Michigan’s lack of meaningful contribution from its younger players. He gets in his stance and has very good lateral quickness to keep pace with opponents in isolation. His added strength should help him guard bigger wings but Beilein still preferred matching Irvin up with Stanley Johnson most of that Arizona game.
LeVert’s navigation through screens was subpar last season but Michigan switched more aggressively with its perimeter players against Oregon, Villanova, Syracuse and Arizona, so I was unable to notice if he improved or stagnated on that area.
With Mark Donnal and Ricky Doyle replacing Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford, more has been needed of LeVert on the boards and he has contributed by collecting 18 percent of opponents’ misses — which is an elite mark for a perimeter player. He also continues to play the passing lanes to force turnovers on a consistent basis. Michigan is allowing just 94 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, the lowest defensive rating on the team among rotation players.