Mailbag: LeVert’s defense, defending Stauskas, pick-and-roll, Morgan’s legacy

Dylan Burkhardt

Michigan vs Wisconsin_32
Scott Mapes

Alex: I get in constant disagreements with a friend of mine about LeVert’s defense. I think he is good defensively, overall. He thinks LeVert plays little/no defense at all. So what is your opinion of Caris’ defense?

I don’t think there’s any question that LeVert has the best defensive physical tools on Michigan’s rosters. He’s the longest player and he has good quickness despite needing to add more weight. He’s not only the first choice to guard the opposition’s best wing player, he’s really the only choice.

LeVert’s undoing has been consistency. At times he’s been terrific, at other times he’s struggled. Just look down his defensive game log since we’ve been tracking defensive games. Great performances in some games, disappointing performances in others and a lot of hit-or-miss production.


Within the scope of a given game, the consistency problem rears its ugly head again. LeVert will make three or four great defensive plays and then get caught in a screen or fall asleep on a box out. Part of this inconsistency can be chalked up to the fact that this is really his first season earning significant playing time, but it’s an area where Michigan needs him to improve down the home stretch.

@Ryan_Schreiber It seems like Morgan ran the pick&roll best with Darius since he’s been here. What did Morris do different from Trey and Derrick?

Morris had one big advantage: he was much taller. This is the same reason that so much of Morgan and Horford’s production this year has been assisted by Nik Stauskas. It’s a lot easier to pass over the ball screen defense (hedging big man and recovering on-ball defender) when you have good size.

Trey Burke was an elite ball screen player – better than Darius Morris when all was said and done – but that’s more so because he was such a great scorer. Derrick Walton will improve in this regard as he gains a better feel for the game – look at his passes to Jon Horford in Columbus – but size will always be a disadvantage in the ball screen game.

At the end of the day, the bottom line is that Michigan’s pick-and-roll game is among the best in the country and certainly the conference. The graph below shows the rise in pick-and-roll usage (percentage of offensive possessions) and efficiency (including passes) since 2008.

Data: Synergy Sports

Despite losing Trey Burke, Michigan is running even more ball screens and has only been a hair less efficient this season. It obviously isn’t just the point guard position that initiates the ball screen, LeVert an Stauskas have both ran twice as many ball screens as Walton, although he’s impressively efficient.

@connorjw1220: Will Michigan State apply the same defensive strategy on Stauskas that Indiana and Iowa used?

I suspect Michigan State will apply the same defensive strategy that it used in the first meeting.

Gary Harris did a terrific job defensively against Nik Stauskas in the first meeting and he should get the task again. In the first game, the majority of Stauskas’s makes were just better plays against great defense. Stauskas only had 12 field goal attempts in that meeting, but finished 7-of-12 from the floor with five triples.

Some of the principles were very similar to what Indiana did — Harris was glued to Stauskas and made it hard for him to catch the ball – but Stauskas just made some big time plays.

‏@leeshufro : What is JMo’s legacy? Nearing 1,000 pts. Big 10 title. Nat Champ finalist. There is a case for retired jersey. Very underrated

This is a great question because Jordan Morgan has accomplished quite a bit during his five years in Ann Arbor. While I don’t think there’s a case for a retired jersey, Morgan should always be remembered as a key part of the foundation of John Beilein’s program.

Morgan’s career has spanned nearly the entire Beilein era in Ann Arbor. He committed eight months after Beilein was hired on December 18th, 2007. He sat out the 2009-10 season with an injured knee, but played a critical role in Michigan’s 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014 seasons.

Morgan joined the program when it had essentially no success and as you mention the Wolverines have been to the NCAA tournament multiple times, won a Big Ten Championship and finished runner up last season. Morgan has joked in recent interviews about how current players don’t realize what it used to be like at basketball games in Ann Arbor, and he’s right.

@ashwin_johri: With the immense improvement post freshman year from LeVert, Burke etc. What’s the expectation next year for Walton and Irvin?

Michigan’s player development can’t be overstated at this point. Darius Morris, Trey Burke, Caris LeVert, Nik Stauskas, Jordan Morgan – the list goes on. Michigan isn’t just turning players into better college players, it’s starting to turn them into pros.

Improvement is never guaranteed, but there’s no reason to think that Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton won’t make big leaps between their freshman and sophomore years. Walton has the opportunity and is already starting to improve by leaps and bounds. For Zak Irvin, the key might be in who moves onto the NBA to provide an opportunity to showcase his ability.

  • mikey_mac

    I love the question about Morgan’s legacy. He’s someone who is probably being overlooked right now because of JB’s in-season mentality of one day at a time. I expect that the first person JB honors with effusive praise and accolades at the end of the season would be Jordan, who really is a great microcosm of JB’s entire tenure at UM, in terms of process, mentality and results.

  • BlueRev

    Not to disagree, but simply want to add Irvin can showcase his ability off the bench too. I would not be shocked if GR3, Stauskas and McGary ALL came back–leaving Irvin maybe the top 6th man in the country (ala Sean Higgins)… there’s > 100 minutes per game for Robinson, Stauskas, LeVert , Irvin and incoming freshman. Of course, if one or more of those guys go pro then Nick has all the time in the world to display his talents and improvement with the team.

    • FL Wolve

      I would be stunned if all 3 came back and am fully expecting all 3 to turn pro. I suspect JB is probably thinking along those lines as well.

      • kam

        i think 2 come come back or i think only 1 comes back. I dont think they all leave

      • Ben Sheler

        I feel best about GR3 coming back due to the likelihood he is a 2nd round pick. Mitch is also a 2nd but the general consensus is that he will be a solid nba player if he can just be healthy. He could leave and have a great career if he is. Thus, 1st or 2nd rd is not as important for him. Plus he is relatively old. Proving he can stay healthy would be his main benefit of coming back. GR3 has more to prove regarding his nba potential than Mitch and could benefit from another year. I would think Nik is gone as long as he is 1st round.

      • BlueRev

        My point was actually supposed to be there’s plenty of minutes for Irvin to showcase his ability regardless of who returns–he should average at least near 25 mpg regardless and could be leading scorer with his skill set and confidence.

        • kam

          Needs to add a dribble game but i agree with u

        • BlueRev

          And I should add I don’t expect those guys to return just won’t be surprised either way with any of them. Stauskas looked like a lock to go 2 weeks ago, now he can’t get a shot off (sarcasm). GR3 shows flashes between droughts. Mitch doesn’t have to prove anything in my book and is the most ready to go–but would be great to have him back.

      • guestavo

        I doubt it or you’d hear more spring time guys being evaluated

  • MLaw

    JMo really is the old man in the group of young men. I remember seeing him on campus with ice all over his knees and shoulder. He has one of the most remarkable stories a college athlete can have: Conference title, National Championship game, Master’s degree in Engineering. When he first arrived, no one expected any of those things, but I bet he keeps shocking the world even after graduation.

    Really one of my favorite players of all time for what he has meant to this program. He came as an under-recruited kid from Detroit, and he is leaving as a 5th year senior captain who has taken this school from the basement to the penthouse. Hats off always to Jordan Morgan.

    • rlcBlue

      I agree, wholeheartedly. An exceptional student-athlete.

      How far has the program advanced during his career? Assuming that he committed immediately after a campus visit, the game that he got to see was a home loss to Central Michigan which dropped the team’s record to 4-7. The attendance was 8829, many of whom were no doubt rooting for the Chippewas.

      • MLaw

        Incredible how low this program was. I pray it never falls that far again.

    • kam

      Yup! He’s one of those players who should be remembered for helping bring michigan back to a great program

  • rlcBlue

    One factor with LeVert’s defensive consistency is how much he plays – he’s currently tied with Stauskas for the team lead in percentage of minutes played. When he’s called on to take over the offense, he usually has to create his own shot. The mental and physical fatigue may be contributing to his lapses in concentration on defense. I’m not sure there’s a short-term fix for this – the team needs him to be out there as much as he is. Sitting him for Albrecht or Irvin has obvious disadvantages.

    • Mattski

      Good observation. Both ends considered, he may be our most important player.

      • mikey_mac

        Possibly. I think we constantly overlook the physically ridiculous matchups JB has to give to GR3, on both sides of the ball.

        • kam

          On the defensive end i agree, he’s having to guard 6’7-6’10 230+ guys but having a big 4 on you on offense isn’t really a problem.. If Nik or caris had a huge 4 on them they would blow by them to the hoop or if they sagged off they’d hit the open 3.

          • aa7596

            @mikey mac is dead on.
            All of this handwringing about the individual defensive abilities of Mich’s players is misplaced. Sure, they could be better, but the fundamental issue is Mich chooses to play an unconventional lineup. They’re always playing four perimeter guys. (And the fifth isn’t a rim protector.) There are upsides to that offensively and downsides to it defensively.
            It’s a trade-off, one that has generally worked out well. But the defense probably won’t have a chance to be elite until Mich has a true stretch 4–someone big enough to defend the post yet skilled enough to do what Beilein wants offensively.

          • Champswest

            That man could be Donnal next year.

          • guestavo

            I think he is more of a center but maybe…

          • kam

            Donnall maybee or wilson who’s like 6’8 and longgggg in a few years when he adds weight

          • mikey_mac

            I agree in theory, but in practice this year, a lot of the actual players are NBA-caliber 4s or close … Parker, Gordon, Dekker, Hayes, Ross. I’m sure I’m missing more. It’s a given that GR3 doesn’t have much of a dribble-drive game, but I highly doubt Nik or Caris would really be that much more effective trying to blow by those guys on isos.

          • kam

            Parker Dekker ross are not great defenders they would be fine. Gordon would be tough and theres no way to tell if Hayes is a pro. But we will never know

    • kam

      it’s really true. the simple fact he’s tied for the most minutes and then chasing guys like Harris, yogi, Marble and other elite guards around then asked to handle the ball and attack the hoop is probably extremely tiring. He has to have amazing endurance and stamina. He does have defensive lapses but i like what he brings and I’ve seen people call him lazy which is crazy considering he does a little of everything including rebounding well for a wing.

    • mikey_mac

      Yep, not only is he always on the toughest guard, but he’s also always on the court.
      I’m not sure this is a factor on the mental lapses, but certainly cannot help.

  • dgerichs

    Levert should be much better defensively. With his length and quickness, he should be a shutdown defender. But he regularly allows drives to the basket. whole team does this as well. They have a hard time keeping their man in front of them. Walton probably has the best defensive fundamentals. When Novak and Douglas were there, defense was the reason we won games because of offensive limitations. Why can’t this team do both defense and offense well. The best teams in college basketball all play good defense. Let the defense spur the offense. More transition opportunities will result from increased missed shots by the opposition.

    • guestavo

      Walton? Please.

    • kam

      walton will be good but he gets burned often simply because he doesn’t have much experience. Levert doesn’t either. And being a lock down defender isn’t simple like u make it seem

    • GoBlueNYC

      Novak and Douglas (the latter especially) took time to become defenders. I doubt anybody who saw Stu as a freshman or sophomore would have predicted he’d become the perimeter defender he did as a senior. You can’t expect Levert to be at that level as a sophmore getting meaningful minutes for the first time. He, and the whole team except Morgan, need time to both develop their bodies/physical strength/endurance and more fully understand the defensive system…to defend well, the whole team needs to be able to make the correct defensive decision in a split second…thinking about it for a second will often sink the whole effort. I love defense, and it’s frustrating to see defensive lapses, but time is needed…and new officiating rules as they play out on drives to the basket are changing what can be done defensively as well.