A closer look at the emergence of Caris LeVert

Michigan vs Iowa_12
Scott Mapes

“The big story of this year is Caris LeVert,” John Beilein said on Sunday after his sophomore guard scored 23 points in Michigan’s win over Michigan State.

Caris LeVert isn’t just a nice story of player development, he’s Michigan’s second best player.

His game is a bit unorthodox and you never quite know what you’re going to get when you watch LeVert play, but give him time and he’ll produce. He never shies away from rattling off a handful of his quick cross-over dribbles at the top of the key and his change of pace is devastating when he slashes to the rim. There are times when it feels like he dribbles Michigan out of its offense, constantly probing without finding a crease, burning away an offensive possession. But he’s also the only one that seems to be able to make something out of nothing when Michigan’s offense has already stalled.

LeVert has scored 20 or more points in three of the Wolverines’ last four games and is one of just eight players in the Big Ten to top 20 points at least four times in conference play. Once plagued by inconsistency, LeVert has reached double digits in seven of the last eight games and is averaging over 17 points per game in that stretch.

Discussion surrounding LeVert has always come with some sort of asterisk. He’s playing great, but can he keep it up against great competition? He only plays well when Michigan loses, does that mean he’s actually hurting the offense? It’s time to forget about the footnotes and start appreciating what LeVert is bringing to this team. A year ago at this time, LeVert had played more than 10 minutes in just two Big Ten games. Now, he’s the No. 2 scoring option on the third best offense in college basketball.

It’s easy to define the games of LeVert’s teammates: Nik Stauskas loves the wing three-pointer and the high ball screen; Glenn Robinson III is a finisher at the rim and loves the 17-foot elbow jumper; Derrick Walton has emerged as a reliable right wing three-point shooter; Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford finish around the rim. But what does Caris LeVert do best? He handles the ball as much as anyone on the Michigan roster and weaves his way all over the court. He shoots the three, gets in the lane and is also effective in transition.

To understand where he scores most effectively, I put together a Kirk Goldsberry-style shot chart from this season. The size of the hexagons designates volume and they are color coded according to efficiency (compared to the major-conference average in each spot).

Caris-LeVert-Shot-Chart-Newclick to enlarge

The immediate takeaway is that LeVert is a devastating shooter from the left side of the floor and the top of the key. He knows this is his favorite spot and he isn’t hesitant to fire away. He’s a combined 29-of-62 from those three shot zones, 47%, and he’s taken more left wing threes than any other shot, except for attempts in the near paint. LeVert is a surprisingly effective finisher around the basket, considering he only weighs 185 pounds. Where he struggles is in the mid-range. LeVert takes a lot of jumpers in the middle of the floor, but he just hasn’t been able to find consistency in that region.

LeVert’s shot chart is encouraging because it not only shows what makes him so great right now, but also how much he could improve next season by adding a few key elements to his game.

Attacking off the bounce

LeVert is Michigan’s best one-on-one offensive player. His impressive array of crossover and hesitation one-on-one moves should come as no surprise, considering he spent his time after practices last season playing one-on-one against Trey Burke. Just shy of 40% of LeVert’s offense comes from isolation sets or ball screens.

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For context, that’s more than Stauskas (24.8% ball screens, 6.2% isolation) this season, but less than Trey Burke last season (35.5% ball screens, 16.2% isolation). The proportion of offense that LeVert creates for himself is important to remember when comparing his efficiency numbers to other players.

LeVert is He’s the 6th most effective isolation scorer (including passes) and the 8th best pick-and-roll player (including passes) in the Big Ten, per Synergy. He has has a great change of pace, a deceivingly effective handle and a dynamite jump stop. He can get where he needs to on the floor, but his slashing effectiveness is curtailed by his need to get to the rim to finish.

Catch and shoot

LeVert might not have the same rep as other shooters in the conference, but maybe he should. He’s developed into a reliable catch-and-shoot player for a Michigan team with no shortage of shooting options. LeVert has a .629 effective field goal percentage on catch and shoot jumpers – good enough to rank in the top ten among Big Ten players with at least 50 catch and shoot attempts.

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LeVert stands out on this list because he’s one of the more multidimensional threats. Gasser and Gallegos are essentially just shooters while Kaminski, Kaminsky, Ross are Pitchford are prototypical pick-and-pop players. Stauskas, LeVert and Ferrell are the rare guards that can knock down catch-and-shoot jumpers and create offense.

On fire

LeVert, nicknamed ‘Baby Durant’ by his teammates, has gone on a recent shooting tear impressive enough to make his namesake proud. While he didn’t ring up 30 points in 12 straight games, he’s been incredible in Michigan’s last eight games. LeVert has a .913 effective field goal percentage on catch and shoot jumpers over that span.

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But he’s doing more than just catching and shooting, his shooting stats in the last eight games are improved almost across the board.

Caris-Splits
click to enlarge

LeVert has improved his efficiency around the basket by 8%, but he’s also shooting better in four out of five three-point zones. Levert is 19-of-38 (50%) from 3-point range over that span and he’s been nearly unconscious from the left corner. He doesn’t even need to watch the ball when he shoots from there (H/T: Ace Anbender).

LeVert’s hot shooting is destined to cool off at some point, but his steady improvement is impressive. For his part, LeVert doesn’t feel anything different during his recent hot stretch.

“I’ve tried to stay aggressive the whole year,” LeVert explained last week. “I try to stay confident and I know my coaches and teammates have a lot of confidence in me to go out there and play my game and be aggressive.”

Need to work on the mid-range

The mid-range jumpshot is the only thing keeping LeVert from being an elite player in the Big Ten. Nearly a third of LeVert’s field goal attempts come more than four feet away from the basket, but inside the three-point line and he connects at just a 28.8% rate on those shots.

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The mid-range game is so important for LeVert because of his size and length, he can get that shot off almost effortlessly. For whatever reason, it just hasn’t fallen for him. If he could knock it down more consistently, pushing that percentage toward 40%, the sky is the limit for his game.

Transition play

Michigan’s entire roster is explosive in transition and LeVert is no exception to that rule. The Wolverines have three of the top four most efficient transition players in the conference and four of the top seven. LeVert isn’t as flashy of a finisher as Glenn Robinson III, but the numbers show that LeVert might be the most important piece of Michigan’s transition game.

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LeVert is a very good scorer in transition, but his passing numbers prove that he’s the catalyst to the Wolverines’ transition game. LeVert has racked up a 5.3:1 assist to turnover ratio in transition, compared to just 1.2:1 in half court offense, handing out 21 assists to just four turnovers. Nearly a third of LeVert’s assists this season have come in transition and he’s Michigan’s best at rebounding the ball and pushing the break.

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Another ideal Beilein wing

LeVert is overshadowed by playing next to Nik Stauskas – who continues to redefine efficiency at the wing position – but other than Stauskas, LeVert is having one of the best seasons of any wing guard that John Beilein has coached.

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He’s not Stauskas or Mike Gansey, but LeVert’s numbers aren’t dwarfed in that list by any means. LeVert has essentially swallowed the fifth of the offense that Tim Hardaway Jr. used last season and performed at a more efficient rate. That’s not a bad accomplishment considering that Hardaway is currently one of the top rookies in the NBA. image

Nik Stauskas has been terrific, but Caris LeVert’s development is the surprise reason that the Wolverines are on pace to win the Big Ten despite losing Mitch McGary, Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. Stauskas was expected to make a leap, but no one could have expected this sort of performance from LeVert.

He’s improved not just in the off-season, but over the course of the regular season. He’s already creeping up on 2015 NBA Draft boards and with another year of added muscle and a midrange jump shot, he could very well be in the thick of that conversation after next season. But the bigger question for Michigan fans right now is just what LeVert can do in the next month.

  • guestavo

    Great article. Couple this with his defensive potential and the sky is the limit. Also kind of confirms that Caris needs a dribble pull up game with floaters to boost. That, adding some muscle and improving vision on the PnR should be summer priorities but will also come with reps and experience. All this at only 19.

  • gobluemd16

    I was in Michigan for the weekend and had the pleasure of going to the game on Sunday as well. Everything related to that has been covered, but that was the most fun game I have been to at Crisler. Since then, I have just been trying just to catch up on all the great content the site has been putting out. I have to say this piece is amazing and may be one of the best I have read on UMHoops. As Guestavo said, if he gets stronger and improves his midrange, the sky is the limit. It is utterly scary how much he has improved and he is only 19 freaking years old, amazing. Thanks again for all the great writing, the site continues to be the best!

  • Mattski

    Terrific stuff! It’s tempting to believe that Caris could be special at the next level, too. I was a teaching assistant at the U of Alabama when Latrell Sprewell and Robert Horry was there–there was something about the way those guys were so obviously still only beginning to feel out the possibilities that you also see in Caris’s “unorthodox” game. Last year the guy was little more than a puppy; this year he’s assuming his destined earthly form. With serious muscles on him, Caris can be an absolute terror. Everything suggests he’s a truly great kid as well.

  • Chezaroo

    Been on his bandwagon for a long time! He stands out in transition but is still learning to “dribble with a purpose” in half court settings. This ability will come with more experience and it will make him even more dangerous as he learns to exploit his obvious physical gifts. This was a tremendous article Dylan, impeccably researched and wonderfully presented. Kudos!

  • UMHoopsFan

    Caris is also pretty young for his class — he’s less than two weeks older than Zak Irvin, for example. For a kid with his body type, that can make a big difference, and if he’d been a year behind he’d probably have blown up as a recruit.
    Caris could stand to improve in a few aspects of the half-court game, particularly with making quick moves and decisions in all manners. And on a D a little more consistency will turn him into a huge asset. But he is a crucial part of this team right now and a plus player all around. Glad he’s a Wolverine, that’s for sure.

    • yinkadoubledare

      That youth will help his draft stock too. Next year when he’s a junior he’ll be similar age to a lot of sophomores, and NBA teams pay attention to that. Wouldn’t be surprised if he makes himself a first rounder after next season.

  • TimgColo

    Think about how good Caris would be with GRIII’s frame? That could be the outcome next year after another year of hard work in the offseason. Thinking All-American??? With his ability to beat defenders off the dribble, going to be fun to watch in the season (s) to come.

    • kam

      He wont have that type of frame.. He probably will have a tim type of frame. Glenn is gifted with that body type. Everyone cant work to have that. You are born that physically gifted

      • http://www.umhoops.com/ Dylan Burkhardt

        Maybe not GR3’s frame, but edging closer to Tim’s frame and nearing 200lbs should be his goal.

        • kam

          That exactly what i was thinking.. and i think he said earlier this year his goal was Tim’s weight of 200 pounds. That would be like what 10-15 more pounds?

          • kam

            they list him at 185 not 175

          • http://www.umhoops.com/ Dylan Burkhardt

            Just updated the post to 185 (which is what is MGoBlue page says).

          • kam

            yeah that’s what i meant not 189 haha

      • Kenny

        Levert’s body type reminds me of Jamal Crawford than any other Wolverines. At age 33, JC stands no more than 200lb, but that does not prevent him average 15.6pts per game over 13 years in NBA, and averaging more than 25pt in the last 10 games.

        • kam

          i agree 100%

        • Mattski

          That’s a good comparison. But although I know Jamal is crazy lights out from three, I don’t remember him being as multi-skilled as a young player. Maybe others remember different.

          • guestavo

            I think Caris is definitely a better two way and all around player at the same age. Jamal could have used a few extra years of college but things happen…

  • kam

    Great piece.. I also think he needs to work on “dribbling the air out of the ball” but i dont want him to pass too quickly because sometimes he dribbles a lot to set up his man with those dribble moves. Just needs to find a happy medium. Oh and i think he has a middle game just needs to get consistent. He’s hit it quite a few times this year but not enough. So a consistent floater and middle game would be huge

    • kam

      I also think He gets most improved player in the BIG and i think he makes the 2nd team all BIG TEN team..

    • guestavo

      We’ve had “man crushes” with Caris’ game for quite a bit of time now, when some said we were insane…. Glad others can now see it.

      • kam

        haha Yup. @Chezaroo:disqus liked him too! He’s been a very important piece.. Whenever he gets that middle game down it will be impossible to defend him. Play close and he blows by you.. Sag off he hits the 3. cram the paint.. He hits the mid range. Also you were right with his PnR vision. I see times where he misses the roll man, but i think that has a lot to do with lack of experience. He’s shown the ability to be an at least an above average passer so i think he will improve in that area.

      • Mattski

        Not to pull rank or anything, but unless you were posting under another guise last year. . . you weren’t the first!

        • guestavo

          Maybe not the first to say “he has a ton of potential” but definitely one of a small group of people who defend him when he was the scapegoat for all our problems earlier in the season (ie being called Careless LeVert, bad defender, feasting on bad competition, not consistent). Go on to the forum and you’ll see that I’ve come to the same conclusions Dylan has about Caris’ game, albeit with less data, a long time ago.

          For example:
          http://forum.umhoops.com/discussion/494/on-2015-recruiting-our-style-of-play-and-the-need-for-big-men/p1

          Or my analysis on NBAdraftnet:

          http://nbadraft.net/forum/caris-levert-0

          Regardless, this isn’t a competition. There is tons of room on the bandwagon. UM is a team.

          • Mattski

            Like your analysis in the second, especially.

  • Jose

    Best defensive player on the team, 2nd best offensive player and he’s a year younger than the rest of the sophomores. His development trajectory is amazing.

    • http://www.umhoops.com/ Dylan Burkhardt

      Yep. Was nearing 1500 words so I didn’t even really get to hit on 1) defense 2) how many minutes LeVert is playing.

      • kam

        Do u have a word limit? and if u ever could it would be nice to talk about his defense i see non stop on other sites from michigan fans how he plays “no defense” “doesn’t try on defense” “he should should be a lock down defender” really unfair given the lack of experience and amount of energy he spends on both sides of the ball.

        • http://www.umhoops.com/ Dylan Burkhardt

          Nothing formal, just meant the post was getting long.

          It’s tough to judge his defense really. He guards the oppositions best players and he’s had some really good games and some really bad games defensively. He is playing major minutes though.

          • kam

            I agree. I’m not saying he’s an elite defender yet but he’s having to chase guy’s like marble, harris and yogi around for 30+ minutes. No one else on our roster could handle that. I think he’s done a solid job. Needs to fix the occasional lapses though

  • Kenny

    dylan, great work. This kind of analysis is what set this site apart from the rest of the internet.

  • chazer

    Dylan…this is why you get my money instead of ESPN. Well done! I know its a pipe dream but if these kids come back….WOW!!!! No wonder Booker and Blackman didn’t sign….they probably scrimmaged against Caris.
    GO BLUE!

  • rlcBlue

    What if Evan Smotrycz had made a game tying shot vs. Ohio U – would he still be in Ann Arbor and John Groce be coaching Caris LeVert in Athens? Things have definitely turned around; even when things go wrong for us they turn out right…

  • Jamal Crawford

    I’m getting the sense the sky is the limit.
    At this point with Beilein’s players, I choose to not even think about if or even when a player will go professional. Whenever it happens (early or late) it only helps the program. Early departures used to worry me a little, but with the depth I’m seeing at Michigan, those worries don’t come around too much anymore.
    One game at a time. GO BLUE.

  • mikey_mac

    Dylan, excellent work. Great improvement on your Goldsberrys! Excellent charts as well.

  • jemblue

    Awesome breakdown – this is top-notch stuff.

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