Seven minutes into the Michigan basketball team’s game against Purdue on Saturday, the Crisler Center exploded with an applause. The game was tied at 11 with mostly unmemorable play up to that point, but when the buzzer sounded, the crowd stood and cheered for nearly a whole minute.
For the first time in 2016, senior guard Caris LeVert was entering a game.
Michigan’s leader in points, assists and rebounds before landing awkwardly toward the end of a game against Illinois Dec. 30, LeVert missed the next 11 games. Without surgery, a diagnosis beyond “lower-left leg injury” and no sightings of LeVert in a walking boot, the injury was frustrating to some and worrisome to others.
But to everyone, it was mysterious.
“I know it was tough not getting all the information,” LeVert said. “We’ve been fortunate enough not have to have any setbacks so far. We’re working each and every day.
“I wouldn’t say I’m all the way back, but I’m working there every day.”
“I wouldn’t say I’m all the way back, but I’m working there every day.” twitter
Six weeks after going down the the vague injury, LeVert spent Saturday getting a feel for game action again. He only played 11 minutes — all in the first half — and went scoreless. He totaled five rebounds and an assist, but it was clear his aim wasn’t to lead the team. Not yet.
In Tuesday’s game at Ohio State, the plan is likely the same. But LeVert said he was relieved to be playing again at all, especially in his hometown, no matter the role.
“That will be an exciting game, wherever coach sees me,” LeVert said. “Whether that’s limited minutes, no minutes at all, a lot of minutes, whatever he needs me.”
LeVert’s return comes after a lengthy rehab that found him implementing swimming and underwater treadmill workouts, and then later land conditioning to help him return to game shape in the middle of conference play.
Speaking to the media for the first time since December, LeVert said he was unable to offer more specifics of the injury. Michigan coach John Beilein did note, however, that he expects LeVert to play regularly now, albeit not at 100 percent.
“It changes the way I look at us, because we have more options,” Beilein said. “The big thing with Caris is his ability to pass. Look at his numbers coming in and his minutes and number of assists, even though he had the ball a lot, he’s not the point guard. That really changes things. When he came in and played with our all-stars, the day-off guys, he was like boom-boom-boom.
“I realized how much we missed him. Not just his scoring, but the way he sees the floor.”
LeVert rejoins a team that went 8-4, with wins over No. 5 Maryland and No. 16 Purdue during his absence. The senior noted that junior guard Derrick Walton Jr. and sophomore guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman have a nice rhythm after some time playing together.
“Right now I’m just trying to come in and give those guys a rest and not skip a beat while I’m in there,” said LeVert, who admitted that he was “winded” on Saturday and still sore two days later.
Throughout his enigmatic recovery, the elephant in the room surrounding LeVert was how the guard’s NBA Draft status would be effected. The latest mock draft from NBADraft.Net has LeVert being taken 15th by the Utah Jazz; DraftExpress projects him as the 23rd pick in the first round.
Though the injury was clearly one that necessitated a lengthy recovery, LeVert never considered shutting down for the season. He admitted some of that was to maintain and potentially improve his draft status, but the main focus was the same reason he returned for a senior year: to win for Michigan.
“It was definitely a little scary when it happened; it was a bang-bang play. It was kind of sore after the game,” LeVert said. “But God doesn’t make mistakes. I wasn’t too worried about it. I was just worried about how I could get better from it.
“We didn’t make it to the (NCAA) Tournament last year. That was a huge disappointment for us. We’re right there this year. … Right now, we control our own destiny. That would be the biggest thing for me and my team, as well.”