The uncertainty is gone and Michigan understands the task at hand. Caris LeVert isn’t coming back and the Wolverines need to beat Iowa on Saturday to put themselves in a good position heading into Indianapolis.
Here are four thoughts on what has worked and what hasn’t worked without LeVert in the lineup during the Big Ten season and what it means going forward.
1. Examining the pick-and-roll
It’s no secret that the pick-and-roll is vitally important to Michigan’s offense. Just shy of 30% of the Wolverines’ offensive possessions end in a shot, assist or turnover derived from the ball screen game, per Synergy Sports. That’s a larger share than most teams in the country.
In non-conference play, Caris LeVert was supplying the majority of that ball screen offense. LeVert averaged about 8.5 pick-and-roll possessions per game in non-league play, well ahead of Derrick Walton (5 poss/game), Zak Irvin (3.5 poss/game), and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman (1.8 poss/game).
Without LeVert, the burden of creating in the pick-and-roll game has shifted to Walton and Irvin, who are both averaging over 9 possessions per game in Big Ten play, and to a lesser-extent Abdur-Rahkman (3 poss/game).
Here’s a look at how all three players have graded out efficiency-wise since LeVert’s injury against Illinois.
Sometimes it’s hard to blend the data with the eye-test, but Zak Irvin has been Michigan’s most efficient pick-and-roll player by a wide margin. That might be hard to believe after Irvin has turned the ball over 16 times in the last four games, but the fact remains that when Irvin is reading the ball screen well, Michigan’s offense is working. Irvin is Michigan’s best at feeding the rolling big man, but he’s become too telegraphed on his reads at times.
If Michigan is going to make one final run to the NCAA tournament, Irvin’s ability to regain his confidence and understanding in the high pick-and-roll game might be the most important aspect of the Wolverines’ offense.
2. The Derrick Walton conundrum
When Derrick Walton plays well, Michigan is usually going to win. That’s not really a secret as most teams win games when their point guard plays well, but Walton has been the KenPom MVP in 6 of Michigan’s last 7 wins.
His two-point struggles have been covered ad nauseum and remain a concern, but the biggest issue with Walton’s productivity is that he’s been forced to be used in ways he’s just not as comfortable.
Since he arrived in Ann Arbor, Walton’s best attribute has been his catch-and-shoot ability. He boasts a 74.3 eFG% in catch and shoot situations. That’s elite, good for the 98th percentile nationally according to Synergy Sports. Michigan averages 1.5 points per play that ends in a Walton catch-and-shoot shot attempt. When Walton shoots off the dribble? He has just a 27.4 eFG%, or .68 points per possession.
In the non-conference season, Walton’s split of catch and shoot to off the dribble jumpers was almost 2:1. Since Caris LeVert’s injury and the start of Big Ten play, that number has regressed to essentially a 1:1 ratio.
Why is this such a huge problem? Zak Irvin leads the Wolverines with 11 assists on Derrick Walton makes. Caris LeVert, despite missing the majority of the last 16 games, is right behind him with 9 assists to Derrick Walton. Walton has been left trying to create and it has taken away from his ability to serve as an elite spot-up shooter.
3. Duncan Robinson’s slump
Duncan Robinson is missing shots he used to make. The defense has improved in conference play, but he’s on a major cold slump that includes open misses.
Robinson scored 93 points in 55 catch-and-shoot possessions in the non-conference season, per Synergy. He’s managed just 63 points in 62 catch-and-shoot situations since conference play started. That’s a major drop-off and catch-and-shoot jumpers are probably the shot type least affected by defense.
Here are Robinson’s shot charts for all shots in conference and non-conference games for comparison’s sake.
I don’t really have a great explanation other than the combination of better defense and tired legs. Others have pointed to Robinson’s late slump at Williams when he dropped from 49% three-point shooting over 23 games to 33% over the final nine. One way or another, it’s safe to say that there will be some serious focus on Robinson’s physical conditioning over the summer and how to equip him to make it through the physical rigors of the Big Ten season.
4. Is Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman the answer?
There’s been a sizable contingent of Michigan fans opining that Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman needs to take on a bigger role within the offense.
Abdur-Rahkman is Michigan’s best driver and finisher, but he also still has the tendency to be a one-dimensional driver.
The 6-foot-3 sophomore guard shoots the ball on 60% of his ball screen drives, grading out in the 87th percentile when he does, per Synergy. But on his ball screen passes the Wolverines only manage .82 points per possession — 26th percentile nationally.
For comparison, Walton grades out with a 53:47 shoot:pass split and Irvin at 55:45. Michigan scores 1.32 points per possession when Irvin passes out of the ball screen game and 1.07 points per possession off of Walton’s passes.
Both junior guards have done a much better job of getting their teammates involved, but they’ve also been run into the ground. In league play, Walton (2nd) and Irvin (6th) have played more minutes than almost anyone in the Big Ten. Abdur-Rahkman is using a modest 15.7% of Michigan’s offensive possessions, but has started to see some up-tick. Recent games against Maryland and Northwestern were among his most active of the season and I’d be surprised if John Beilein doesn’t work on getting him more involved down the stretch.