When Caris LeVert first hit campus last summer, Michigan headman John Beilein believed a redshirt was in his talented freshman’s future. After all, roster depth and LeVert’s obvious need for physical development made that appear to be the best course of action. But that plan was for a different Caris LeVert. Today’s Caris LeVert stands a shade under 6-6 and has packed on nearly 20-pounds of muscle. Today’s Caris LeVert made an indelible mark in practice with his defensive proficiency more so than offensive. He realized very quickly that his path to playing time would be paved not with the buckets he scored, but with those that he stopped others from scoring.
“Actually, it is kind of new,” LeVert said regarding reputation as a strong defender. “I just try to come in there and have great energy, so it’s really fun out there. That’s definitely something I knew I had to embrace… the defense. I’m just trying to do that every day in practice.”
“My teammates are catching me up to speed, defensively mostly, but I’m getting there,” he said. “I love my role, I just come in there with great energy, try to play great defense, and just knock down shots.”
The former Pickerington Central star flashed that shot-making ability in his most extensive action of the season last Thursday versus Eastern Michigan. LeVert notched eight points on 3/5 shooting, including 2/2 from three-point range. Like the other freshmen in the rotation he has shown the talent and instincts to be effective while still learning nuances of John Beilein’s layered attack.
“Right now I’m just getting comfortable with the offense,” LeVert stated. “Tim (Hardaway) and Trey (Burke) are doing a great job of telling me where I need to go. I’m just trying to knock down open shots.”
LeVert’s connection with Burke has been particularly beneficial. That the former Buckeye State standouts both hail from the Columbus area has served to hasten their early kinship.
“The two guys from the 6-1-4 enjoy being from the 6-1-4, especially when they’re playing for Michigan,” said Beilein.
“The last few weeks in practice we’ve seen (Burke and LeVert playing a lot of one-on-one). I got here (the evening of the Eastern Michigan game) and about 6 o'clock and I hear the ball bouncing… (LeVert) and Trey were in the gym playing one-on-one… which I wasn’t crazy about (laughter). But they were getting extra shots up. That’s who that (LeVert) is. With his time in that gym, he is like Novak as far as getting that extra time in there.”
Burke too is a lot like Novak in his willingness to take a young teammate under his wing and help bring him along. Michigan’s floor leader can hardly hide his excitement over his new protégé’s potential.
“It’s all about (LeVert’s) mind, really,” said Burke. “Caris can make a lot of plays for this team, offense and defensively, just by the way he plays on offense and how he disrupts the defense. I think the first couple games, it was new to Caris’ transition; but once he gets comfortable, like he did (against Eastern), then he’ll be fine. He’ll be able to contribute at a high level.”
There is a higher level that Burke can ascend to as well, and squaring off against with LeVert’s six-inch height advantage will help him get there.
“We go at it all the time, and I think that helps both of us out,” said Burke. “It makes me go harder. He’s a tough guy to guard because he’s so long and he can handle, and he has to guard me.”
“Teams (try to slow him down with long defenders), and it’s just about not playing around with it… just making one move, and using your quickness on them. Once you get around that defender, the next defender’s going to step up, and that’s going to open up the kick out, so it’s just a matter of making reads and a matter of discerning whoever’s on you, and knowing what they can do on the defensive end and what they can’t do.”
Burke has done an exemplary job this season of diagnosing everything that teams throw at him and either scoring himself, or delivering the ball to his teammates in places where they can do damage. Over the past seven games Michigan’s sophomore floor general has dished out an impressive 51 assists and committed only seven turnovers. His stellar play has sparked player of the year talk and intensified the Final Four chatter expectations. But that bull’s-eye on the Wolverines’ collective back is nothing they’ll be shying away from if Burke has anything to say about it.
“We have to embrace it because we know that teams are going to come out with their toughest shot, and they’re going to come out with high intensity from the get-go,” he stated. “I think that’s something we definitely have to embrace. We have to know that every single team we play from this point forward, especially in the Big Ten, guys are going to come out and try to test us early on.”
If the early season performance is an indicator of what’s to come, expect the Wolverines to pass those tests with flying colors.