CHICAGO — He leaned on a 7-footer for a half-minute at the bottom of a zone defense, then swung his right arm at a missed shot caroming off the rim, tapping it out of reach with two seconds left and thus securing a win for his team. After that, Caris LeVert landed on his left foot.
This is when things got weird last January 17th.
Elated Michigan teammates streamed on to the floor. The Crisler Arena crowd howled. LeVert, the Wolverines’ best player, tumbled to the three-point line but eventually got up, shook everyone’s hands and even delivered a television interview. Nothing immediately suggested this was anything more than a dramatic victory over Northwestern, just another night’s toil in the Big Ten.
But then no one had heard what Caris LeVert heard.
Spike Albrecht saw his roommate wincing in the locker room minutes later and asked what was wrong. He swiftly wished he hadn’t.
“I heard something pop,” LeVert told him.
Nine months later, this is still not a story anyone likes to retell. A broken foot suffered on that awkward landing ended the season of a potential NBA draft pick, as well as any viable chance Michigan had to contend last winter. But it’s been two months now since LeVert returned to on-court work. It’s been two or three weeks since the 6'7" senior felt like he recaptured his explosiveness and rhythm. An auspicious present makes a gloomy past easier to discuss, and then dismiss.
Because Michigan has what it needs: A multifarious playmaker who can dictate the game on both ends of the floor. And LeVert has what he wants: A chance at a do-over. “All my goals and dreams are still in front of me,” LeVert said Thursday at Big Ten basketball media day. “It’s just a little longer road.”
While no one would identify Michigan as a top contender in a loaded league featuring clubs with legitimate national title hopes, John Beilein’s crew comprises players who either dealt with significant adversity or the fallout from it. Things literally broke bad for the Wolverines last winter, and there was no choice but to make do without the player who held everything together. LeVert averaged 14.9 points per game and was involved in a team-high 26.1% of offensive possessions while posting the best defensive rating (99.1) of anyone on the roster. That Michigan lost nine of 14 games without him is completely unsurprising.
But there’s something to be said for young players learning to exist without the guy who could cover for their mistakes. In the Wolverines’ ideal scenario, the player who had to do everything will no longer have to do everything. “He does not have to take this load on his shoulders like you maybe would assume he had to do last year,” Beilein said of LeVert. “He just needs to play good basketball, and he can have a tremendous year. He can count on (teammates). And he can count on them to make the right play more often than they did last year.”
Still, Michigan would prefer not to test itself with another round of life without LeVert, given how devastating the first experience was. After that Northwestern game last Jan. 19, LeVert went through the usual battery of X-rays and MRIs to determine the severity of the injury, and the uncertainty kept Albrecht, his roommate, from going to bed at a decent hour.
Finally, somewhere around 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., a fateful confirmation from LeVert arrived via text message.
“I almost broke down in tears,” Albrecht said.
There is optimism, though, that a second foot surgery has LeVert in better position to sustain high-level production than the first one did. After a breakout sophomore season—he was the third-leading scorer on a Michigan team that reached the Elite Eight—LeVert had a procedure ostensibly to correct a stress fracture in his left foot. But that precluded him, he says, from doing much work to build strength in his lower body before the 2014–15 season.
Rehab following the latest surgery took a different course. Lunges, squats—every core-building exercise that strength and conditioning coach Jon Sanderson wanted LeVert to complete, he could. He should be a sturdier cog, surgery notwithstanding: LeVert has gone from a listed 185 pounds as a sophomore to 205 as a senior. “That should help me down the stretch in the Big Ten season,” LeVert said. “I know it’s going to pay off.”
Beilein can only hope the suffering wasn’t for nothing. Michigan’s coach readily admits he rode LeVert to extraordinary lengths last year, because the other options simply were not as reliable. “There may have been moments before he got injured where I was dialing him up no matter (if) he was 0 for 10—he’s going to get this next shot,” Beilein said. It wasn’t a terrible approach. LeVert averaged 1.146 points per possession in 41 isolation scenarios last year, per Synergy Sports Data, ranking in the 96th percentile nationally.
“When things started going bad, we were just like, ‘Give Caris the ball and get out of the way,’” Albrecht said.
Michigan went from asking perhaps too much of LeVert to then asking perhaps too much of freshmen like Aubrey Dawkins and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman after LeVert suffered the broken foot and Derrick Walton went down with a season-ending toe injury shortly thereafter. The idea is to meet somewhere in between this year. In theory, players like Dawkins (7.0 points per game) and Abdur-Rahkman (4.5 ppg) will be imbued with more self-assurance as sophomores despite erratic first-year results, which will mesh nicely with proven veterans on the perimeter.
LeVert will be atop every team’s scouting report nevertheless. But his space to work increases with every dependable commodity Michigan deploys alongside him, and LeVert is at his best in that scenario.
“He’s just so versatile and can do so many different things,” Albrecht said. “Offensively, it’s his ability to get to the rim and draw defenders and kick, and then defensively he gets in passing lanes and gets in the gaps and gets deflections. It was a huge loss not having him on the floor last year and I think you guys saw that.”
After a game he helped save last Jan. 19, LeVert limped out of Crisler Arena. Nine months later he says he’s attacking the rim with explosiveness and playing on balance. Albrecht says he sees the full complement of quick-twitch, “herky-jerky moves” from his friend, the sort of things he couldn’t manage at anything less than full health.
“It’s just sort of a feel-type thing,” LeVert said. “When I was first cleared to play, I just didn’t feel like myself.”
He does now, which is what everyone around Michigan needs to hear.