Big 10

Caris LeVert headed to Brooklyn Nets in NBA draft first-round surprise

June 23, 2016

ANN ARBOR — Caris LeVert traveled to Brooklyn for the 2016 NBA draft. Many thought it might be a long night for the former Michigan guard to hear his name called.

Instead, LeVert not only had a shorter-than-expected wait, but it turns out that he was already at his NBA home.

With the No. 20 overall pick in the draft Thursday night, the Brooklyn Nets made LeVert a first-round pick. The Nets will hand him the guaranteed contract to go with it, despite the 6-foot-7 guard’s injury woes in recent years.

Indiana officially made the pick, but it’s for Brooklyn as part of a trade.

LeVert is the seventh NBA draft choice from U-M since 2011 and 55th Wolverine taken overall, dating back to Bill Buntin’s selection as the No. 3 overall pick in 1965. LeVert also stands as the fourth player from Michigan’s 2012 recruiting class to be drafted.

In going to Brooklyn at No. 20, LeVert leapt ahead of nearly every draft projection out there. High-rated prospects such as Kentucky’s Skal Labissiere, Michigan State’s Deyonta Davis, Notre Dame’s Demetrius Jackson and international talents Timothe Luwawu and Ivica Zubac were still on the board, among plenty of others.

When his name was called, LeVert rose up from his seats in the stands at Barclays Center wearing a maize-and-blue suit. He was joined by his mother, Kim, and younger brother, Darryl. His relief was visible.

The first two guaranteed years of LeVert’s contract with the Nets will be worth $1,301,900 in 2016-17 and $1,360,400 in 2017-18 on the rookie pay scale. (Draftees sign for 80-to-120 percent of the scale.)

LeVert’s journey to the NBA began in Pickerington, Ohio. Once a rail-thin, under-recruited guard, he developed at Pickerington Central High School and ultimately became an all-state player as a senior in 2012, leading the program to its first state title.

That year, he committed to play at nearby Ohio University for coach John Groce. In March 2012, however, Groce accepted the head coaching position at Illinois. In LeVert’s reopened recruitment, he visited Dayton, Purdue and Michigan, and considered Xavier.

Michigan coach John Beilein offered LeVert a scholarship without having ever seen him play in-person. He watched film sent by Pickerington Central coach Jerry Francis, an old friend of U-M assistant Bacari Alexander, and recommendations from former Michigan star Trey Burke, his father Benji Burke, and Victor Dandridge, Burke’s former coach at Northland (Ohio) High School. Burke grew up in Columbus, Ohio, only 20 miles from Pickerington, and played in the same AAU program as LeVert.

Ultimately, LeVert committed to Michigan, becoming the fifth member of Beilein’s 2012 recruiting class. He joined five-star forward Glenn Robinson III, four-star power forward Mitch McGary, four-star shooting guard Nik Stauskas and three-star point guard Spike Albrecht.

Five years later, LeVert is now joining Robinson, McGary and Stauskas in the NBA.

At Michigan, LeVert averaged 10.4 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.7 assists in 103 career games.

LeVert’s breakout season came in 2013-14 when the sophomore emerged from nowhere to earn All-Big Ten second team honors with 12.9 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game. He was the proverbial glue-guy as the Wolverines reached the Elite Eight for the second straight season.

In that 2014 season, LeVert played on a stress fracture in his left foot. After enduring the pain, he underwent surgery in the offseason, a sign of things to come.

LeVert would go on to have two more surgeries in the next 22 months. He sustained a full fracture in the same foot midway through his junior season and a suffered a Jones fracture to the fifth metatarsal in the foot as a senior.

All told, LeVert played 33 of a possible 68 games over the last two seasons.

After averaging a team-best 14.9 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.7 assists in 18 games as a junior, LeVert opted to return for his senior year in the face of a tenuous draft stock. He was projected as a late-first round or early second-round pick at the time.

In announcing his return, LeVert said: “I didn’t think it was beneficial for me to go if I was going to be a second-round pick. For other people, maybe that fits their description, but for me I didn’t think it was the right decision.”

LeVert’s decision seemed spot-on early in the 2015-16 season. Despite some fits of erratic play, he was an inch taller a 6-foot-7 and clearly stronger. He went on to score 29 points against Xavier and post his first career triple-double — 13 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists — against Northern Kentucky.

On Dec. 30, LeVert delivered his best performance of the season in a 22-point, 10-assist outing at Illinois. Late in the game, though, LeVert stepped on the foot of Illinois guard Kendrick Nunn and immediately game up limping. He remained in the game, helping U-M earn a 78-68 win.

That would be the last time LeVert was seen healthy. He was averaging a team-best 16.5 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.9 assists.

LeVert did not disclose the specifics of the injury while missing 21 of the final 22 games of the season. He made a brief return against Purdue on Feb. 13, playing 11 minutes, but his foot wasn’t ready.

On March 22, LeVert underwent surgery at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. The procedure was performed by Dr. Martin O’Malley, a specialist who has performed bone graft surgery on NBA star Kevin Durant, among other pro athletes.

LeVert’s surgery prevented him from participating in the NBA Draft Combine and individual team workouts. He was able to interview with teams and share his medical information, but no team saw LeVert play in the buildup to Thursday’s draft.

Entering Thursday, LeVert was projected as going everywhere from late in the first round to late in the second round.

In an effort to quell concerns about an oft-injured left foot that had many questioning his value in the draft, LeVert penned an open letter addressed to “NBA GMs” on The Players’ Tribune. He cited his resiliency on and off the court as reasons to believe he’ll bounce back from his latest surgery in March and have a productive NBA career.

Apparently, Brooklyn was sold.

The Nets acquired the No. 20 pick by trading forward Thaddeus Young to the Indiana Pacers. It’s likely that, at the time, LeVert was already seen as the pick in that spot, considering how much earlier than anticipated he was selected.

The Nets were previously part-owned by Jay-Z, who also owns Roc Nation Sports, which represents LeVert. Jay-Z sold off his piece of the franchise in 2013.

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