Big 10

Column: Caris LeVert’s risk vs. reward storyline meets its next act

June 22, 2016

ANN ARBOR — There’s always been a gray distance between the Caris LeVert that we’ve seen and the Caris LeVert that could be. His talent was so unexpected. The vast potential was so limitless.

The result of all this has long been a mushy mix of hype and hope. Since his sophomore year at Michigan, LeVert — once an unranked recruit — has been an NBA prospect with a scorer’s touch and defender’s tact. That upside, however, has been kicked around by an injury-prone left foot and persistent, understandable skepticism.

And so now, on the eve of the 2016 NBA draft, it once again comes down to risk versus reward for LeVert. It’s a cliched ratio that the U-M graduate is all too used to. Far too many times, he’s delivered the reward on others’ risks but not reaped the returns on his own.

Michigan took a big ol’ risk on LeVert back in 2012. Then a 6-foot-6 wire hanger, he only came available because Ohio coach John Groce — fresh off an upset win over Michigan in the NCAA Tournament — accepted the head-coaching gig at Illinois. U-M coach John Beilein took a flier on LeVert in the late signing period.

Beilein would be rewarded.

A relative unknown upon arrival, LeVert was supposed to redshirt his freshman year. Instead, he annoyed teammates in practice with his defense and proved ready to play. The program took a risk and burned his redshirt six games into the season. It was rewarded three months later when LeVert scored eight points in 21 minutes to help Michigan beat Syracuse in the national semifinals.

Then came LeVert’s own risks.

For much of 2013-14, LeVert opted to play through pain in his left foot. Teammates knew it. Coaches knew it. The sophomore stayed on the floor, even as the pain worsened late in the season. In the offseason, it would be discovered that LeVert played on a stress fracture in his foot.

Michigan, nonetheless, was rewarded with a trip to the Elite Eight.

LeVert’s reward? It’s complicated. While he cemented his value as a pro prospect that year, the question will always linger if playing through the injury contributed to two future fractures in that same foot — injuries that derailed his college career.

The first of those fractures came in 2014-15, ending LeVert’s junior season. At the time, despite some erratic play, he was trending toward being a first-round pick in the 2015 draft.

But LeVert took another risk. He bypassed last year’s draft to improve his stock and vowed to help Michigan return to the NCAA Tournament.

His reward was an empty box. LeVert became the archetype for the dangers of returning to school. He fractured his foot again, and — in an added dash of cruelty — was forced to sit and watch as U-M returned to the NCAA Tournament without him.

Now a player whose college career was dictated by risk must be left asking himself: Where’s the reward? For while LeVert earned himself a free education and played under the lights of a Final Four, there’s something unmistakably missing here. He spent the last few years in the proximity of stardom, but was always a foot short of grasping it.

Fair? Not at all.

Reality? Very much so.

In March, LeVert proved to have a mobile disposition during a long talk in an empty Crisler Center. Sitting alongside fellow injured senior Spike Albrecht, he said, “Looking at perspective is the biggest thing. Really, this is the start of a new beginning.”

But while everything old is new again, everything new sometimes borrows from the old. In that vein, LeVert’s professional career will have to begin with a risk. As one NBA Eastern Conference player personnel staffer told me last week, “It depends … will someone take a chance?”

That’s hard to tell. Of the three NBA team sources I spoke to last week, no one was overly optimistic. Worries linger about that left foot and no one has seen LeVert play since December. Some weren’t sold even when he was on the floor.

“I saw a lot of shake and no bake,” an Eastern Conference scout said of LeVert’s tendency to pound the ball — improvising without capitalizing.

There is, though, plenty to like. LeVert has what many NBA coaches covet: Ability with the ball coupled with length, athleticism and a multi-position skillset.

Plus there are the off-the-court issues, of which there are none. In three years covering the now-22-year-old, the most scandalous Caris LeVert story I ever heard was when he snapped at his coach during his junior year of high school.

“I pulled his butt out of that gym and said don’t you ever talk back to me again,” former Pickerington (Ohio) Central coach Jerry Francis recounted in 2014. “He needed that tough, fatherly love to some degree. He respected it and he did everything I told him to do.”

Back then, LeVert was still coping with the 2010 death of his father, Darryl LeVert. Those were hard times — uncertain times — but ultimately served as the early maturation for a player who has always worn a boyish face balanced by a quiet confidence.

At Michigan, LeVert was a model college player. He managed to obey every traffic sign and stay above the fray. Over the last two injury-filled years, he seemed to counter understandable self-pity with unflinching optimism. His makeup is unquestionably tied to his faith and a resolute loyalty to his mother, Kim, and younger brother, Darryl Jr.

On top of all that, LeVert has endured risks gone wrong. And while his foot remains a question, his backbone is undeniable. NBA teams can’t lift prospects up and listen to their hearts like a conch shell. But when it comes to this guy, they needn’t try.

Still, though, this is real life.

As the draft trudges from pick to pick to pick on Thursday night, I expect it to become painfully apparent that teams are squeamish to take LeVert. It will be, after all, a risk. There will be safer options and it could be a long night.

Eventually, one team will finally decide to take a chance.

Then it will be on LeVert to make it count.

If anything, he’s due for a reward.

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