While James Harden has supplanted Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade as the best shooting guard in the NBA, his ball dominant role as an off guard stands against the current NBA trend. Harden and Toronto's Demar Derozan are the only shooting guards among contending teams who do most of their offensive work with the ball in their hands. Atlanta's Kyle Korver is joined by Klay Thompson, Wes Matthews, Bradley Beal, and Jimmy Butler as shooting guards who are able to affect games on the offensive end without the need to dominate the basketball. The 2015 NBA Draft lacks wing prospects with a skill set to affect games without needing the basketball.
Michigan's Caris LeVert has had an up-and-down junior season as he has taken over the reigns of a team that lost 6 of its top 7 players from last season. The limitations of the Michigan roster have both highlighted the diversity of LeVert's gifts and exposed deficiencies in his athleticism. While the probability of him being a star at the next level has been reduced by some of his poorer performances, LeVert is the only prospect in the draft who possesses the tools present in the successful shooting guards above.
Quality teams will be intrigued by LeVert's floor of being a high-impact role player. If we take a sample of other recent prospects, his relatively high floor becomes more attractive:
|Prospect (Hgt, Wgt)
|Player A (6'6, 199)
|Player B (6'6, 200)
|Player C (6'6, 192)
|Player D (6'5, 200)
LeVert is player B in the sample above and most easily compares to Player A: former Michigan teammate and current New York Knickerbocker Tim Hardaway, Jr. Offensively, both players are same-age prospects (21 on draft day) who are good shooters and handle the basketball well. Both players fall short in attacking the basket, yet LeVert is a better free throw shooter and attempted more free throws than the former late first-round selection. What separates LeVert is that he is a far more active positional defender who has great hands and a wingspan that translates as elite at the next level. Many people view Hardaway as a potentially great player--a second-tier star--if he could be competitive on the defensive end. LeVert projects to be such a player as is most accurately reflected in his DraftExpress highlight video:
Player C and D in the table above are the Orlando Magic's recent second-round selection Devyn Marble and current Memphis guard Courtney Lee. Marble played for Iowa in the Big Ten last season and has just recently gotten minutes in Orlando as a starter. Lee has bounced around a few teams with moderate success, but looks like he may have found a more permanent spot in Memphis. Neither comparison is going to get a team excited to use a lottery pick on LeVert, but each player translated their skills to the league quicker than the expectations held for them on draft day. LeVert is a better shooter than Marble and a better defender that Lee while possessing all the same assets each of those players have. Marble and Lee made quick transitions to the league (although Lee stalled after a few seasons) and outplayed their draft positions. If LeVert falls to the middle of the first round where he is currently projected on many credible boards, he is likely to outplay his draft status relative to other players with higher ceilings and lower floors.
Marble has played some small forward and even power forward in small-ball lineups for Orlando. LeVert has that type of ability if a team wants to use him in small lineups to create match-up issues. On a team challenged with a lack of bigs, Marble has played some crunch-time minutes at power forward and drawn multiple defensive match-ups on power forwards for stretches of games. His length allows him to do so despite his need to get stronger. Where LeVert is unique is that he also can slide to run the point as needed and does so very well--even if it is often facilitating his teammates into open misses. LeVert will not be expected to run the point in the NBA or play power forward, but having the skills to do so effectively at the college level against good teams illustrates that he is more than just a shooter. Against Illinois in a performance that looks pedestrian on paper, LeVert showed off his diversity of skills and was involved in nearly every play on both ends of the floor down the stretch. In the video below you can see some of his unique skill, but it does not show how many possessions he helped close out on the defensive end with plays not recorded in the box score:
If you do not see a star in the video then do not be concerned. LeVert is not ready to be developed into a guy who can carry a franchise. I had some hope for that at the outset of the college season, but his match-up with Arizona's freshman forward Stanley Johnson was a clear and decisive indictment that he does not possess the elite athleticism to beat high-level pro players one-on-one. LeVert does not have an elite first step and is an average finisher as he gets near the hoop. Like Bradley Beal, he too readily pulls up in space at times that he could continue toward the basket. On the defensive end, he has good feet and great length but he will still need help against explosive wing players who are near-elite on the bounce. He is undoubtedly a great shooter, but there remains some doubt as to whether or not he is an elite shooter. One of the challenges of being forced to carry a team is that it also means carrying the burden of taking shots while pressured. While it is fair to presume that his percentages should go up when garnering less attention at the next level, he has had two bad stretches of shooting this year beyond what should be expected of an elite shooter.
Despite those negatives, similar concerns were shared by scouts about Klay Thompson coming out of Washington State. Thompson was an inch taller, a pound lighter, and shared many of the same physical issues while additionally having liabilities on the defensive end. Klay was clearly better at attacking the rim at the college level and was a little more explosive overall. Despite the limitations and obvious lack of star power as a prospect, the Thompson pick has worked out pretty well for the Warriors as he has become an impact sidekick to Stephen Curry. If a team is looking to add a player who can make a reasonable impact early on as a role player and potentially grow into the second or third best player on a good team, then LeVert is an ideal fit for teams in need of a wing. Finding such players remains the biggest shortage in the NBA behind two-way centers. While there are plenty of players to fulfill the "3-and-D" role on the NBA wing, most of those talents are reduced to a smaller role due to limitations handling the basketball or playing in pick-and-roll. LeVert can play on either end of a pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop and should develop well at doing each as he gets stronger.
Caris LeVert has the mental toughness to accept the challenge of carrying a team or playing whatever role asked of him. His growth at Michigan has revealed his unquestionable resilience to improve his game on a year-to-year basis. He does not have the athleticism to win individual NBA awards, but he has the shooting skill and defensive instincts to be the second or third best player on a team that competes for a ring. For contending teams selecting outside the top 5, LeVert has the potential to make a difference sooner than later and can be expected to continue to improve well into his prime. With the Atlanta Hawks swapping first round picks with the Nets and likely picking no lower than 15 and reasonably as high as 6 or 7, LeVert certainly fits the profile of the Spurs/Hawks system that favors overachieving college upperclassmen. While Atlanta continues to find unprecedented regular season success, they could still use wing players who can shoot, pass, and defend their position. LeVert checks off in all three areas and seems an ideal fit for Atlanta's system.