UM’s LeVert says NBA isn’t his chief concern

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Caris LeVert

Ann Arbor -- Yes, he heard the criticism from fans as one week became three and three became six. Yes, his NBA future weighed on him and his decision to return. And yes, he plans to play in Michigan's games moving forward.

Michigan star guard Caris LeVert on Monday met the media for the first time since suffering a lower-left leg injury Dec. 30 at Illinois.

LeVert missed 11 games, before returning in Saturday's 61-56 victory over then-No. 18 Purdue at Crisler Center.

"Yeah, I did," LeVert said, when asked if he had become aware of fans getting increasingly frustrated with his extended absence. "Like I said, I know it was tough not getting all the information.

"We still have the greatest fans in the country. I'm not really worried about that. As a fan, you want to see everybody out there playing. I respect the fans."

LeVert, who had a foot injury on the same left leg that cost him many games a season ago, returned for his senior season -- and played 14 games before stepping on an Illinois player’s foot in the Big Ten opener.

Several times during his recovery, coach John Beilein suggested he might return "soon," but LeVert didn't play until Saturday.

During his absence, he continued to be ranked high in many NBA mock drafts, leading to speculation that perhaps LeVert was chiefly concerned about his pro career.

He was asked directly Monday how much of a point of emphasis his NBA future was talked about during his recovery.

"It was a small percentage," LeVert conceded. "I tried to focus on this year, focus on how I could get better.

"I didn't really think too much about what-if, or my future, or anything like that.

"Coach B and myself, we didn't want to throw me out there before I was really ready to play."

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LeVert came off the bench in his return, as expected, and he played 11 first-half minutes -- more than he anticipated, but necessitated by early foul trouble for Duncan Robinson.

He missed one field goal and one free throw, but did grab five rebounds.

Still, LeVert acknowledged being "winded" by the first half, and Beilein said LeVert was "wobbly" coming out of halftime, so he sat out the final 20 minutes as Michigan rallied for a big win in its bid to get back to the NCAA Tournament.

"My wind's not all the way back," LeVert said.

Asked how he felt the next day, he said, "Pretty good. It's obviously normal to have a little bit of soreness after not playing for that long, but I feel good. ... If you don't do something for six weeks, you're body's going to be sore."

At no point, LeVert said, did he consider shutting it done, nor was he worried at the time of the injury that he could be lost for another season, saying, "God doesn't make mistakes."

LeVert, 21, said he plans to keep playing in games, though they will most likely all be "game-time" decisions, at least the final five regular-season games.

He definitely plans to play Tuesday at Ohio State; LeVert is a Columbus, Ohio native.

LeVert, like Beilein over the six weeks, still won't share the exact nature of the injury, saying that was a decision he made with his mother and his coach.

He did say he had no procedure done on the leg.

"I know it was tough not getting all the information," said LeVert, who was averaging 17.6 points before he got injured. "We've been fortunate enough not have to have any setbacks so far. We're working each and every day."

He credited men's basketball trainer Alex Wong with developing a good practice plan, knowing what was too much and what wasn't enough. LeVert still has only practiced about three total hours since suffering the injury, spending the rest of his time rehabbing, often in the pool.

LeVert got Sunday off, as did the rest of the Michigan team. The Wolverines had only a walkthrough in getting ready for the Buckeyes.

LeVert said he isn't sure of his role moving forward, and Beilein keeps calling it a "puzzle."

"It's kind of tough," LeVert said. "Muhammad (-Ali Abdur-Rahkman) and Derrick (Walton Jr.) have a great rhythm right now. Right now I'm just trying to come in and give those guys a rest and not skip a beat while I'm in there.

"Where Coach needs me, I'll go in there -- 10 minutes, no minutes at all, a lot of minutes, wherever he needs me."

While LeVert was out, his teammates did a bang-up job of keeping this team in NCAA Tournament contention, winning seven of the 11 games he missed -- including a signature win over then-No. 3 Maryland.

LeVert said he was proud of that, as he was of Saturday's win over Purdue, which might've put the Wolverines just one, or at most two, wins away from securing a return to the NCAA Tournament after missing out a season ago.

LeVert said that's what his focus is on, not the NBA, not now.

"For our team more than myself," he said. "We didn't make it to the Tournament last year. That was a huge disappointment for us. We're right there this year.

"Right now, we control our own destiny. That would be the biggest thing for me and my team, as well."

LeVert said there was no point he thought he was close to returning until just after shoot-around before the Purdue game. That's when he approached Beilein and said he was a go.

A large and loud crowd was thrilled to see him, and gave him a thunderous ovation when he entered the game.

"You know, they were really supportive; they didn't want me coming out there before I was ready," said LeVert, who called the blowout losses to Indiana and Michigan State the low point of his absence. "They wanted me to come back when I was ready.

"I wouldn't say I'm all the way back, but I'm working there every day."