Caris LeVert, and striking while the iron is merely warm

Caris LeVert will walk into the Crisler Center on Saturday for the final time as a Michigan basketball player. He won’t play a single minute, but he’ll be praised loudly by an adoring home crowd, one that’s watched him grow immeasurably from niche, wiry defensive freshman to potential All-American in four years.

About this time last year, it wasn’t his senior day, and LeVert was being talked about as having played his last game at Michigan all the same, because the NBA could come calling, and some viewed him as a potential first-round pick. As it stands, LeVert chose to come back for one more year, injured his leg on Dec. 30, and hasn’t played a college game since.

The choice of a future career is up to each person, but the next time one of your favorite players goes early on the fringe chance of being a first-round pick, and you wished he’d stay “ONE-MORE-YEAR!” as they all chant, this is why the player leaving is probably making the smart decision for himself and his family.

This is NOT to say that LeVert didn’t make the smart decision. College life is short, and for the most part, you spend the rest of your life trying to figure out how to wake up at noon, work toward something, and hang out with a bunch of people your age on the time schedule you want for the rest of your life.

For some, a full collegiate career and everything that comes with it are worth whatever risk lies out there. For others, you grab whatever money you can the second you can and fill the blanks in later, whether you were “ready” or not. Personally, I can’t envision a situation where I’d refuse a guaranteed seven figures over three years.

LeVert’s decision shows the risk in coming back to school, and the ultra-fine line between forcing guys to play in college for a year and risk injury, or in his case, coming back to school and having an unlucky injury.

Folks tend to romanticize the four-year college experience and over-credit the “well, at least he has his college degree,” even though that’s rapidly becoming the high school diploma of the 1970s in terms of workforce competitiveness.

To some, coming back to college is just a feel-good story in which the only thing that happens is basketball practice and college is one massive athenaeum of constant studious efforts.

The reality is, guys go pro early because they’re worried about what LeVert is going through. You couldn’t have blamed him either way. Many folks said Glenn Robinson III left too early from Michigan, and while he’s mostly bounced around the league getting only spot minutes, he’s getting paid handsome money to play basketball in spite of being a second-round pick with no guaranteed money.

While other Michigan stars such as Nik Stauskas, Tim Hardaway Jr., and Trey Burke have not become overnight stars in the NBA, all are on guaranteed contracts as first-round picks. That’s life-changing money for most of the free world, especially in their early 20s.

It’s too callous to say things like, “Well, this is why you go pro every time,” but it’s important to note that this is why guys do reach a little bit, and (insert your favorite player’s name here) might this offseason.

There’s risk in anything great, which would have been LeVert coming back, staying healthy, and leading Michigan to a Final Four. It’s what makes life so damned interesting. If the paths were always clear and the decisions easy to make, where would the excitement — or the need to develop judgment — exist? Where would we fail… and subsequently learn what it means to have mental toughness? How would the road less traveled ever be found?

For LeVert’s part, hopefully he’ll recover, get a decent shot to make an NBA roster, and succeed at the next level. By no means did he make the wrong decision coming back to Michigan, because that’s what was best for him.

Yet, it was risky, and so it will be for many players considering the same weighty decisions this spring. There is no wrong answer, other than in hindsight, but don’t blame guys who bolt at the first flimsy site of having a good shot at being picked.

The road less taken is often less taken for a reason, even though it’s sometimes worth taking more than anyone could imagine.