By Tom Dowd | February 5, 2017
The game is slowing down and progress is speeding up for Caris LeVert.
It was a long, often-uncertain two years for the Brooklyn Nets rookie leading up to his NBA debut. With three foot surgeries in 22 months, each followed by a new cycle of rehab – the last beginning as he crisscrossed the country selling himself to teams prior to the NBA Draft – LeVert had a long road before he took the court for the first time against the Denver Nuggets at Barclays Center on December 7.
Two months later, the scoring touch, playmaking chops and athleticism of the rangy 6-foot-7 swingman are all on display from a 22-year-old who seems to take a step forward every time he steps on the court.
The saying is that as a young player gets more experience, the game slows down. As it has, LeVert’s rate of improvement has quickened.
“He’s trying to figure a lot of stuff out, and he’s been actually a quick learner,” said Nets coach Kenny Atkinson. “Defensively, figuring stuff out pretty quick. And then offensively, just trying to get to understand the pace of the game and how quick guys close out on you and the speed of the game. I’ve even seen the last couple of games he’s starting to get that part, he’s starting to settle down a little bit better.”
At this early stage, the New Year offers a convenient break in the view of LeVert’s progress. In 12 December games, he averaged 4.7 points while shooting 35.8 percent from the field and 32.3 percent from 3-point range with 1.3 assists in 15.5 minutes per game.
In his first 13 January games, LeVert doubled his scoring average to 9.7 points per game while shooting 52.3 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from 3-point range with 2.5 assists per game in 22.6 minutes per game.
Those January numbers would all rank in the top five among rookies with the qualifying playing time for the full season.
“I feel like I’m getting better with each game with more minutes that I’m getting,” said LeVert. “I feel like the only thing I can control is my effort and my energy. From there, everything else will get going. I just try to come in, all the young guys do, me, Isaiah (Whitehead), Rondae (Hollis-Jefferson), try to come in and give great energy. That’s what coach asks of us. Do the dirty work as a young guy. We try to come in, play hard, change the energy if our energy is low and hopefully try to change the score a little bit too.”
As the 20th overall pick in last June’s draft, LeVert arrived in Brooklyn carrying some expectations that weren’t necessarily there when he arrived at the University of Michigan four years earlier. Having originally been committed to Ohio University, LeVert expected to redshirt as a freshman. Instead, he played himself into a role on a Final Four team. A year later, he was an All-Big 10 Conference pick.
The first surgery came after the spring of his sophomore year, and he never played another full season at Michigan again. The last surgery was in March 2016. While his fellow NBA hopefuls were auditioning on the court in workouts, LeVert visited teams for interviews, fitting in rehab sessions whenever he could in one city or the next.
“The physical part, it was tough,” said LeVert. “But mentally having to go through that two or three times; the third time I knew what I had to do, but I had done this before and it was tough the first two times and I was like, man, I’ve got to do it again. But I knew at the end I would see progress, so I just tried to stick with it and keep going.”
It was after he was drafted by the Nets that LeVert was finally able to settle down with a consistent rehab program. He set up shop at HSS Training Center while several of his teammates were off at the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas. LeVert did have one consistent companion during those days in July: Brook Lopez. And he made a strong impression.
“I’ve seen him working since the summer when he was recovering from his injury and his overall work ethic and competitiveness on the floor, whether it was just going through five-on-zero drills or in the weight room or going through fusionetic stuff, it was really unique compared to what I’ve seen from other guys throughout the league,” said Lopez. “He plays with great composure that’s definitely above his age and experience level.”
“There’s more expected of rookies,” said LeVert. “Be there first. Leave last. Always work really hard. Nothing’s given to you. So you have to earn everything. Don’t take anything for granted. I just tried to come in and work hard every day.”
He knew there was a payoff to come, and he’s starting to see it now. There was a 19-point, five-assist game against Cleveland, in which LeVert played the entire fourth quarter. He put up 17 on perfect 6-for-6 shooting – including 3-for-3 from 3-point range – in the 143-114 win at New Orleans.
“He’s getting more confidence,” said Atkinson. “We’re putting him in pick-and-roll a little bit. Guys are starting to get confidence in him. He’s got the athleticism at that position that we need, and the size and the quickness. Once the game slows down a little bit more, he’s going to get better.”