Caris LeVert was ready to go.
Maybe too ready?
The second-year Brooklyn Nets swingman had an abbreviated rookie season, its start delayed as he recovered from surgery to solve the foot problems that plagued his final two seasons at Michigan. But aside from ankle tweak during the final day of training camp that cost him two preseason games, he had the full run-up to the 2017-18 season that he was looking for, with NBA Summer League action in Las Vegas with teammates Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Spencer Dinwiddie and Isaiah Whitehead, plus regular workouts at HSS Training Center.
“I’m a big Caris fan,” said Jeremy Lin during preseason. “I think he’s going to take big steps. I think he’s going to be a big-time player. Hopefully everyone else will get to see it. I’ve seen it all summer long.”
Lin was far from alone in his expectations. But then the season started, and something was off. For the first three weeks, LeVert struggled to put the ball in the basket.
“Just one of those things,” said LeVert. “Maybe putting extra pressure on myself as well, just eager to play well. Because I felt like I had a really good summer. Just eager to come out here and play well. For whatever reason I struggled a little bit for the first games.”
If LeVert’s early-season struggles were puzzling, they were also an aberration. Since the Nets returned home from an early-season West Coast trip in mid-November his production has charted steadily upward.
“I’m glad he’s really starting to get his groove now, but I was surprised he didn’t get off to a better start,” said Nets coach Kenny Atkinson. “It’s funny, there’s a fine line with guys being in their comfort zone and their comfort role. I don’t think he found his role in the beginning of the year and now he’s starting, almost by happenstance and a little bit of just how our lineups, he’s kind of found his niche as that second unit backup guard.
“We obviously put him in at end of games where he can play off the ball. It’s kind of a neat role for him, he’s really settled into a nice niche right now, and he’s obviously got the ball in his hands a lot more than the beginning of the year. I think in the beginning he was just kind of spotting up all the time. He’s much more dynamic than that, and we’re starting to discover him more.”
Two Nets injuries gave LeVert more responsibility and more opportunity. Lin’s season ended on opening night and D’Angelo Russell was sidelined in November following knee surgery. Dinwiddie became the starting point guard, but the Nets needed somebody else to handle the ball.
LeVert was the natural choice, with his ability to take advantage of pick-and-roll opportunities and put pressure on a defense.
He went for 15 points against the Celtics in Brooklyn’s first game back home on Nov. 14, shooting 6-for-7 from the field and making both his 3-point attempts. Over the next 24 games LeVert scored in double figures 20 times, averaging 13.6 points. He put up a career-high 21 points against Oklahoma City in Mexico City, then topped that with 22 against New Orleans.
All the while, his assists zoomed upward as he settled into a playmaking role. The full range of LeVert’s growing game was on display over the second half of December. In a nine-game stretch capped by his 15 points, eight assists and five rebounds in New Year’s Day win over Orlando, LeVert averaged 15.7 points while shooting 55.6 percent from 3-point range and 57.5 percent overall, in addition to 5.6 assists and 4.2 rebounds per game.
“When you have the ball in your hands, you’re just more comfortable,” said LeVert. “I think that’s definitely playing to my strengths the past month or so. Just having the ball in my hands and making the right decisions, I feel like that’s one of my strengths on the court. That’s definitely helped my confidence for sure.”
There are next steps to take. One is improving on catch-and-shoot opportunities from 3-point range, particularly when Russell returns. As few as two or three shots per game can make a difference in shot selection quality and shooting percentage. At 6-foot-7, LeVert has shown an ability to make tough shots in traffic in the lane. Atkinson thinks, let’s make life a little easier sometimes.
“We want him at the rim,” said Atkinson. “That guy can get to the rim. We love him in pick and roll. I do think he’s got to cut down -- we showed him on film -- degree of difficulty. We say, you’re not going to eat like that. It’s a tough way to live in this league. Granted, end of shot clock you’re going to have make some of those and he can do it, because of his size.”
At the other end, LeVert has embraced the task Atkinson often gives him of taking on the opponents’ best perimeter player, particularly late in games.
“I love guarding that player,” said LeVert. “I love being the guy that goes against the best player, tries to stop the best player. That’s just how competitive I am. I like that pressure on myself. So I definitely love when coach does that.”
From playmaking to scoring to defense, these responsibilities have made LeVert a centerpiece of Brooklyn’s youth movement. He’s one of nine players aged 25 or under on the 15-man roster, most of whom are playing significant minutes as they grow together.
“We’re a young team obviously,” said LeVert. “We’re building in that direction. We’re building with young players. I think it’s really fun for all of us because we’re growing together. None of us have it really figured out, except for the older guys, so we’re all trying to figure it out together, and that’s a really fun process, because we’re all playing in games doing it as well. We’re definitely in a great situation, and it’s fun.”