Brooklyn Nets, NBA

Caris LeVert was propelling the Brooklyn Nets towards the playoffs

The game was on the line and Gary Harris was in Caris LeVert’s grill, practically tucked inside his Brooklyn Nets jersey next to him. But the third-year wing was unfazed. He twisted and turned, took two dribbles to his left and hesitated. Harris relented for a brief moment before reaching into LeVert’s airspace and putting himself in a compromised position. The door was open for LeVert to bolt into the lane and be the hero. So, he donned a superhero cape and did just that.

With that bucket, LeVert pushed the Nets to 6-6, extending their winning streak to three games — squarely in the early race for a playoff spot out East — and further solidified himself as the initial leader in the clubhouse for the 2018-19 Most Improved Player award.

Just four days later, his breakout season came to a crashing halt, when he was stretchered off the court with an injury to his right foot during the final seconds of the first half against the Minnesota Timberwolves. The result of the play drew parallels to Paul George and Gordon Hayward’s injuries — two All-Stars prior to their surgeries who haven’t quite been able to kick it into high gear since, though the former has been plenty good still while the latter is fewer than 20 games removed from a yearlong absence.

Many speculated an outright fracture for LeVert, a career-altering setback that can sap a player of their zeal and verve, traits his game are predicated on. Yet Tuesday morning brought with it relatively positive news: a dislocated foot and the chance to make a return this season — providing long-term hope for Brooklyn.

Entering Monday, LeVert was averaging 19.2 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.3 steals on a career-high 56.2 percent true shooting, carrying out much of the star potential peaking through during his first two years. He was restoring some shine on the once-tarnished Brooklyn franchise as the team was eighth in the East prior to Monday’s game.

By NBA parameters, the Boston Celtics committed grand larceny against the Nets in 2013 and made them a laughingstock for seasons to come. Since his hiring in February 2016, Nets general manager Sean Marks, short on lottery picks to unearth cornerstone talent, has methodically been acquiring assets to lead Brooklyn back to relevancy.

When he landed D’Angelo Russell in the 2017 offseason, some thought he would become the franchise nucleus. Then, one-time castoff Spencer Dinwiddie canned clutch shots and whirled snappy passes to inspire hope he could be the man.

But in the early portion of the season, LeVert, who was acquired from the Indiana Pacers for Thaddeus Young, snatched the keys to Brooklyn’s sports car and debuted the game of a star.

Head coach Kenny Atkinson’s offensive scheme relies on multiple ball-handlers — hence the prominent role Russell, Dinwiddie and LeVert all own — and the University of Michigan product fit concordantly.

On the ball, he was Brooklyn’s jailbreak scorer — exactly the type of player Atkinson’s offense has longed for late in games when the free-flowing attack slows down and it’s time for a bucket.

LeVert ranked in the 83rd percentile (1.03 points per possession) as a pick-and-roll ball-handler and was roasting switches in isolation (97th percentile, 1.27 PPP). Nurturing those marks was his 57 percent shooting on forays to the tin, which ranked 10th among the 91 players with 60-plus drives before Monday.

Owning one of the quickest first steps in the league, LeVert scooted inside with ease. Unlike many premier finishers at the rim who dazzle with aerial displays, he’s a ground-bound acrobat who tilts defenders off rhythm with ball and body fakes to create space at a rate most can’t emulate — and he does so all over the court:

As Brooklyn explores Russell’s long-term viability and plays him at lead guard, LeVert was also shifting off the ball and maintaining value. He netted 36.7 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3-pointers this year as they were finally outpacing his pull-up triple volume for the first time in his career.

Despite never ranking higher than the 28th percentile as a cutter, LeVert had at least allotted a bigger portion of his usage to that scoring medium. Through 13 games, he’d tallied 18 cutting possessions — he notched just 37 his first two years in the league — and posted the best points-per-possession clip of his career at 1.11.

When defenders overplay him or fixate on the ball, the third-year wing showed a knack for waltzing toward the basket:

His efficiency had been subpar but the important development is that he looked to capitalize on those opportunities more often. It increases his offensive flexibility, making him a better complement to players (i.e.: Russell and Dinwiddie) with an on-ball disposition, especially when paired with his newfound trait to hoist more catch-and-shoot triples while trimming his pull-up 3s frequency.

What’s scariest about LeVert’s potential is that he’s still learning how to functionally apply his natural athleticism. At times, he resembles a newborn fawn,  bouncing around the court erratically and tossing up ill-advised or challenging shots. He reduced those instances this year but they were still apparent and even periodically occurred on made field goals:

It might have been tough for LeVert to average nearly 20 points the entire year — he converted an unsustainable 58.3 percent of his shots between 3 and 10 feet — and Brooklyn was 11.7 points better per 100 possessions defensively without him, largely because he’s a fly caught in a spider’s web on screens, but his breakout gave the franchise new hope. Avoiding significant ligament damage and surgery is the thick, glossy silver lining of his injury.

The Nets have dropped both games since LeVert went down, slipping to 10th in the East with a minus-1.1 net rating (as of Nov. 15). While another year outside the playoffs could be difficult to swallow, it might also be the best long-term outcome. LeVert has the makings of a future star but the franchise needs more players with his upside. Jarrett Allen is another encouraging youngster but landing a lottery pick and solidifying a core trio is the proper way to execute this full-blown rebuild.

Next: The Jimmy Butler trade has ripple effects across the Eastern Conference

With two game-winners to his name this year, LeVert wielded the tools of a go-to scorer — a vital piece for playoff teams and a weapon the Nets have lacked in seasons past. Given the impact Thaddeus Young has made for the Pacers, it’s unlikely they ever sense much regret for shipping out LeVert but in hindsight, there’s a chance some might view that deal as a heist for Brooklyn in the coming years, with the gangly 24-year-old approaching stardom — before and after his injury.

All stats were accurate before the start of games on Nov. 11. 

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