When you’re the worst team in the NBA, you look to the future.
When you’re the Brooklyn Nets, a big part of that future depends on the development of rookie first-rounder Caris LeVert, and sophomore first-rounder Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.
We’re calling them the “Swing Brothers,” two 6’7” 22-year-olds who play out on the wing, swingmen. As Zach Lowe of ESPN wrote of them earlier in the week...
In Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Caris LeVert, the Nets have two versatile kiddos flashing more playmaking chops than anyone expected at this point. That is the value of tossing young guys into a free-flowing system where everyone is allowed to attack scrambling defenses off the bounce...
The Nets are almost fun when they throw LeVert and Hollis-Jefferson out there together, usually at the two forward spots, and let them explore.
It’s a small sample size —their last two games, but both have shown promise. Hollis-Jefferson netted 28 points in 43 minutes of action on 63 percent shooting. LeVert has done much the same, hitting for 22 points in 45 minutes over those two games, hitting 50 percent overall and 44.4 percent from three.
And as our own Reed Wallach noted, there’s a bigger sample of how well the Nets do when the two defensive-minded wings are on the court together.
When RHJ and LeVert are together (215 mins) #Nets are considerably better on both ends and active. +6 ORTG, allowing 3 less points per100.— Reed Wallach (@ReedWallach) January 19, 2017
It’s taken some time for the two to get comfortable. They both lost a lot of games last season, RHJ here in Brooklyn, LeVert in Michigan. (They even share the same orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Martin O’Malley.)
Coming off of a well-documented injury history —three surgeries in three years— LeVert was more of a risk and has been a bit of a surprise. He’s made an impression in his first 21 games since returning to basketball, slowly building his case in January.
In over 22 minutes per game this month, LeVert is posting averages of 8.6 points, 2.3 rebounds and 1.9 assists on 48.3% shooting, and has just scratched the surface of his sky-high defensive potential, being trusted with guarding elite NBA talent, like Mr. LeBron James himself ... which he spoke about after practice on Wednesday.
"That's something that I actually look forward to and take personal,” LeVert told reporters. “I've always felt like I had the tools to be a good defender. I'm long and quick, I'm still working on my strength obviously, but like I said I feel like I have the tools, I just have to go out there and do it. Coach (Kenny Atkinson) trusts me to play against guys like Paul George, LeBron and (DeMar) DeRozan, so that's my job to go out there and compete.”
The former Michigan Wolverine has also earned the trust of his teammates (and coaching staff) in big spots on both ends of the floor, and while his offensive numbers aren’t (yet) jaw-dropping, LeVert has demonstrated that he possesses everything needed to be a potential force in the league, which is what the Nets thought of him in June, when he was just off crutches. They had him pegged as a lottery pick, if healthy, in their internal mock draft.
“When you're making plays - your teammates trust you a little bit more,” he said. “The ball kind of finds you a little bit more. There's still things that I'm learning every day. I feel like I'm getting into more of a rhythm as I play."
Meanwhile, his potential-packed buddy Hollis-Jefferson has had a good January too. In 19 minutes, he’s averaged 8.9 points, laying off the three point shot. He’s taken only one this month and missed it. During this stretch, the hyper athletic Arizona Wildcat is shooting an efficient 44.2 percent from the floor and 85.2 percent on free throws while grabbing nearly five boards per contest.
The hard-working Hollis-Jefferson says that he’s grown more comfortable in his offensive game, which has to ring true to his long-suffering fans. He missed 50 games last season and he seemed to be having a bit of a tough time adjusting this season.
"I understand my role and what I need to do, and just having fun at the end of the day,” RHJ said Wednesday afternoon. “All that comes into play when being aggressive and knowing 'hey, this is your strong point' and taking advantage of it. It's worked tremendously for me.”
As we’ve noted in the past, Hollis-Jefferson memorably put the most time in the gym during training camp and early season practices. After his slow start, he’s picked it up little by little, expressing his newfound comfort level with his jumpshot, especially in the mid-range area.
“Being comfortable coming off the dribble, facing up, shooting, just getting real comfortable, understanding and believing that you could make that shot is a big thing,” he added. “In this game, confidence goes a long way."
What’s next for the two of them? Nets fans would like to see LeVert start. Kenny Atkinson says, be patient. We’ll get there.
“I'd really love for it to be gradual, I think that's best for his development,” Atkinson said of LeVert. “Some guys break through barriers; it'd be one wonderful if he could be one of those guys. He's making a case for more minutes, more of a role, I think that's the honest truth. That's what we're all saying when we're watching these games."
As for Hollis-Jefferson’s improvements, hard-work aside, he also credits one special practice, which is keeping him in the right frame of mind throughout a grueling 2016-17 campaign; prayer.
"Before the game I try to pray,” Hollis-Jefferson admitted. “In the beginning of the season I went through it, played or whatever. Wasn't really at my strong point but I started to pray more. Doing that consistently has definitely been working for me. It's definitely relaxed me. It's helped me with having a clearer mind. I try to ask for a clear mind and for the people that's watching over me to keep watching over me, keep praying for me.”
Fans will keep praying for the Nets and their two young swingmen as their next adventure finds them in New Orleans, where they’ll f face the Pelicans on Friday night in search of their first win this calendar year.
- The Nets’ one reason to be optimistic about their future - Howie Kussoy - New York Post
- Caris LeVert earns Kenny Atkinson’s praise and an increased role - Roger Rubin - Newsday