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Caris LeVert: a leap of faith that may become a star turn

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NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Caris LeVert was never a sure thing. Not after three foot surgeries in four years at Michigan, not after the third in particular where a surgeon took a piece of his hip bone and grafted it on to his ankle to improve its strength.

As Jonathan Givony of Draft Express and ESPN wrote recently, many medical staffs on other teams simply said, forget him, take him off your boards altogether. The Nets medical staff, which includes the surgeon who did that bone graft, was of the opposite opinion. As a result, the highest any mock draft had him was 38th by Draft Express. The Nets believed in his potential so much that they traded one of their top players, Thaddeus Young, for the 20th pick that became LeVert and a second rounder that may not be used until 2023.

Sean Marks told Woj last week that he had to clear the deal with ownership and they gave him the green light.

“We have to outline that risk to ownership, say, ‘Look, we’re going to take a guy with the 20th pick and likely he won’t play for a year.’ … That Mikhail bought into it was terrific.”

Then, there was patient rehab the first year when he played 57 games, which was all about getting him used to the NBA transition. Last year was more of the same, finding out where he needed to improve, make the next step. Which he did.

“I do remember the struggles, but we all had a sense he was going to be really good because his preseason was really good, his practice time this offseason was really good,” Kenny Atkinson told Brian Lewis. “He’s reached another level of understanding of the league, understanding of himself. He understands the pace of the game better.

“He’s worked really hard on his shot, on his offensive game, so it’s not a surprise. In preseason he was the best player from Day 1, so it’s not a surprise, his good start. The challenge for him now is to do it for a long period of time, to do it consistently. But we’ve been thrilled.”

It’s increasingly easy to argue that LeVert took the curse off one of the mistakes in the Boston trade of five years ago. The Nets traded Kevin Garnett, who they acquired for one of those picks, for Young in 2015. Then Marks traded Young for two picks, one of them LeVert, on Draft Night 2016. The Celtics took Jaylen Brown out of Cal at No. 3. Now the question is, is LeVert better than Brown?

That argument would seem silly a year ago. As Lewis points out, a year ago this week, LeVert was averaging 10.2 points, shooting 36 percent overall and only 22.2 percent from deep. Now? 20.5 points, 49.1, and 35.3.

Other coaches and pundits have noticed and told Lewis what they think.

“The kid’s a big-time talent. He’s a good player, an explosive athlete. He can really put the ball on the floor, his 3-ball has improved tremendously. He’s a competitor. … That kid can play,” Knicks coach David Fizdale said.

Caris LeVert is tough,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr, whose team will face LeVert on Saturday in Oakland, Calif. “He’s a slasher, ball-handler. He can get into the paint. He’s big, so he can finish in the paint.”

The next step, Lewis writes, is a consistent jumper. That’s the only thing standing between him and stardom.

“If he can hit that 3 off pick-and-rolls, he’s going to be unstoppable,” Jared Dudley said.

“Part of the curse of a really good athlete and a driver is that’s what they want to do all the time,” Atkinson said. “He’s got to find that balance between [driving and shooting], and he’s starting to find it.”

He’s already found a lot.