When the Sean Marks-led Brooklyn Nets front office drafted Caris LeVert in June 2016, many were surprised – some pissed off.
Little was known of the Michigan alum, or the great interest Brooklyn had in him; first trading their second-best player, Thaddeus Young to get the 20th pick, then risking the pick on LeVert, who was projected as a late second rounder because of an extensive injury history in college, highlighted by multiple foot surgeries.
Marks was all-in. Kenny Atkinson was a little resistant at first, but quickly joined.
“Sean told me when we drafted him, he kept emphasizing ‘This kid can play point guard ... eventually.’ That was the thought process and I was ‘Eh ... you know. We’ll see,’” said Atkinson Saturday.
Many fans were befuddled. It was Marks’ first big move and it raised eyebrows.
But part of the allure for Marks was LeVert’s playmaking ability, which complemented an already versatile skillset. Every year at Michigan, his assist number improved, in particular his final two of four seasons at Michigan, where he dished out 3.7 per contest in 18 games played as a junior and 4.9 in 15 senior year appearances. He was both the secondary playmaker, and fill-in point guard.
Just over two years since his final appearance with the Wolverines, we’re seeing said dime distribution in real-time. When LeVert is at his best, he’s a deadeye from three, effective on defense, and creating for others … not just himself.
“That’s just naturally how I play,” said LeVert of his point guard attributes, which have him dishing out 5.3 assists per game since March 4. “I don’t know if I would say (I was) eager to show it. It just comes out when I play the game. I think that’s one of the things you see right away, just how unselfish I am on the court. I don’t really care about stats or anything like that, I just want to win.”
And Atkinson now admits, “He definitely has that in his DNA.”
The Nets haven’t done a lot of winning this season, especially recently. However, LeVert has been an integral part of many the Nets effort, win or lose, namely the most recent triumph, a 14-point win in Charlotte.
Against the Hornets, the 6’7” Swiss army knife shot 8-of-15 from the floor and ended the game with 22 points and eight assists in less than 30 minutes of play. Similarly, he erupted for a career-best 27 points two games prior, a three-point loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, an effort where LeVert hit 5-of-7 from deep and recording five assists.
This season, at 4.0 assists per game, LeVert ranks ninth among shooting guards and is tied for 20th in the league among non-point guards.
“The great thing about him is with all of the switching going on in this league, he can go by anybody,” said Atkinson of LeVert. “That’s huge that he can break the defense down when they do switch. In a traditional pick-and-roll, he can obviously make a pass.”
LeVert was also forced to man more of the point guard duties during D’Angelo Russell’s injury, which sidelined him from mid-November through his January 19 return.
LeVert appeared in 30 games while Russell rehabbed from knee surgery, recording 13.2 points and 4.8 assists in 27.2 minutes per contest.
“I think (I) adapted, and had more opportunity,” LeVert said. “Obviously with D’Angelo being hurt for a majority of the season – and then sometimes when Spencer (Dinwiddie) gets in foul trouble, I’m forced to play a little bit more on the ball.”
LeVert even joked at Dinwiddie’s expense about Din’s foul troubles, which have taken him out of games earlier than Atkinson may want, on occasion.
“All the time, all the time. Spence be hacking,” LeVert delivered with a smile.
With what looks to be another 20-something win season, the Nets do have developing young players heading into a big 2018 offseason, one of whom is LeVert, who continues to grow as an all-around contributor as the Nets look to establish their core.