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Caris LeVert: ‘We put the league on notice’

Philadelphia 76ers v Brooklyn Nets - Game Four Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

In a podcast with Adrian Wojnarowski, Caris LeVert talks about how he and the Nets changed things around this season and how he believes it’s just the foundation for a greater future ... despite the loss in the first round of the playoffs.

“We put the league on notice,” the Nets star told Woj, summing up the season. No longer, he said, will the Nets be “underrespected and overlooked.” Even the playoff loss to Philly served a purpose, LeVert said. Every game was on TV, he noted, after the Nets had only one nationally televised game before the playoffs. People saw the team refusing to give up, playing an exciting game.

The 45-minute podcast touched on a variety of subjects from his interview with the Nets prior to the 2016 Draft —Sean Marks first— to what he’s learned working out with Kevin Durant to how even without a superstar signing, he believes the Nets will be an improved club next year, having known both success and failure this season. He also spoke in depth about his horrific injury last November and how things changed in the ambulance to a Minneapolis hospital.

Going back to the 2016 draft, LeVert admitted that he knew little about the organization before he sat down with them at the Pre-Draft Combine in May, still recovering from his third ankle surgery in three years —but his first where Dr. Martin O’Malley, the HSS foot-and-ankle specialist ahd wielded the scalpel.

“I really didn’t know anything, particularly about the Nets organization. I didn’t really know,” had admitted. “It’s funny. I was in a car about three months before the draft with a couple of my friends and somebody said out of the blue, ‘I bet you can’t name seven players on the Nets right now.’ And I was, ‘I really can’t! Like I don’t know.’ When I got drafted, I really didn’t know many players on the team.

“I really had no idea so when I went in for my draft interview and things like that, it was obviously new coach, new GM, Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson. It was great meeting those guys for the first time but I really didn’t know much about the team. I knew they had stemmed from the Spurs and I know what kind of basketball they wanted to play and I felt that fit my playing style. So I was definitely excited that they were interested in me, but I didn’t know how interested they were in me. That was literally the only time I talked to them. It was a 15-minute conversation and then Draft Day happened.”

The Nets felt good about the interview as well, even if LeVert was on crutches. Marks was reported to have said “That’s a Brooklyn Net right there.” And unlike other GM’s, Marks had two advantages when assessing LeVert’s value: Dr. O’Malley was and is the Nets foot/ankle specialist and he knew his previous employer, the Spurs, who were picking 29th, liked LeVert as well. So trading Thaddeus Young for the 20th pick —and a future second rounder— wasn’t that big of a risk.

LeVert told Woj that his first impression of the Nets was that despite their limited horizon was that the organization was “about basketball, about winning, very competitive, somewhere you want to be around.”

After missing 25 games his rookie season and a solid if unspectacular year in 2017-18, LeVert said he made a commitment last summer. He credited that commitment with this season’s jump.

“This summer I prepared myself unlike any other summer. I sacrificed a lot of things. I kept track of my sleep every single night. My diet changed a whole bunch. I cut out a lot of things from my diet and I watched a lot of film. Basically, I was just obsessed with the game and I tried to take that to a new level,” LeVert said. “And I felt because I did that I came into the season — even the workouts before the season started— I felt like I was a step ahead. I felt I was a step faster. I was more focused. I was just more ready to go. I believe that carried into the season.”

Woj asked about what film he watched as he developed his game.

“I watched a lot of other guys. I watched guys now, at my position, guys like C.J. McCullum, Bradley Beal, Victor Oladipo. I watched guys in the past —Allen Iverson is my favorite player. I watched a lot of Dwyane Wade ... the ‘06 playoffs. I watched Penny Hardaway. And then I watched defensive clips. I watched Paul George, I love basketball, so I’ll watch anything really!”

One inspiration, LeVert admitted, was Kevin Durant who he (and Sean Kilpatrick) worked tou with in California the summer after his rookie year. KD famously told LeVert to be ready for his moment in those sessions, but the Nets guard also said Durant’s work ethic taught him a lesson he’s not forgotten.

“I worked out with him two summers ago and this was his first workout since the championship. I think he had taken a month off. I’m not sure. And I kid you not. He didn’t miss one shot for like the first 30 minutes of the workout. I was all net! Like the ball did not touch the rim. And I’m talking to him after the workout and asking him, ‘you been working out after the season ... you didn’t take any time off after the season?’ And he’s like, ‘No, this is my first workout.’ And I was like, ‘wow.’

“And from that point on, I was like, ‘I got to step my game up ‘cause that’s where I want to be.’ If I take a month off, I’m not even hitting the rim. I’m air balling every shot. I think his focus and his attention to detail is the most impressive thing, how he goes into the workout, just the laser-focus.“

What surprised him most about KD, Woj asked.

“When you see a guy like him, who shoots the ball so well, he’s still fascinated by being able to shoot better. He still wants to be perfect. And that’s something I took from him. He’s not satisfied with 50/40/90. He wants to be better than that. You know what I mean. He wants to be the absolute best.”

“It’s the main thing he told me. The main thing, the main thing. Keep basketball the main thing. Everything else will fall into place. If you just focus this, the short span of time we have as basketball players, then everything else will fall into place.”

LeVert also spoke about his injury back on November 12 in Minneapolis, one that cost him nearly three months and 40 games, but one that could have been much worse. In fact, he thought it would be.

“I tried to make a shot block on the fast break that I probably shouldn’t have went for. I probably couldn’t have got it. But I came down on my ankle. I thought it was a regular ankle sprain, but it was a lot of pain. So I’m probably done for the game. And I looked down and I’m like ‘Yo, I think I’m done for the year’ because my ankle was obviously dislocated but it was facing the wrong way. So I tried not to look at it.

“And obviously, everyone ran on the court. The trainers ran on the court and (lead assistant coach) Jacque Vaughn was trying to keep me calm and just tell me that it’s not over, just stay positive but I mean at that moment, I really wasn’t trying to hear anything. Obviously, I was very. very angry and I really didn’t understand why or what was happening.”

In short, he saw his basketball life flash in front of him.

“I had a goals before the season —a lot of goals— but as soon as I got hurt, everything just ran through my mind, like ‘Man, it’s over with.’ Like I got to do this thing all over again. I got to prepare all over again. I got to do my rehab for a full year. And obviously at that point, I was watching Gordon Hayward and he was kind of struggling coming back a little bit. Obviously, he’s doing great now but at that time, I was thinking, ‘Man, it’s gonna be a while before I feel like myself again, but obviously, you know that wasn’t the case.”

He recounted how he learned things might not be so bad as he was taken by ambulance to a local hospital.

“I was probably 30 minutes after that, I think,” he said. “I was in the ambulance and they put it back in place and they were kind of looking at my leg and saying, ‘we don’t think you broke any bones. We think your ankle is just dislocated. We just put it back in place, I think once you do your rehab, you should be back this year.’

“And I was under some pain medication, so I wasn’t really understanding what they were saying. but sure enough we got another x-ray at the hospital. We got MRI’s the next day when we got back to New York and sure enough, so broken bones, just an ankle dislocation and three months of rehab.“

His return to his pre-injury form took some time. Twice, he went scoreless, once on his bobble-head night —a big embarrassment— on February 27 and again in Los Angeles when the Nets beat the Lakers on March 22. LeVert said the next morning, he and Vaughn had breakfast and talked about his game. The next game, vs. the Blazers, he had 16 points in 24 minutes and felt he was finally back.

LeVert spoke as well about the future ... about how whether it would be a big disappointment if the Nets came away without a superstar this summer. Not a problem, he told Woj. He’s putting his faith in his teammates and the organization.

“I feel any option is a great option for us. Sean and Kenny have done a great job building this team up and we trust them, 100 percent, with what they do this off-season, what they have to do with decisions they have to make,” he told Woj.

“But obviously if we don’t get any free agents, we’re a young team, a competitive team, we built great chemistry together. We had a taste of the playoffs, we have a taste of not really failure but we got beat. We got beat pretty bad in the playoffs and I think that left a bad taste in our mouths. and I feel this off season is going to be like last off-season where we got something to prove.”

This season’s accomplishments are a big, big deal, he said. So is the team’s potential.

“We’re very excited going forward. Obviously, we don’t know what the team is going to look like and that’s a little different. That’s a little different for me, a little different for us, but we’re extremely excited about the future. Like you said, none of us have played our best basketball yet. Our best years are ahead of us and we have experience now. We’re a young team with a lot of experience. So I think that’s going to bode well for the future.

LeVert agreed with Woj’s assessment that this season something else: the development of an organic fan base in Brooklyn. Things changed as the team made their successful playoff push and got into the post-season for the first time in four years. This was, for the first time, a Brooklyn crowd.

“Absolutely. So the first year, my rookie year in Brooklyn, I felt like the fans came out just to see a show. They weren’t necessarily Brooklyn fans. Honestly, more times they were more fans of the other team than us. So when we would play a star —and we still get it now— but when LeBron would come or when D-Wade came a couple of years ago, it was majority their fans,” LeVert admitted.

“But I feel that’s definitely shifting. The culture’s definitely shifting. We have an identity now as a team. And I think, as you said, some of the values —resiliency, togetherness, our work, competitiveness — that’s something we try to build around and I feel that’s something our fans can get behind.”

One thing that hasn’t changed, LeVert said, is that the organization has stuck to his values.

“From Day 1 till today, we’ve had great guys on the team and I think that’s where it starts. We’ve had guys who want to win, competitive guys, guys who help the young guys out and have pushed it the right way. we’re only going in the right direction. That’s why we have so much trust in Sean and Kenny because we know they’re going to bring those type of guys into the locker room.”

So, what’s he planning on for this summer? “Same things I did last summer,” he told Woj. He’s staying in Brooklyn. No L.A., no Miami. New York in the summer, he said, “is a beautiful place to be.”