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NETSDAILY FILM STUDY: Caris LeVert’s impending leap

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NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Miami Heat Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

What a fascinating year it has been for Caris LeVert leading to the 2019-2020 Nets season. LeVert burst onto the NBA landscape during the Nets first 13 games, basically playing the role in the Nets system that D’Angelo Russell later assumed

Then, came his gruesome injury in Minnesota on November 12 that left the Nets in limbo. Russell saved the day and carried the Nets to the postseason. By that point, LeVert was again looking like the player he had been earlier in the season ... and was arguably Brooklyn’s best player in their five-game first round exit against Philadelphia.

Following the season, there was a lot of chatter about the Michigan product’s relationship with Kevin Durant, the two have worked out in the past and is, as Net Income likes to say, an ‘F.O.K.” Friend of Kevin.

The relationship could have been a turning point in Durant’s decision to consider the Nets. As one team executive said, “Kevin really wants to play with Caris.”

LeVert is not expected to have any long-term side effects from his dislocated ankle. His seemingly miraculous recovery put him in a good place to take the next step (so to speak.)

Well, for Brooklyn, it is going to be necessary.

The Nets are surrounding Kyrie Irving with a young, interesting core with Durant out most, if not all of this coming season. So someone on the Nets is going to have to step up their game and make the most of playing alongside the all-world guard. LeVert is the likely candidate. They didn’t call him “Baby Durant” at Michigan for nothing!

LeVert was averaging 18/3/4 before going down with the injury in Minnesota, and was showcasing an enhanced feel for the game, getting by his defenders off the dribble with more ease and great feel in the pick-and-roll.

LeVert has a quick first step, but he isn’t going to try and blow by you, he rocks you back and forth, biding his time, and finishes with crafty head fakes and a deft touch inside. LeVert does like to trap his defender on his back and use his length to stay out of reach.

Or he’ll show his underrated strength to finish around the rim.

LeVert is the opposite of Derek Zoolander. You know, he loves going right.

LeVert generated 1.4 points per possession, which was good for third in the NBA behind Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard. Let’s repeat that: LeVert generated 1.4 points per possession, which was good for third in the NBA behind Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard.

Indeed, LeVert is a great finisher once he picks up some speed downhill. Remember the opening night game winner against the cross-river foe? LeVert fought to get to his right hand ... and iced the game.

A great sign in his development is the rise of LeVert’s inside-the-paint game just off the rim this past season LeVert got shots up in the three-to-nine foot range five percent more than the year prior, and saw his efficiency rise as well. It’s not perfect yet, but LeVert shot 41 percent on those shots this past season, up from 32 percent and 35 percent the two prior years. LeVert’s ability to stay steady in the paint and use his size to rise up and hit a floater, is a nifty trick that could ultimately help him long term getting to the rim.

This could make for an interesting pairing with Irving. The Nets possess three (without Durant) ball-dominant players in Irving, LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie. One of many issues with the Celtics last season was there were too many ball-dominant players besides Irving. There was Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward and Terry Rozier, among others. There were more guys who needed to get their servings of isolations, shots than there were opportunities. In turn, that stopped the ball.

In Brooklyn, the Nets have more floor spacers at their disposal with Joe Harris and the recently acquired Garrett Temple to complement a lineup with LeVert and Irving. The Nets, on average, made 12 more passes per game than the Celtics last season – ironically, the Celtics actually generated more points than the Nets did – so what that tells us is the ball moved a bit more. This isn’t a shot at Boston. It’s just that they had more ball-dominant players on last year’s roster and commanded more touches than Brooklyn did last season.

LeVert can be a beneficiary of Irving’s driving. Once the defense breaks down, LeVert can read the warped defense and take it to the rack, or find a teammate cutting to the basket.

In the above clip, LeVert does a good job of moving into space and beating George Hill off the bounce. It is a great read by LeVert to find a cutting DeMarre Carroll who finishes the nifty floater.

I always thought that LeVert was a bigger point guard and should be handling the ball more and more as he became more accustomed to NBA’s defense and the speed of the game. The clip highlights LeVert’s exceptional vision and a rather tricky pass with Carroll cutting into LeVert’s space, but he recognizes it and finds Carroll for a better look.

LeVert is a willing passer who has uses his burst to find teammates lurking. Here’s a play from earlier in the game.

The shot doesn’t go in but LeVert does a fine job here of blowing past Sterling Brown’s closeout on a Nets offensive rebound and gets into the paint. Once there, LeVert is challenged going for the finish but with the defense collapsing on him, LeVert knows that a teammate should be sliding down to the corner to make the kickout easier for him. Of course, leaving one’s feet isn’t the proper basketball move, but LeVert has strong body control most of the time that he is able to try and fight for a bucket, then decide to kick it out for a safer look all in a split second in the air. The shot doesn’t go in, but LeVert is a willing passer. This type of play showcases an underrated ability of LeVert’s that should help him grow as a player.

Next to Irving, LeVert’s playmaking, quick first step, and burst should make him a nice partner in the starting lineup. LeVert hates the mid-range. Less than nine percent of his shots came from between 10-to-16 feet, less than three percent came from 16 feet to the three-point line. LeVert is either negotiating a screen at the top of the key and fighting to the rim, or hoisting one from beyond the arc.

With a ball handler like LeVert (and Dinwiddie for that matter), Irving will ideally get more spot-up looks. He did a fine job last season as a passer to spot up threats. In isolation sets, LeVert generated 1.4 points per possession on kick-outs, according to Synergy, which would place him in the 92nd percentile of the league. Two seasons prior, he was below average at making that read. He’s growing, and the game is starting to become easier for him.

Here, he draws the switch onto a big and with the shot clock winding down. LeVert doesn’t force up a bad shot. Rather he draws the attention of Cedi Osman, who sells out for the final three seconds of the possession, and D’Angelo Russell gets freed up, then quickly knocks it over to Joe Harris for an easy three. This is the simplicity of the Nets quick-twitch offense that Irving should enjoy, knowing there’s some dead-eye shooters out there. This is simple basketball from LeVert. He strays away from forcing up a shot like he would have there, nor lower his shoulder to draw a foul. It’s simple reads such as this that became apparent as the season progressed.

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LeVert is going to have to get to the line some more to really turn his game around. His free throw rate has hovered at around 25 percent for his career, if he can get that closer to 30-33 percent that is a nice serving a trips to the stripe.

All these little nook-and-crannies are strong points of LeVert’s game, but there are things that need to take a bigger step forward next season for the Nets to top out as a top team in the East. LeVert’s spot up shooting showed flashes as the regular season came to a close and in the postseason, but I need to see a bigger sample size.

He is a solid shooter but does a better job at doing it himself rather than being a threat off the catch. He’d rather work around a screen, step back and take the three than catch it and fire it. The shot is there. He has sound mechanics, maybe a bit too slow.

Playing with Irving, LeVert is going to need to become a stronger catch-and-shoot threat. Could it be a bit muddled right now, based on last year’s results? He shot sub-30 percent on catch-and-shoot attempts deemed “unguarded” by Synergy. If LeVert continues to see open looks, but gets that percentage up to around 35%, does the perception of his shooting change? This is where we should see a noticeable difference in #22’s game next season. If he can see those three’s fall off of Irving’s creation, Kenny Atkinson is going to have some fun game playing the two together.

So, everyone talks about a “leap” ... when a player really takes his game to the next level. We see it every year, usually players who are in the Most Improved Player conversation or younger guys who just take their game to a higher threshold and to a new level. Pascal Siakam ... and yes, D’Angelo Russell, come to mind.

This is going to be LeVert’s fourth year, the last of his rookie contract so it’s a big year for him.

LeVert does have a bit of an injury history with his lower body, but there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be at full strength heading into the year. Last year saw a bit of a dip in his efficiency numbers as he transitioned back to full strength. His 3-point percentage dropped from 34 percent to 31 and his true shooting percentage, a more holistic view of a shot making, dropped from 52 percent to slightly above 50. There’s no reason that a stronger, healthier LeVert can bring those numbers back up. LeVert isn’t as young as most players entering their fourth year nowadays, He’ll be 25 when the season starts,

Projecting the Nets with Irving isn’t a seismic difference from the Nets with D’Angelo Russell. Other than the big acquisitions, the Nets have added some new faces but the roster construction remains the same. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson may be gone, but David Nwaba has arrived. DeMarre Carroll may be gone, but Taurean Prince has arrived.

LeVert won’t put up gaudy stats in this Nets system this coming season. Not that he isn’t capable, but it does seem that Irving will be running the show with LeVert playing Goose to his Maverick. LeVert could put up 17/5/5 on 44/35/73, a fair but substantial jump in play. That’s nearly his per-36 numbers last season, so with a larger data point and good health, it’s reasonable LeVert could reach that level of season-long production. That’s also similar to what LeVert posted before he was injured last season.

I don’t see a scoring boom, but I do see an efficiency boom. The Nets roster will have a player in DeAndre Jordan who’s likely to be a more effective offensive weapon than the departed Ed Davis. Dzanan Musa may be able to provide more of a scoring punch off the bench. Garrett Temple has a better BBIQ than Treveon Graham. A rising tide lifts all boats.

The Nets offensive philosophy is seen clearly in LeVert’s game: move quickly, but efficiently and always probe for the best shot, even if that’s you going and getting the bucket. LeVert stays within the flow of the offense and I think that he can be a strong running mate next to Irving. His talent won’t be ignored.

LeVert is due over $2 million this coming season, and then will hit restricted free agency following the year. The Nets have until the day before the 2019 regular season starts to offer LeVert an extension. That brings up an interesting question: does LeVert commit to Brooklyn early, at what may be below his true market value or does he bet on himself to go out and earn a higher payday next July.

Looking at some of the contracts doled out over the past few years can provide a guide, Myles Turner received a four-year, $72 million contract extension from the Pacers last season, while Gary Harris received a four-year $84 million deal from the Nuggets.

So, the Nets could offer LeVert something on the order of four years and $90 million, which LeVert can decline and the Nets can re-open negotiations next summer. The Nets would prefer getting things done now in part so they can do long-term salary planning. They would have Durant, Irving, Jordan and LeVert (as well as Rodions Kurucs and Nicolas Claxton) on long term deals.

Pre-injury, it seemed like it was all clicking for LeVert. He was confident, strong to the rim and it seemed that he was going to be the leading man in Brooklyn for years to come. Things changed and while the Nets still were able to snag Durant and Irving in free agency, the next big question for Brooklyn is who is going to step up and form a Big Three.

Why not start with “Baby Durant?”