No player on the 2020 Brooklyn Nets’ roster is more divisive than Caris Coleman LeVert. None. Coming into the season, LeVert was look at (by most) as a potential All-Star following his exceptional playoff series against the Philadelphia 76ers, in which the then-24-year-old put up 21 points, three assists, 4.6 rebounds and a slashing line of 49.3/46.2/72.4 in just 28.8 minutes per game. His fourth-year breakout felt, dare I say it, practically inevitable, and most penciled him in as that pristine complementary third-star playing next to those heaven-bestowed superstar imports, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
Fast-forward three-ish months into the season, and because of a month-long absence from the floor (ligament damage to his right thumb), new opinions on the cornerstone stud have sprouted up during these winter months like Snowdrop flowers.
There are the select few that still hold Caris to that All-Star ceiling, but as of now, these folks are far outnumbered by those who have tempered their expectations substantially. Some view him in a more Sixth-man sparkplug mold (think: an East Coast Will Barton) due to LeVert’s lingering limitations as an incomplete player (his defense, playmaking and outside shooting all need work). Others see LeVert as a solid starter next to Kyrie Irving, but not to the degree of joining his backcourt homie on an All-Star roster. Of course, there are the fans (and analysts!) who ponder LeVert’s trade value, measuring his semi-attractive three-year $52.5 million contract and tangible upside as transaction fodder for other, bigger chips. But then that becomes: What’s his true value to other teams? Does that long list of injuries greater hinder his value? What is “fair” exchange for such a unique, somewhat unquantifiable player?
This, my friends, is why LeVert has become a line in the sand for those associated with the Nets; he’s a measurement of how you – yes, you! – feel about this specific group of players and the potential upside of this possible title-contender. You’re on one side or the other.
You now understand why Caris LeVert’s “value” has become the bane of my existence. I’ve spent more hours than I would like to admit mulling over his future with the Brooklyn Nets. So look, to avoid spinning my wheels further, let’s shift gears to a recent two-minute first-quarter stretch versus the Philadelphia 76ers, in which Caris LeVert reminded us all of how special he (still) could become.
I’m not breaking news here, but first-overall pick Zion Williamson made national headlines for scoring 17 points in three minutes. While Caris’ stretch of scoring (and passing!) wasn’t as voluminous as the transcendent rookie’s inaugural performance, LeVert’s closeout to Monday’s first-quarter harkened back to those memorable off-the-bench explosions versus Philadelphia from April. The inklings of an extremely comfortable Caris LeVert was apparent early. Caris checked in at the 6:39 mark and within his first minute, he dished a crafty dump-off pass to his 2019 first-round series buddy, Jarrett Allen. Take note of how LeVert jumps into the air, sucking in Kyle O’Quinn – who likely expected LeVert to launch one of his patented tear-drop (snow drop?) floaters – before flipping a 5-foot chest pass to Allen for the dunk.
Let’s jump to the real fun and fast-forward to the two-minute mark of the first. A simple high pick-and-roll with Nicolas Claxton left Raul Neto in the dust, and LeVert barely squeezed by the body of his rookie center before locking into that lethal first step. There are times when we forget about Caris’ unreal physical gifts, and LeVert treated Kyle O’Quinn like a yellow light in a traffic jam before elevating into that delightful LeVertical leap (ugh, bad joke) for a layup at the cup. “Got ‘em” screamed a delighted spectator. I couldn’t agree more.
One possession later (a Furkan Korkmaz made three) and LeVert was back at it again, handling the ball like the de-facto backup floor general we (and by that, I mean: me) expected him to become. Once again, a simple side pick-and-roll with Nicolas Claxton, and Caris snaked into the painted area with control and astute awareness of his surroundings. As Caris veers around the pick, notice how Dzanan Musa cuts toward the weakside corner, forcing Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot to rotate to the nail. I’ll let our friendly neighborhood spectator explain the rest: “Got ‘em! Count that, biiiihhh!” (Can someone please give this man a Sports Emmy?)
Speeding ahead 50 seconds and with the Sixers up 29-28, LeVert pushed the ball up the floor after a pair of Philadelphia free throws. To initiate, Nicolas Claxton strolled over to the right side of Josh Richardson’s body for a pick, yet this time, Caris rejected the screen and powered his way into the teeth of the defense. In driving before the screen was even set, LeVert’s defender (Richardson) was completely caught off guard, his feet performing a shuffle you might see at a Lil Uzi Vert show.
Two dribbles into his drive and with the undersized 6’9” center Kyle O’Quinn standing in his path, LeVert sprung into the air like a novelty snake-in-a-can prank toy, lofting his aforementioned floater from 10 feet out.
And then finally, my favorite of all: After Philadelphia came up short with a Raul Neto three-pointer, Caris handled the ball near the mid-court line. With Richardson defending high, LeVert crossed to his right. At this point, Nicolas Claxton flew in Caris’ direction, preparing for a sturdy pick-and-roll. But as LeVert drew closer to the right sideline, Claxton slipped and rolled his way to the rim, his hands raised high as he called for the ball.
The angle just wasn’t there. Caris LeVert crossed again – this time to his left – and jolted toward the middle of the floor with just 5 measly seconds remaining on the shot-clock. Claxton, his energetic big man clad in those sharp gray Brooklyn threads, slipped further toward the left dunkers spot, his dangling arms waiving frantically in the event that the rock was tossed his way.
And, well, that’s exactly what happened. LeVert elevated off his left, flipped a soft throw-in style pass to Claxton, who laid the ball home to put the Nets up three.
These 120 seconds reminded us all exactly who Caris LeVert could (will?) become. While oscillating between setting up teammates and scoring at will, Caris accounted for all nine Brooklyn points to close out the quarter. While his role on this Nets team with such lofty expectations is still fairly TBD, it’s clear he has the talent to carry the offense when called upon.
Now the question becomes: How can Kenny Atkinson channel this specific iteration of Caris LeVert with more frequency?