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FILM STUDY: Caris LeVert returns! LeGood, LeBad, LeAllTheRest

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Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

The Book of Genesis lays forth the creation of Earth, this planet we live and thrive on. I’m sure you’ve heard it before; on the first day, God said, “let there be light,” and thus, light was born. On the second, the sky (or firmament as stated in scripture) was created. The third, the ground with vegetation. Day four: the stars, moon and sun. On the fifth day, God created sea creatures and our fluttering friends above. Day six, us! Well, human beings and other land critters. And then, on that final day, God entered the Sabbath, otherwise known as the day of rest.

What the Book of Genesis didn’t portray was Day 8. The day that Caris LeVert, the crowned prince of Brooklyn, who once rained cruel dunks, crispy passes and fiery arrows in the form of ankle-breakers on the poor city of Philadelphia; he returned to that revamped Barclays floor.

Was that the dumbest two paragraphs I’ve ever written? Probably. Am I becoming the Nicholas Sparks of sports-writing melodrama? I mean sure, yeah, I’ll take that. But make no mistake, the excitement for Caris LeVert’s return to action after missing seven weeks due to right thumb surgery was undeniably tangible. The crowd exploded the second his (what looked to be) PreHeat-influenced white-and-blue Kyrie 6 customs made contact with that sharp gray Brooklyn hardwood.

In just 16 minutes on the floor, Caris gave us all a whole lot to chew on: 13 points (to the tune of 5-of-7 shooting!), 1 assist, 3 turnovers and a whole lot more. Here is LeGood, LeBad and LeAllTheRest from Caris’ first game back.

LeGood

This isn’t brain science: 13 points in 16 total minutes on 71.6 percent shooting is quite decent. No, better yet, it’s exceptional given all the time missed.

Oddly enough, 4 of his 5 makes came from jump-shots, a style of scoring that doesn’t scream “Caris LeVert’s forte.” Prior to yesterday’s game, LeVert, a career 33.3 percent three-point shooter, had nailed a solid 13 of his 36 total threes (36.1 percent). A solid 2-for-2 night against Toronto bumped that 2020 percentage up to 39.5 percent (if this doesn’t give you an idea of why sample size matters, I don’t know what will).

Interestingly enough, neither one of these three-point buckets came from easy catch-and-shoot looks. The first was a jitterbug stepback. The second, a pull-up trey with Fred VanVleet’s arm waiving frantically in LeVert’s face.

Now look, let’s pause for a second or so. Brief tangent, but I want to be completely transparent with you all. The next couple of months for young Caris’ development could be incredibly instrumental in regards to his Nets’ future. If the 3-point stroke like the one seen above is real, then I could easily see him ascending into his pre-season coronation as Star No. 3. However, if last night’s performance was more of an aberration, then, well, with a fairly cheap contract and still plenty of upside, that road gets a little tougher. Caris’ 3-point buckets put my mind and physical senses in a total stranglehold; with a low-release point and strange follow-through, my eyes scream “NO!” as Caris pulls the trigger. But the results? Let’s just say my brain confidently responds, “damn, that’s tough to argue.”

What I do like, and with no reservations, is when Caris bombards from the midrange. Per NBA stats, he’s only taken nine mid-rangers on the season (and made four!). So any numerical impressions should be taken with a healthy grain of salt.

With that in mind, this evaluation is almost completely deviated from the good old eye-test. Take a look at the pair of mid-range successes versus Toronto. Perhaps my eyesight is fooling me, but don’t these shots appear… stupendously fluid?

It’s worth noting that the first shot in the video above, a fadeaway 11-footer, was the spark that ignited Caris’ hot shooting night. After 7 weeks off, it has to mean something that Caris chose to take this specific drought-breaking shot -- a mid-range attempt -- as his first of the night.

Beyond just pure scoring, Caris made a concerted effort to involve his (many) new teammates throughout the entirety of Saturday night. A well-respected driver for the majority of his four-year career, one of Caris’ most intriguing off-ball traits is that relentless willingness to attack off the catch with robust enthusiasm. Before even receiving the ball at the wing, Caris’ feet are practically emitting smoke while revving up in the starting blocks, and he’s ready to propel into that lightning quick first step.

This, of course, places the Raptors in a tricky little predicament; stay home on Brooklyn’s shooters, or halt the unstoppable force that is Caris LeVert with a full head of steam. Toronto’s defenders, undefeated NBA champion Patrick McCaw and former Net Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, reluctantly chose the latter, and BOOM, THREE-POINTS BROO---oh wait, never mind. (Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, finish the damn job!)

This one had the fans at the Barclays Center screaming with pure delight; it gave me shades of Game 4 versus Philadelphia just 8 months ago. Caris received the ball courtesy of a DeAndre Jordan handoff and paused for just a smidgen. Then suddenly, off to the races he went, as Caris turned the corner and meandered his way down the lane. Notice how, with a live-dribble, Caris toggles between full and half sprint, in a manner that’s so dangerously Harden-esque. Now at the basket, Caris exploded ahead, his body almost tumbling over the baseline, and he used his Go Go Gadget arms to wrap-around a dime to his big, DeAndre Jordan.

One last passing highlight. This one’s of the hockey assist variety. Nothing too crazy, just a drive from the wing that circles underneath the basket, and then a skip pass to Wilson Chandler.

You might be wondering: Matt, why include this “highlight?” What exactly is so “special” about this play?

Well reader, this goes to show the value of guys who can actually fucking dribble more than 5 times.

It’s funny how frighteningly important that simple skillset has become for the 2020 Nets.

LeBad

Overall, LeVert’s return yielded mostly positive results. However, two early-season bad habits reared their ugly heads.

Let’s begin with turnovers, of which LeVert recorded three on the night. Again, LeVert had himself a mostly fruitful night as a passer. But his rather unfortunate tendency to get caught in the air showed face… not just once…

But twice…

Leaping into the air, ready to pass, without -- you know -- an actual target is a cardinal sin that will continue to produce turnovers a la mode.

But no, my biggest gripe with LeVert’s reappearance was his efforts on the other side of the floor. Back in 2018, ESPN’s Zach Lowe pegged the 23-year-old Caris LeVert as an All-Defensive teamer -- in Lowe’s words -- “one day.”

As many of you may remember, Caris LeVert was pulled from two crunch-time situations in his first 9 games due to poor defensive effort according to coach Kenny Atkinson. For good reason, too. Per Synergy Stats, LeVert is one of two Brooklyn players to rank within the 11th percentile or worse as an overall defender. Yikes. (The other is Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot).

I hate to produce nervous hand-wringing and cold sweats, but against Toronto, while he wasn’t terrible per say, there was some heedless defensive effort.

To turn up the microscope a couple notches and fully identify LeVert’s “pain points” as a defender (can you tell I have a sales background yet?), let’s again refer to our friends at Synergy Sports. Per Synergy, Caris LeVert has ranked within the 6th percentile in defending pick-and-roll ball-handlers. Yeah, not great from the supposed centerpiece to a gritty Brooklyn defense. This season, Caris LeVert has usurped Spencer Dinwiddie’s title as “Nets guard who cannot figure out how to maneuver around screens.” (Dinwiddie’s actually been pretty good about screen-reading this season.)

A great example…

The play begins with Toronto’s Fred VanVleet receiving the ball at the logo. Upon receiving it, the soon-to-be free agent stands for a couple seconds – completely motionless – while his big man, Serge Ibaka, also remains stagnant in a screen-setting stance. LeVert, at this point, is stuck on Ibaka’s body, his shoulder located squarely in the middle of the Toronto center’s chest.

Here’s where the play gets wonky.

No one, and I mean no one, moves a muscle. Not VanVleet with a headfake. Not Ibaka with a re-screen. But worst of all, not even Caris, who continues to remain rigid in stature, completely disregarding the fact that there’s a giant 235-pound man in his way should VanVleet dribble to his left. Which, by the way, he does. Quite happily as a matter of a fact. Two dribbles to the left, Caris LeVert gets caught on the screen, and VanVleet detonates for a laughably easy pull-up three.

I can already hear it now: but, but, but Maaaaatt, Ibaka set a moving screen. That’s CHEATING!!!

While, yes, this may be true, but Caris had a full second and a half to squeeze around that Ibaka screen. Shoot, man, just do something. Had he tried to get over the screen, he could have A) actually defended VanVleet’s outside shot or B) drawn an offensive foul on Ibaka with him (likely) shifting his footing.

One last clip: LeVert displaying that early-season pattern of losing track of shooters. (See: first New York Knicks game)

To start, VanVleet carves into the paint out of a side pick-and-roll. With Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot caught on the screen, Wilson Chandler rotates correctly to pick up the suddenly open VanVleet. Meanwhile, on the other side of the floor, OG Anunoby – an awesome screener, by the way -- catches Spencer Dinwiddie with a darling of a backscreen, and Kyle Lowry leaks from the wing to right corner.

With all of this happening, instead of watching the action on the weak side (with Lowry spotting up in the right corner), notice how LeVert becomes distracted with the show at the center of the floor. With the opportunity to salvage the possession, LeVert doesn’t double to stop the ball, he definitely loses track of his original man (Anunoby). And yes, worst of all, he outright fails to bail-out his teammate Spencer Dinwiddie, hung up on Anunoby’s screen, with a well-timed switch, leading to that wide-open Lowry three (This is the best basketball decision possible. I’m repeating myself, aren’t I?)

He just stands there doing… nothing.

LeAllTheRest

Caris LeVert’s return showed promise. Lots and lots of promise. With basically the entire team on the goddamn IR, it’s of the upmost importance that the talented Caris LeVert remains healthy. As one of the few guys who can shoot off the dribble, pass off the dribble, finish in traffic off the dribble… shoot, just dribble period, LeVert could be the secret ingredient in helping this bottom-four Brooklyn offense zoom up the leaderboard. Even more important, with his ball-handling and facilitation prominence, LeVert could change the fates for Brooklyn’s bench unit, a group that has fallen to the bottom-7 in scoring after a top-2 finish a season ago.

He’s just got a couple of things he still needs to work on. That’s all.