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FILM STUDY: Caris LeVert at another level. How’d he do it? Can he sustain it?

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Caris LeVert was having, to put it in Brooklyn-speak, a pretty, pretty good season. Then in the week prior to the shutdown, he had a career high 51 points and his first triple double. Matt Brooks looks at all of it.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Brooklyn Nets Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

A quick glance at Caris LeVert’s 2019-2020 season averages of 17.7 points, 4.1 assists, 4.1 rebounds, 41.4 percent from the field and 38.1 percent from three may evoke a reaction along the lines of: “Hm, very solid!… But nothing totally spectacular.”

Fine-tuning that glance into undivided analysis will paint a very different picture of the 25-year-old’s fourth season; from February 1 onward, Caris – crown jewel of Sean Marks’ superstar-seducing rebuilding process – rose to the occasion as the Nets on-court leader, tossing up a cool 23 points, 5.1 assists, 4.7 rebounds, 44 percent from the field and a supremely notable 41.5 percent from the three during that time. All the while, LeVert more than held down the fort defensively, as opponents shot just 42.2 percent from the field with the shooting guard defending – the lowest figure of any Brooklyn starter.

Now to be truthful, even through a pair of the most vibrantly pink rose-colored glasses, calling LeVert’s 2020 season a success in totality would frankly be disingenuous. Caris suffered an untimely injury after a hot start in October (18.5 points on 45.5 percent from the field) and it took some time to fully weave his way back into Brooklyn’s offense; ample struggles were had, significant energy was needed to fully rebuild his confidence, and questions were asked about his star power.

But eventually, after averaging a mere 11.5 points in his first January month of play, and after undergoing an all-expense paid cruise on the seas of the trade rumor mill, Caris LeVert got there. He found himself once more.

This isn’t the first time we’ve witnessed this exact story arc to a Caris LeVert NBA season. 2018-2019 also kicked off nicely for Caris, followed by a breakout-halting injury, a dauntingly slow return to prosperity on the floor, and then… salvation. Don’t believe me? Just have a look at his month-to-month averages from last season (courtesy of ESPN):

(Let’s not forget those postseason averages, either, since they act as the all-encompassing thesis statement to Caris LeVert’s status as a celestial NBA figure.)

Caris LeVert has become somewhat of a mythological character of sorts in Brooklyn; in order to reach his zenith, it’s almost as if he needs to plummet toward rock-bottom, rise from the ashes, and unleash an unholy wrath on any and all who dare question his will. The more he struggles from the floor, the stronger he returns to prominence. It’s what tragic breakups seem to do for Taylor Swift when crafting chart-topping singles, except… you know… basketball. Yeah, enjoy that analogy.

Ascension to stardom is by no means a linear process. Some, like the LakersLeBron James, are struck by the limelight the second they make contact with a basketball. Others, like Toronto’s Pascal Siakam, peek their heads out from the furthest corners of left-field and exceed expectations in an almost historical fashion. (Not to mention Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris!) Regardless of their journey, for the most part, one shared trait seems to unite most star figures in this league: a 3-pointer.

What a fitting place to begin.

Nothing characterizes LeVert’s February breakout more than grotesquely confident, in-your-face pull-up 3-point shooting. In the first clip, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope does all he can to contest this jab-step game-swaying three. There’s not much you can do to halt a guy who’s been successful on 44.4 percent of his self-generated distanced shots.

Not all pull-up shots are made the same. Some are vastly difficult (like that first clip above against the Lakers) while others are far more elementary (i.e. the walk-up three found in clip number two against the Celtics). Quantifying “shot difficulty” is by no means an easy task. Fortunately, NBA’s wonderful statistical library may provide a plausible answer as to which shots are working for our guy Caris.

Per NBA stats, since the start of February, LeVert has landed 16 of his 30 total threes (53.3 percent) that have come off 3-to-6 dribbles. Those strong three-point shooting numbers translate to two-point range as well (43.9 percent on 66 total shots). In these scenarios, Caris LeVert unleashes a singular whiplash-inducing move – a jab step (clip one from the video below), a hesitation fake (clip two), a dribble toward an incoming big man screen (clip three) or even a quick crossover dribble (clip four) – to open up that sliver of space to the rim. From there, Caris’s understated speed takes over, producing gobs and gobs of points for his Brooklyn Nets.

However, those healthy shooting numbers drop off precipitously when LeVert handles the ball for 7 dribbles or more, shooting just 28.6 percent from three on 38 total shots and 36.8 percent from 2-point range on 87 total attempts in these situations. Starting and stopping and starting again while attempting every crossover dribble known to man is just an ineffective form of scoring, and even during his impressive February surge, these 7+ dribble play-types have inhibited LeVert’s overall efficiency.

Still, all in all, even with his over-reliance on fancy dribbling, Caris has still made himself a frighteningly tough scorer to contain. And all his recent successes stem from the same common denominator: Becoming an overnight success as an outside shooter. Shooting above 40 percent from three since the turn of February has greatly enhanced the rest of his game. He’s averaged a team-leading 9.6 points in the downhill setting during that time span compared to just 5.6 points off drives beforehand.

He’s also seen his assist percentage jump significantly from 19.5 percent (from October-January) to 26.1 percent (from February onward). To quote the great Mos Def, it’s simple mathematics: Defenses are forced to account for LeVert from all areas of the floor, including the three-point line. This, in turn, opens up the halfcourt like a blooming flower in the summer, beckoning the many bees and other insects to come closer. And the buzzing LeVert, well, he gladly pollinates should his defender over-commit, littering the floor with skip-passes and short-range oops to his bigs, building a hive of cohesiveness between his teammates, and providing his fans with honey-sweet highlights on a near-daily basis.

His sudden transition into a complete 3-level scorer has been, in my opinion, the biggest reason for his resurgence on the other end of the court. Early in the season, LeVert’s disinterested defensive disposition kept me up at night wondering…

Has the sky fallen?

Prior to February’s breakout run, Brooklyn was 3.4 points per 100 possessions better on defense when LeVert was off the floor (106.7 DFRT) versus on it (110.1) – that difference is akin to comparing the Clippers 5th-ranked defense to Dallas’s 17th-ranked D. Now, Brooklyn’s defense is actually 0.6 points (per 100) better with LeVert in the fold. Again, a hell of a turnaround.

So, the question remains: Do I think that Caris LeVert is the missing piece? The perfect link to an unstoppable backcourt with Kyrie Irving? A possible budding third star lingering in the wings?

Every second of the Caris LeVert breakout extravaganza has been a thrill for spectators … the ups, the downs… it’s all been worth its weight and then some. Caris is a terrifically entertaining player to witness as he ties double-knots around a defense’s feet, and it’s why – in my opinion – he’s such a fan-favorite here on Flatbush and Atlantic. He’s truly incomparable while setting up his shots … the way he flies out of the blocks like a bull in a Pamplona square… how he’s almost always on the verge of toppling over while crossing-over on his dribbles, teetering on the edge of control like a Totem from Inception. (I mean, why else would I be shouting “Is this a dream?” while watching LeVert play?)… the way his limbs fly out in every direction like classic Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner silliness as he crashes toward the rim.

All of these idiosyncrasies make him a delight in every sense of the word; he’s indispensable, almost.

Almost.

Here’s the thing about the last few months.

We are living in the perfect situation for Caris LeVert. He’s been Brooklyn’s undisputed No. 1 guy since Kyrie Irving went down for the count with shoulder pain (coincidentally —or not— on February 1). Since then, LeVert has led Brooklyn with a Kyrie-esque 29.6 percent usage while jacking (by far) the most shots of any Nets player (18.7 per game) – 5.7 more attempts than his pre-February average.

The idea of Caris slotting into a secondary role (well, more like a tertiary one once the sleeping giant returns) next to Kyrie is a bit more idealistic than we’d all like to admit. While his 3-point numbers are recently fantastic, they’ve been greatly enhanced by some frankly unrealistic pull-up shooting numbers that are unlikely to remain consistent over time due to the variability of this type of shot. His catch-and-shoot 3-point numbers since February 1st (a below-average 34.4 percent from deep on 1.9 attempts per game) are a bit more telling as to what type of a marksman Caris really is.

Plus, with Kyrie Irving and his 31.8 usage percentage around, it’s far more likely that LeVert gets called upon as a spot-up guy – not necessarily the best use of his 3-point skillset. We’ve seen this movie a million and one times now with Caris: If the threes stop falling, he loses his driving lanes. If his driving lanes and coinciding foul-calls dissipate into theoretical matter, it’s his defense that starts to hurt. Just look at this season: His deflections (2.9 post-February; 1.9 pre-February), contested shots (5.3 post-February; 4.4 pre-February) and defensive field goal percentage (42.2 percent post-February; 53.5 percent pre-February [second-to-last for the Nets, yikes]) all suggest that the oozing confidence that comes from scoring is LeVert’s trigger for defensive improvment. But above all, what Caris LeVert truly needs is a green-ass-light. And I’m not sure he gets that in Brooklyn.

So, to avoid marginalizing his ever-exciting talents and to take advantage of Caris’s value (which right now is at its peak), yeah, I’d at least perform due diligence in appraising LeVert’s market value.

If the price is right, the correct deal comes from out the woodwork, and Marks feels the time is now for a transaction, I wouldn’t be utterly surprised if the Kiwi general manager cuts bait with the long-time fan favorite.

He’s missed so, so much time from his development (5,295 total minutes… 1,813 less than fellow 2016 draftee Jaylen Brown, which is at least a full season’s worth of play). Because of this, there are still sizable holes in his game: the inconsistencies in his 3-point package (see: pull-ups vs. catch-and-shoots); his habit of over-dribbling; his defense, which is greatly dependent upon the flow of his offense; his slowly expanding passing game.

For any young star, these problems are normal. They’re part of the growing process. But for the Nets and their two-season window, the time is now to strike while the iron is hot. The second the NBA season resumes, title-contention begins, mistakes must be minimized along the way.

There is a lot up in the air at this point in time. One thing is clear. Caris LeVert will be heavily involved in the process of bringing home a championship to Brooklyn… As a Net... Or elsewhere.