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FILM STUDY: What to make of Caris LeVert, point guard

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Caris LeVert running the point makes sense for these “Bubble Nets.” 

Brooklyn Nets v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Chris Elise/NBAE via Getty Images

For the first time in Caris LeVert’s career, he (unofficially) has his own team. True, he’s the best player on a depleted roster revamped beyond recognition due to a worldwide pandemic but nevertheless he is the best player standing or to put it more bluntly, for the Nets, he is “the man.”

So, if you ever wondered what Caris might look like as a team’s No. 1 option, look no further than the Orlando “bubble”, where you should expect No. 22 to have an ungodly usage rate on offense ... compounded by the burden of having the opposition’s best perimeter defender mirror him for 48 minutes. That scenario is going to be par for the 25-year-old in the final games played this season ... no matter how far they go.

So, can LeVert’s ever growing abilities as a playmaker, shot creator, and initiator handle minutes at the point guard position?

Leaving the 2016 NBA Draft, newly-minted Brooklyn Nets executive Sean Marks raved about LeVert’s offensive versatility—telling then-head coach Kenny Atkinson he believed that Caris had what it took to play point.

“Sean told me when we drafted him, he kept emphasizing ‘This kid can play point guard ... eventually.’ That was the thought process and I was ‘Eh ... you know. We’ll see,’”

So, here we are, four years later, it might be a completely different set of circumstances (still feels like an understatement), but what was discussed after drafting LeVert still holds weight: His skill set instills confidence—be it moderate or significant—that he could run the point. And not necessarily in a pinch. He could start at the 1.

In the final 16 games of the season, LeVert did sport a 30.0 percent usage rate while sharing backcourt duties with Spencer Dinwiddie (25.4 percent in that same timeframe). In those contests, he frequently brought the ball up the floor and initiated the offense. As a result, his game elevated to new heights—averaging 24.1 points, 5.3 assists, 4.8 rebounds, and 1.7 steals in those final five weeks before the season was put on hold.

Entering the Nets’ first game against the Orlando Magic on July 31, he’s not going to have the luxury of Spencer Dinwiddie as a budding backcourt partner. Instead, a makeshift roster bivouacked in the Orlando “bubble” has taken form with a number of roster mainstays not present on the rotation.

Chris Chiozza may be the obvious choice for some as the starting point guard but despite a number of impressive outings...he’s still relatively unproven, to the tune of 282 career minutes in the NBA. That’s only 40 more minutes than Iman Shumpert played in his ever-so-short tenure in Brooklyn; look, I believe in Chiozza’s game. I—like many others—saw potential, but the maturation process of an NBA player isn’t concluded in under 300 minutes. He’s still got to prove that he deserves a roster spot once play resumes.

It’s in the realm of possibility that LeVert either starts as the team’s point guard, or has lions’ share of the team’s sets run through him. In any event, the potential of the former OR the latter is tantalizing.

It’s worth mentioning that Chiozza has gotten run with the starters in team practices, but that doesn’t necessarily discredit the idea of CLV quarterbacking the offense for large stints. LeVert’s combination of explosiveness with an uncanny ability to shift/hesitate while probing the defense enabled him to be effective off of drives—whether that meant going all the way to the rack, finding his friendly big near the rim, or kicking it back out beyond the perimeter to the open man. LeVert generated 1.3 of his 4.1 assists per game off of his drives per NBA Stats. Take a look...

Matched up against Avery Bradley, a player known for his defensive acumen, LeVert drives hard left, lowering his shoulder as if he had intent to take him all the way to the cup, until he recognizes LeBron James had rotated over to help—impeding his progress. Now, in one slick motion, LeVert wisely decides against inviting contact with James and instead kicks it out to the wide-open Wilson Chandler—who McGee had taken his sights off of to instead battle for position with fellow big DeAndre Jordan under the hoop—who then knocks the perimeter shot down in rhythm. Boom. Potential disaster with either a drawn charge or nowhere to go with Bradley and James in Caris’ grill instead results in three points for the good guys.

Here, amid his first career triple-double against the Spurs, he seduces both Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan, who rotates over to attempt to disallow LeVert entry up the middle, with a series of dribble-drive moves that would make the likes of Kyrie Irving nod in approval before hitting marksman Joe Harris with a perfect pass in rhythm. From there, Joe does what he does best: knocks down the perimeter jumper.

This next play is just a joy to behold. It’s a sequence of events that just screams “star.” Already bolstering the theoretical confidence of Barney Stinson walking into a bar, this was, after all, amid a fourth quarter that saw LeVert register 26 (!) points, Caris puts Grant Williams on skates in isolation with a behind-the-back dribble into a euro-step (have mercy, Caris) before hitting Marcus Smart’s responsibility, TLC, in the corner for the open trey...

It wasn’t just wings/guards that acted as beneficiaries of LeVert’s talents as a playmaker, either. DeAndre Jordan and Jarrett combined shot a combined 72.9 percent on 1.8 field goal attempts per contest when receiving passes from LeVert this season.

Plenty of these looks were generated in the PnR, an action LeVert ran as the primary ball-handler eight times a game this season in comparison to his 5.7 looks in the 2018/19 season—though his efficiency in terms of points per possession regressed with a higher volume (76th percentile in 18/19, 45th percentile in 19/20).

Here, LeVert sets up the pick-and-roll with Jarrett Allen with the evergreen defensive threat that is Marcus Smart mirroring his movement. Though a nice heads up, tip your cap, play by Brad Wanamaker to dig in and rip LeVert as he drove right, negating what either appeared like it was going to culminate in a contested attempt at the rack or Caris getting caught in the air with limited options at his disposal. This kind of dogmatic, headstrong type of thinking on drives has plagued Caris throughout his career.

But it wasn’t all bad for LeVert operating in the pick-and-roll. Here, in the same contest against the Celtics, he patiently sets and resets the action with Jarrett Allen until he finds a lane/angle that’s preferable. From there, he probes into the interior and waits for Theis to over commit just enough to his drive, where he then dishes it to the rolling Allen for the easy bucket.

Allen didn’t just benefit off of pick-and-roll pocket passes from LeVert, either. Isolated against Trey Lyles at the top of the key, LeVert hands him what’s almost become a signature of his—an elusive, lightning quick in-and-out dribble move—to free up some space for his drive. Once DeRozan rotates over and plants his feet down in hopes of drawing a charge, LeVert makes the correct read on the fly and lobs up a pass that only the “The Fro” can reach. Nice, simple offense.

The Nets weren’t exactly a fantastic team out in transition this season, but they weren’t exactly terrible either. They finished 16th in transition points per game (18.4), totaling 1.12 points per possession, good for a ranking in the 62nd percentile. Caris himself scored 3.2 of his 17.7 points per game out in transition—ranking in the 56th percentile league-wide, accumulating 1.15 points per possession. Again, not fantastic, but not terrible.

But if he’s hitting teammates out in the break like in these following clips, I won’t complain. And there’s more from where that came from.

Off the DeRozan floater that resulted in an air ball—thanks in part to the defense of Jarrett Allen—LeVert scoops up the errant shot in rhythm and immediately looks to push the tempo. While this is transpiring, Joe Harris has broken away from the pack and streaked down the right side of the floor. Caris waits just long enough, passing halfcourt with all Spurs eyeing him, and then hits Joe with a sneaky, no-look pass for the easy transition basket.

Speaking of Jarrett Allen...why not reward the big man for running the floor? That’s exactly what Caris does here with Allen’s matchup, Wendell Carter Jr., sleeping behind the wheel while running back on defense. All Carter can do is briefly yell out an explicit remark—likely knowing that push-ups and wind sprints were in his destiny once Boylen got his hands on the film—as Allen hammers home the two-handed dunk.

As mentioned, in those final 16 contests before the Nets’ season was put on hold, LeVert averaged 1.7 steals—with an INSANE steal percentage of 41.5 percent. Instances such as the following where he perfectly telegraphs Isaac Bonga’s intended pass to Jerome Robinson back out top serve testament to LeVert’s defensive instincts that really impressed in the latter half of the season (he finished first in Defensive Win Shares on the team in that same time frame). From there, instead of forcing the issue out on the break, he waits for reinforcements—in the form of Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot trailing the play.

How much team success these “Bubble Nets” will have is up for debate, a depleted roster with plenty of new faces, guys like Tyler Johnson (hasn’t played since February), Michael Beasley (No games this season and suspended for the first five games), Donta Hall (who played a total of 12 minutes with Detroir), and Jamal Crawford (who didn’t get picked up this year despite a near Hall of Fame career) all have entered the fray and will receive minutes—which means an acclimation period is in order.

One thing that’s relatively certain, however, is that Caris LeVert is going to be a recipient of that proverbial “green light” only few players in the NBA have once play resumes on July 31. Caris has not just proven to be a versatile scorer with the ball in his hands, but he’s also shown adroit playmaking abilities within an extended role.

His coach thinks there’s a different mindset he’s seeing in LeVert since he joined the “bubble.” First off, Jacque Vaughn says LeVert was “excited” about going down to Orlando and since...

“That leadership, and it goes along with keeping guys accountable, it goes along with the communication, it goes with being OK taking criticism — that’s a part of leadership,” Vaughn said. “So Caris is really growing in those areas, and I think it’s a natural maturation as well; the fact that he is more comfortable in his skin as an individual.

If that means significant time at the point guard position, or just initiating the offensive in more of a “point forward” role, there is plenty to be excited about Caris LeVert’s game.