Draft night, summer of 2016:
The Brooklyn Nets are hosting the NBA Draft as usual and their pick is highly-anticipated for two reasons: One is that they traded Thaddeus Young for this pick. The second is that it’s Sean Marks’ first pick as GM.
A loud “WHO?” echoed in a somber Barclays Center. The media room, filled with Nets writers, were stunned. A 21-year-old, barely off crutches following his third foot surgery? Really?
Now, LeVert is the one everybody wants to talk about after a crucial offseason in the gym on Brooklyn’s 39th Street. He has executives, coaches, teammates, and pundits all predicting a breakout season for the third-year pro.
But is he really a third-year pro? The Nets certainly don’t feel that way. LeVert, now 24, missed 30 games during his rookie campaign as he recovered from foot surgery that took place less than two months before the draft. He missed training camp, preseason, and a chunk of games in which he hardly played more than 20 minutes.
Thus, they do have a valid point and, quietly, there has been talk that LeVert seems hurt a lot. LeVert doesn’t want that hanging over his head as he enters the biggest season of his young career. He wants to prove wrong those who think he’s just another injury prone player.
“I want to play in as many games as possible,” LeVert said at Tuesday’s practice. “I feel like there’s kind of a stigma around me that I’m always hurt, and I want to break that and play in as many games as I can. I think last year I played in like 71, 72. So I want to play more than that this year, hopefully all of them if that’s possible.”
He’s a key part of Brooklyn’s future, but now is when the team thinks he should become that standout player. He has the tools and he’s had the patience. He was asked whether the setbacks were frustrating back in September of 2016 when he could do little but work on strength and conditioning.
Frustrating? “A little frustrating, but I’m a long-term goal kind of guy,” he said then.
Finally, the long term is now beginning to look like the present. Players and teammates have especially created a buzz around his improvement over the summer.
“For sure. But I think – like I said – everybody kind of made that jump,” when asked about his peers raving about him. “Obviously, it’s good to hear that my teammates kind of praise me a little bit for that, but I feel like everybody made that jump. I could speak to that about every single person on the team…
“I think everybody saw that in the preseason, but we’ll definitely see that going into the regular season even more. I feel like everybody had a huge summer. We were all together the full summer and hopefully we see the benefits of that.”
He remains humble and committed to the company line: deter any questions about himself and make it about the team. That’s what they’re trying to do with the culture here. A huge part of the communication around the Brooklyn Nets is deterring chatter around one individual. Watch Kenny Atkinson postgame when asked about one player. He does the same.
It’s always about the team.
Sean Marks is the same way too. You’ll never see Marks bash a player of the past or present, nor commit to anything or anybody in the future. It’s about strategically planning for the future and living realistically in the present.
How does this tie into LeVert? He’s the same way. He speaks like him and again, sticks to the company line.
“What’s the identity of this team?” a reporter asks.
“I think we’re a young team right now,” said LeVert. “We’re still trying to find that out. I feel like it’s a really high ceiling. [But] we’ve got guys like Jarrett who’s only 20 years old who is still trying to find himself on the court. And you guys see he’s playing really well, but he’s only scratching the surface of his potential. So I feel like as a group we’ve still got a long way to go. We’re starting to see the positives of this group so far.”
If you didn’t know LeVert said that, you might guess it was Marks who was speaking. He’s cautiously optimistic by not counting anything out, while also realizing that they are indeed still a young team with guys who haven’t even hit their prime yet.
And although he’s only 24 years old and hasn’t technically hit his “prime” yet, he certainly looks and sounds ready to spread his wings and be a leader among this group.
“For sure, for sure [it’s weird mentoring young guys], because its only my third year and it feels like the first two went really fast. Like you said, those guys are super young, and they’re looking at guys like myself and D’Angelo [Russell] who are super-young as well… it’s cool that we get to grow up that fast and are asked to have a lot of responsibility.”
All eyes are on him and Russell to lead this team, even if nobody will say it. At the very least he’s owning the responsibility and the expectations that come with it. The question is whether he’s ready to live up to them.