Caris LeVert spent the preseason drowning in raves from teammates that ultimately led to one question being asked of Brooklyn Nets coach Kenny Atkinson more than any other: Was this the time for the third-year guard to claim a spot in the starting lineup?
The preseason absence of forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson left that question open-ended. When Hollis-Jefferson returned, who would be coming off the bench: Allen Crabbe, DeMarre Carroll, or LeVert? While Hollis-Jefferson is questionable for tonight’s season opener in Detroit, he’s not expected to start, and Crabbe and Carroll are out with ankle injuries.
So, yes, LeVert is in the lineup, sharing the backcourt with D’Angelo Russell as he did for most of the preseason.
“Him and D’Angelo, I really feel like they have a nice synergy,” said Atkinson. “The Knicks were denying D’Angelo full court and Caris just brought it up. D’Angelo was off the ball. They’re embracing that. That’s hard for point guards sometimes, embrace that off the ball role is like, ‘uggh.’ That’s like, ‘I need the ball in my hands all the time.’ Steph Curry is a perfect example where they got him to have the ball less in his hands and move off the ball more and create stuff moving instead of always in the pick and roll. That’s kind of the thinking there.”
For all the uncertainty injuries brought to Brooklyn’s preseason, Russell and LeVert were constants. They led the team in minutes played (LeVert 114, Russell 110) and points scored (Russell 72, LeVert 59). And each looked equally smooth running the pick-and-rolls with center Jarrett Allen that are so important to Brooklyn’s offense.
“I feel like since he got here, we’ve naturally played well together,” said LeVert. “We both can play on and off the ball, so it’s been an easy transition honestly. We watch film together and I kind of know where he likes the ball. I know the spots on the floor where he really excels. It’s been easy to play with him.”
Last season, with Russell missing 37 games and LeVert regularly leading the second unit, the pair logged just 466 minutes together. But it was Russell’s absence in part that unlocked Caris LeVert: playmaker. LeVert elevated his assists to 4.2 per game — third on the team behind Spencer Dinwiddie and Russell — while also averaging 12.1 points per game. Even coming off the bench, LeVert took on significant responsibility. He actually finished second on the team in usage rate behind Russell.
“I feel like it just gave me confidence,” said LeVert. “The coaches, as well as my teammates, really believe in me having the ball in my hands. That’s a big thing. I have a lot of confidence in myself, but it’s another thing, knowing that your peers and your coach staff have that much confidence in you as well. That’s the biggest thing for me.”
Together, LeVert and Russell give the Nets a backcourt of essentially interchangeable guards, both able to drive, shoot and create for others.
“It makes us really hard to guard,” said LeVert. “It’s tough to guard guys who can put the ball on the floor, pass the ball well, shoot the ball well. It’s really hard to game plan against that, especially in our offense because it’s a lot of read and react. It’s hard to mimic that and scout for that.”
“It makes it a lot better, double threat with the ball, spacing the floor, being able to hit shots being able to find guys,” said Hollis-Jefferson. “They’re really good at that; they’re crafty. You’ve got to love their game, man. They’re not selfish. They love to play with the pass. So it’s amazing to play with guys like that.”