NBA

The Brooklyn Nets go for broke with Caris Levert

After a seemingly endless cycle of turmoil for the Brooklyn Nets under Billy King, stability took her throne back on Flatbush this summer. Sean Marks was named General Manager after a long interview process, and he quickly named Kenny Atkinson his head coach and Jacque Vaughn his top assistant. A member of the Popovich management tree, Marks has already begun prioritizing player development — Atkinson was one of the league’s top player development guys across the country. His reputation followed him from Houston to New York to Atlanta.

In hiring Atkinson to coach a team on the cusp of bottoming out, Marks has made it clear that young players are the focus for the Nets. While that would be obvious for nearly any other franchise, it is particularly notable for Brooklyn considering the lack of youth on their roster (or the means to acquire them). Brooklyn will owe Boston its first rounders for the next two drafts (a swap in 2017, the outright pick in 2018) despite already coughing up their 2014 and 2016 selections.

By trading Thaddeus Young in June, the Nets suddenly had a chance to get younger with the 20th overall selection in the 2016 draft. Brooklyn didn’t even have a second round selection, so there was pressure to nail the pick. Hoping to cash in on an unpeggable big board dropper, the Nets selected Michigan’s Caris LeVert; who was viewed by many as a lottery-ish talent but fell in large part due to the foot injuries that plagued his final three college seasons and forced him out of all but 33 games over the last two.

In lieu of a traditional Upside & Motor-style rebuild & retain look at the Brooklyn Nets’ youth, the focus here will be on this one young addition to Brooklyn’s core; why they chose him, how he fits, and what he could become.

The first and most important thing to get out of the way before any musings on Caris LaVert’s potential career, are his injuries. In May of 2014, following a season that saw an Elite Eight appearance for the University of Michigan but which also featured LeVert playing a large portion of games in pain, the wing phenom had surgery to mend what had become a stress fracture in his foot.

Then, after individual success early on in the 2014-15 campaign, LeVert reinjured the same foot after coming down with the rebound that would seal a win against Northwestern in mid-January. After applying for an evaluation from the NBA’s Undergraduate Advisory Committee following that season, LeVert chose not to declare for the NBA draft, citing the silliness of declaring for the draft when the non-guaranteed nature of the second round is staring one in the face. His stock plummeted; DraftExpress had him consistently Sharpie-markered in at 61 in mock drafts done throughout that season.

Finally, following a much-ballyhooed opening to the 2015-16 season, LeVert went down with what would be his final injury suffered as a collegiate player. After several missed games toward the end of the regular season, the University announced that LeVert would miss the rest of the season. At the Draft Combine, LeVert clarified that the injury was a Jones fracture of his fifth metatarsal. A few weeks later, he took to the Players’ Tribune in a poignant attempt to prove his staying power to general managers across the league.

While it’s necessary and worthwhile to redress our expectations of LeVert in the league, knowing now that a team took a chance on him, we can look forward into the netherworld of an NBA career and what shape it might take for someone like Mr. LeVert. And damn it feels good to just be able to do that.

While the Nets of course missed out on their top two targets in terms of contract size (Allen Crabbe and Tyler Johnson) this summer, the signings they were able to pull out in the interim paint a picture of a team that, if nothing else, will be more consistent and deep this year. Jeremy Lin is the kind of player that keeps struggling-to-bad teams from becoming what the Sixers were last year, and can run a mean pick-and-roll. Luis Scola and Randy Foye will give the team some veteran intelligence; both earned playoff minutes for teams that reached the Conference Finals last season. Greivis Vasquez, Joe Harris, and Trevor Booker have upside despite each being at various depths into their careers.

That is the type of stability young players need around them for growth. For every new-era Oklahoma City or Minnesota, there are Jailblazer squads that never quite reach their highest heights. By surrounding youth with even more guile, winning gets injected slowly into the bloodstream of a team. That’s what Brooklyn seems to be betting on before the inevitable retread of this summer’s plan when things again blow open financially next July.

Caris LeVert fits perfectly into that, despite being a flawed player. Possessing players like Lin and Brook “yep, still in BKN” Lopez around is like having a V6 engine in the clothing iron you’re using to smooth out the kinks of a young roster. It’s the exact reason that the aesthetic being perpetuated in Philadelphia leaves such a rotten taste in so many fans’ mouths. Guys are willing to be paid money to play on poor teams, and they in turn make those teams less bad. That’s clearly something Brooklyn has found value in, and is emphasizing.

LeVert is going to have a much easier time playing his way into health with a full rotation around him, and will look better on the court next to veterans or other rookies who have been given the necessary time to develop. I can’t think of a much better situation for LeVert, considering where Atkinson made his reputation and the emphasis the Nets will already need to place on health with guys like Lopez and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson owning sizable concerns of their own.

On the court, though, there is a long way to go. The best way to explain the sort of value LeVert might or might not have is to contextualize him within a dichotomy most often discussed in baseball — that of the relative value of each position around the diamond, well exemplified by the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Corey Seager. He is a great hitter, sure, but he wouldn’t be on the same sort of historical pace if he played an outfield or infield corner position. And his value won’t be the same when his speed worsens and can no longer overcome his size, pushing him to one of those spots.

In the same way, Caris LeVert is largely unspectacular if you throw him in an old-school, Rudy Gay or James Worthy-esque role and say “go”. He doesn’t have the shot-making acumen or physical abilities to outpace guys of that ilk, and, as a four-year college player, will probably never get there physically. Yet he had fans and scouts slobbering through his four years at Michigan despite playing less than 40 games over his final two seasons.

This is because he has tools that players of his size and position usually do not have. As a wing with ball-handling and leadership potential, LeVert provides the Nets a gateway into the positionless, all-everything style that will be en vogue henceforth in the NBA. His value derives from the unusual and entrancing pairing of his size and skillset. Yes, he could be just any other big small forward who scores in double digits, shoots threes, and dunks some, but his ceiling then is probably Gerald Green or C.J. Miles; I believe he can be a good player in this league if he taps into that potential.

Even his incredible shooting numbers offer a role in the NBA that is mathematically more valuable than anything most guys his size are able to contribute. The decision by Marks and the Brooklyn braintrust to pull the trigger on LeVert (and his draft mate Isaiah Whitehead, to a far lesser degree) comes directly from the clear understanding of the value of those specific players which operate as mismatches the minute they walk onto the floor.

He has a long road ahead of him in working from flawed player to quality player, and will need a lot to go right with his body (both health and strength related) to tap into the sizable potential his length and skillset provide him. LeVert is a sub-par decision maker in the pick-and-roll, often losing track of open players or misfiring passes to those he does see. He often does, however, flash that “next level” vision that is so coveted from guards:

And while he doesn’t often flash spectacular athleticism in his leaping or running ability (see: three foot surgeries), he can get up when the situation arises:

Another reason to be optimistic is the way he can occasionally use his long wingspan and quick, slender frame to beat guys with a few go-to moves while still maintaining enough balance to finish the play:

Yes, that is a lot of maybes on the side of the ball on which LeVert is supposed to already be better. Such is life for a guy whose potential outweighs his current level of potency.

Unfortunately, on the defensive end, there are even more problems, so he will not be propping up Jeremy Lin’s inefficiencies on that end any time soon. To start, he struggles badly fighting through picks:

That’s straight up ball-watching, and it forces LeVert to miss a simple read in a hybrid zone wherein he’s really only responsible for the strong corner on that particular play. Those mistakes shouldn’t be happening against Xavier in an early-season NCAA game; they can’t happen against NBA shooters. Not surprisingly, that inattention plagues him throughout defensive possessions:

This is all to demonstrate what should be clear: this was a pick made with the focus on the future. Marks & Co. of course know there are risks, and — in all honesty — probably reached to get their guy. There are several realities in which this pick ends in remorse as far as the slope of the specific career arc of Caris LeVert goes. But the most important takeaway here is definitely that the basketball operations staff in Brooklyn has been able to make lemonade out of the lemons the old regime gave them, and have done so with a clear vision in mind.

Other moves demonstrated that oneness of ideology, but the possible lottery ticket that LeVert’s selection represents — and most importantly, the pieces placed around him to make those winning numbers more likely — did so in a way that goes the furthest in proving that the Nets are comfortable focusing on the long view while taking the road back to Eastern Conference legitimacy.