Caris LeVert finds ‘freedom’ in leading role
Oft-forgotten guard to be Nets' first option in Orlando
When you’re on a roster that features two-time NBA Finals MVP Kevin Durant, six-time All-Star Kyrie Irving and Nets’ leading scorer and assists man Spencer Dinwiddie, it’s easy to be overlooked.
That won’t be the case anymore for Brooklyn guard Caris LeVert.
At least not during the NBA’s much-anticipated restart in Orlando, Florida later this month.
With the Nets’ once-formidable lineup decimated by injuries, positive tests for COVID-19 and players who have opted out of the season due to concerns about the league’s bubble environment at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, LeVert has suddenly emerged as Brooklyn’s go-to option.
That scenario was nearly impossible to imagine last summer, when general manager Sean Marks broke the bank and stunned the rest of the league by acquiring both Durant and Irving to lead the Nets into the stratosphere of the NBA’s top contenders.
Even with Durant unavailable for the season due to his ongoing recovery from an Achilles injury and Irving limited to just 20 games this year before undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery, LeVert remained in the background, either due to injury or the emergence of Dinwiddie.
But with both Durant and Irving ruled out of the restart and Dinwiddie and veteran center DeAndre Jordan testing positive for the potentially deadly virus last month, it is LeVert who will likely play the largest role in deciding whether or not Brooklyn reaches the playoffs for the second straight season.
And the 25-year-old Columbus, Ohio native is embracing the opportunity to lead the Nets in that pursuit once the season begins again in earnest on July 31.
“There’s definitely more responsibility, more freedom out there as well,” said LeVert following Brooklyn’s first full practice in Orlando last Thursday.
“It’ll definitely be fun,” he added. “We’ve got some new guys on the team to integrate into the offense and things like that. Everyone’s learning each and every day, so it’ll be an experience for everybody, for sure.”
LeVert was playing his best basketball of the season, and arguably his career, when the NBA went on pause back on March 11.
He was averaging 24.1 points, 5.3 assists and 4.8 rebounds while shooting an eye-popping 41 percent from 3-point range over a 16-game stretch before the Nets’ March 12 game in San Francisco against the defending Western Conference champion Golden State Warriors was canceled.
LeVert highlighted that stretch with a pair of epic performances. He poured in a career-high 51 points during an overtime win in Boston on March 3, and put together his first career triple-double with 27 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists vs. Boston at Downtown’s Barclays Center three nights later.
But now, the University of Michigan alum whom the Nets acquired via trade from Indiana following the 2016 NBA Draft despite concerns regarding a series of foot injuries, won’t have either Dinwiddie or Irving, both of whom he spent time in the backcourt with this season, by his side.
According to interim Nets head coach Jacque Vaughn, LeVert showed up in Orlando ready to lead and to display the type of will it will take for Brooklyn to protect its current status as the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference playoff race ahead of the eight-game rush to the end of the regular season.
“I think he just has that different swagger about himself,” Vaughn told the team’s website.
“He’s put in work individually on his game during this hiatus, I think you can sense it in the way his shoulders are in the way he’s carrying himself. His eye contact, his leadership, he would be a guy that initially has looked really good.”
He will have to look even better if the Nets are to avoid falling out of the postseason or find themselves fighting for their playoff lives in a two-game play-in series with ninth-seeded Washington, a scenario that could play out if Brooklyn loses two games off its current six-game lead over the Wizards.
LeVert, Joe Harris and Jarrett Allen are among the Nets’ returning rotation players, but Brooklyn has had to add NBA veterans like Michael Beasley and Jamal Crawford ahead of the restart just to have a full roster in Orlando.
Supporting players like Chris Chiozza, Rodions Kurucs and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot will now be looked upon to provide major minutes, either from the starting lineup or off the bench.
These changes will place even more emphasis on LeVert to be the Nets’ top player and on-the-court leader in Orlando.
“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,” said Vaughn.
“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.”
For LeVert, the key to being Brooklyn’s pied piper during the restart has more to do with remaining exactly who he is, rather than trying to become someone else.
“I think it’s just being myself,” he noted. “The guys are very familiar with me, familiar with my game, what I do on the court. I’m just trying to be myself, go out there and try to do what I do, talk guys through certain situations and things like that, but let guys be themselves, just go out there and hoop.”
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