LeVert was one of the more difficult prospects to evaluate in the 2016 draft. After a relatively quiet freshman season at Michigan, he put together a standout sophomore campaign that led many experts to project him as a lottery-level talent. LeVert averaged nearly 13 points per game that year, along with 4.3 rebounds and 2.9 assists. He also shot 40.8 percent from behind the arc.
Unfortunately, his stock took a tumble after that sophomore season. Multiple foot injuries limited his playing time in his junior and senior years for Big Blue. He continued to showcase the talent that led many to think of him as a lottery pick. However, those foot injuries were tough enough to evaluate that he fell down the rankings of most mock drafts. After projecting him as high as the 13th overall pick, LeVert’s ranking fell all the way to 50th overall before Draft Day 2016. Since foot injuries can be career-wreckers (just ask Bill Walton), many teams were uneasy with taking a flyer on LeVert.
The Brooklyn Nets, however, showed no such hesitation. After LeVert went under the knife of Nets foot specialist Dr. Martin O’Malley, he received a clean enough bill of health for the Nets to snag him with the 20th overall pick.
Although LeVert missed the start of the season, his rookie campaign was a huge success for Brooklyn. However, he transformed from a decent player with solid potential in the first half of the year to a can’t-miss prospect after the All-Star break.
While Caris deserves credit for improving his game without hitting the rookie wall, he did not do it alone. Indeed, Caris LeVert would not have had anywhere near the same level of success without some help from Jeremy Lin.
Before the All-Star break: Ups and Downs
After missing the first month and a half of the season while recovering from his foot injury, Caris LeVert quickly endeared himself to Nets fans with his aggressive on-ball defense and his ability to read passing lanes like a 10-year vet:
LeVert had a strong first year across the board. He finished the year with averages of 8.2 points per game, 3.3 rebounds per game, and 1.9 assists per game along with a solid 55.6 percent True Shooting Percentage. He also finished the year with a nearly even turnover to steal ratio.
However, his averages for the year fail to account for the drastic change in his game that happened in the middle of the season. Prior to the All-Star break, LeVert’s numbers were far less impressive. He averaged 6.9 points per game on relatively inefficient shooting, with a True Shooting Percentage of 53.2 to go along with a ghastly 30.3 percent mark from deep. LeVert looked miscast as a primary ballhandler on some units and was passive when he did not have the ball in his hands.
On the defensive end, LeVert occasionally struggled to keep up with the quicker guards. He had trouble staying in front of some of the score-first guards that teams tend to use as bench players. While LeVert was often the most impressive young Nets player on the floor, he certainly had his weak points earlier in the season.
After the All-Star break: Flying Over the Rookie Wall
Everything changed for Caris LeVert after the NBA returned from New Orleans. LeVert slotted into the starting small forward role and started 25 games after the break. He put up nearly 10 points per game, 3.9 rebounds per game, and two assists per game after February 23rd. He also boosted his True Shooting Percentage to a stellar 57.9 percent, including a far more respectable 34.1 percent clip from deep.
On the defensive end, he was able to use his size and quickness to keep up with opposing small forwards. Unlike the bench guards that he had to check earlier in the season, LeVert was usually faster than his frontcourt matchup. Only the forwards that are comfortable posting up, a less common player archetype by the year, were able to take advantage of Caris’ relative lack of bulk.
However, the position switch was not the only factor in Caris’ improved game. Jeremy Lin’s return to the lineup just happened to coincide with LeVert’s move to the starting group. Lin’s drive and kick game left Caris more room from behind the arc. More importantly, however, LeVert could use his quick first step and great hustle to get more looks in transition:
The difference that Jeremy Lin made to Caris LeVert is hard to understate. Despite playing only 489 of his 1237 minutes this year with Lin on the floor, Lin assisted LeVert on more baskets than any Net other than Brook Lopez.
The on-off numbers are also quite telling. With Lin on the floor, Caris LeVert had a True Shooting Percentage of 58.4 percent per nbawowy.com. Without Lin on the floor, LeVert’s True Shooting Percentage falls to a below-average 54.2 percent–closer to his numbers before the All-Star break than his elite numbers after it.
Moving Forward: Room to Grow
Caris LeVert showed this season that he is the Nets’ most promising young player. While Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has shown signs of his ability to be an elite defensive player (especially after his surprising mid-season move to power forward), LeVert has All-Star caliber potential on both ends of the floor.
The positive signs about LeVert are easier to appreciate when looking at his play alongside Jeremy Lin. Instead of cratering as the season ended like most rookies, LeVert looked better than ever in March and April.
The Nets will have some difficult decisions to make about LeVert’s future in this offseason. Although he came into the league as a combo guard, he looked far more comfortable at small forward this season. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s success at power forward may lead the Nets to keep those two as their forward pair. However, that will force Sean Marks to a search for a solid two-guard to pair with their young guns in the frontcourt.
That shooting guard search also would necessitate finding an ideal partner for Jeremy Lin. The Nets would likely be looking for an elite shooter who can play above-average defense. While those players are few and far between, the Nets can at least rest easy about their future forwards.
Caris LeVert had a fantastic rookie season that only got better with time. If his play alongside Jeremy Lin or his growth in college is any indication, he is primed for an even more incredible sophomore year in the NBA.