No one who has gotten to know Caris LeVert over the past half-decade — as an almost redshirt at the University of Michigan, and breakout star with the Brooklyn Nets — will be surprised to hear there will be minimal sulking after LeVert’s foot injury Monday.
It is one of LeVert’s defining traits — something that has made him a beloved teammate, and cultural keystone of the Nets’ long rebuild: He takes joy in the success of others, even when things are not going well for him. At Michigan, those in the program were stunned LeVert sustained such positivity even as three foot surgeries derailed his career.
Across the Nets, there had been universal exhilaration at LeVert’s rise from preseason backup to franchise centerpiece. Even rivals for that status found themselves swept up in it, in part because LeVert always offers them the same emotional support.
“It is all genuine with Caris,” Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson said during an interview at the team’s practice facility two weeks ago. “He is real.”
It all overflowed after Brooklyn’s second game, when LeVert dusted Tim Hardaway Jr., his college teammate, and coaxed in a tilting layup to beat the Knicks. When Atkinson embraced LeVert in the locker room, LeVert smiled and told him, “I owed you one, Coach,” referencing some crunch-time error from Brooklyn’s season-opening loss in Detroit that Atkinson couldn’t even recall.
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Player and coach fast developed a special relationship. Two years ago, Atkinson called LeVert to wish him a happy birthday but activated FaceTime by accident. (“I don’t even FaceTime my wife,” he said, not joking.) LeVert, surprised, picked up. Ten months later, on Atkinson’s birthday, his FaceTime went off again. It was LeVert, unprompted, creating a tongue-in-cheek tradition.
“Like, who even remembers their coach’s birthday?” Atkinson asked. “And then remembers we have this silly thing?”
Jacque Vaughn, the Nets assistant who has worked most closely with LeVert, searched him out after that game winner. That shot, Vaughn told him, was proof of what coaches preached all summer.
“Never feel rushed,” Vaughn said, repeating a mantra they had developed. “You can get to any spot you want. You dictate everything. That was the shot you wanted, and no one was able to get you off of it. Never feel rushed.”
LeVert thought back to advice from Spencer Dinwiddie: “Be quick to the paint, but slow when you get there.” LeVert could blow by the first line of defense at will. Dinwiddie was reminding LeVert to look around for passes once he did.
In other situations, envy might grow between Dinwiddie and LeVert. Not in Brooklyn. Dinwiddie’s success doesn’t threaten LeVert. He welcomes help from anyone. He wants to be great, but not at the expense of others.
“He’s a fierce competitor, but he’s not a jerk about it like some guys,” Atkinson said. “Some guys are motivated by a big chip on their shoulder. It’s, ‘I’m better than that guy over there.’ Caris never talks like that. That is the ultimate culture fit to me: the guy who plays super-competitively, but in a classy way.”
Everyone in Brooklyn knew LeVert had earned the right to take those last-second shots. While most players decamped for Los Angeles or various home bases in the summer, LeVert stayed at his apartment in Brooklyn so that he could work out with the Nets’ coaching staff. He even let Tahjere McCall, a Nets G League player LeVert befriended during summer league, crash at his place all summer.
When he left Brooklyn in past summers, it has mostly been to train with Kevin Durant in Southern California. (Durant loves him.)
LeVert bulked up his lower body to help him absorb contact. During his first two seasons, the Nets tracked how often LeVert went flying out of bounds after layups.
“He was on the floor all the time, to the point you were concerned about his health,” Atkinson said.
Coaches nicknamed LeVert “Bambi” for the way his skinny legs splayed out from under him when defenders bumped him. “They finally just stopped calling me that,” LeVert told ESPN.com after a Brooklyn practice earlier this month.
He gave up beef and pork. “Burgers was hard,” LeVert said. “I love burgers.” He started practicing meditation. For an hour a week, LeVert slips into a sensory-deprivation float tank, closes the lid, and floats atop mineral-infused water in darkness. “You can have music, but I prefer silence,” he said. He visualizes in-game scenarios. “Sometimes, I even fall asleep,” he said.
During his first two seasons, LeVert was one of the league’s pre-eminent “everything but” players: He would juke into the lane, only to bonk floaters. “I had the process right, but nothing would go in,” he said.
He found a YouTube video of Kyrie Irving standing under the backboard, practicing ways to spin the ball in off the glass from crazy angles. LeVert imitated Irving. He hoisted thousands of jumpers, and wrote out goals before the season: make 200 3s, shoot 40 percent from deep. Atkinson emailed him articles listing the top 10 shooters at LeVert’s position, urging him to make the next list. Durant suggested he get more arc under his jumper.
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LeVert took it all in. Even so, Atkinson planned to bring LeVert off the bench. That didn’t last long.
“It hadn’t revealed itself before camp,” Atkinson said. “And then camp started, and it was eye-popping.” Veterans, including Jared Dudley, whispered to Atkinson that LeVert might be their best player.
A fast, unlikely rise was nothing new for LeVert. He was lightly recruited out of high school, with just a single scholarship offer in the fall of his senior year — from Ohio University. When the University of Illinois poached Ohio’s coach, John Groce, in March of LeVert’s senior year, Groce declined to carry LeVert’s scholarship with him.
Soon after, LeVert visited Michigan for an informal workout. Coaches and players had low expectations.
He wowed the team immediately, staffers recall, and Michigan coach John Beilein offered a scholarship. The team viewed him as a deep bench player and discussed redshirting him; he was behind five future NBA draft picks. But LeVert was so good in practice, coaches quickly slotted him into the rotation.
He was the team’s best one-on-one player, staffers recalled, regularly working Hardaway, Nik Stauskas, Trey Burke, and other future pros with a herky-jerky style that flummoxed them. Teammates and coaches nicknamed him “Baby Durant.”
At Michigan, players couldn’t access the gym without a manager after certain hours. Staffers remember LeVert sheepishly calling managers after midnight, asking them if they might let him in. They always did, and stayed past 2 a.m.
Foot injuries sidetracked LeVert’s progress, but never his engagement level. Everyone who was at Michigan for LeVert’s senior season remembers Kameron Chatman’s game-winning buzzer-beater against Indiana in the 2016 Big Ten tournament. What they remember even more than Chatman’s shot is LeVert’s reaction on the bench. He was out with another foot injury. They would have understood if he pouted. Instead, he stood rapt next to the coaches in street clothes, a white towel draped over his head.
LeVert crouched as the shot was airborne, almost willing it in. When it dropped, he darted into the pile ahead of almost everyone.
Surgery later that month — his third in about as many years — threatened LeVert’s draft status. He could not work out at the NBA draft combine. Some doctors suggested he interview with teams via Skype so that he didn’t have to endure long flights. LeVert and his team at Roc Nation refused. They knew he would ace in-person interviews.
The Spurs had been eying LeVert for months, wondering whether he might slip to them. In February 2016, the Nets hired Sean Marks, San Antonio’s assistant general manager. Brooklyn did not have a first-round pick and did not control their picks in 2017 or 2018, either — remnants of their disastrous 2013 trade for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.
Marks interviewed LeVert anyway. Flanked by coaches, trainers, and mental performance experts, Marks peppered LeVert with tough questions. Marks would not reveal specifics, only that the Nets were interested in how LeVert might respond to their intensive sports science program — minutes restrictions, close monitoring of every aspect of his health.
“He didn’t shy away from any of it,” Marks said. “He owns everything. ‘I’ve missed games. I understand the risk you’d be taking.’ We came away saying we loved his makeup — the humility and the honesty. There was no question he was going to max out his talent, and to me, that is always the defining question.”
LeVert was a gamble. Marks figured the Nets, climbing from perhaps the deepest hole in league history, had nothing to lose.
“The chances of the 20th pick panning out aren’t great,” Marks said. “We can take our time. We are in a rebuild. We are going to bet on our performance team and our player development team to take the 20th pick and turn him into something more.”
During the draft process, Marks confided in Atkinson that he thought LeVert, a 6-7 wing, could develop into a lead ball handler. “Sean was the first one in our group to say that,” Atkinson remembered. “I was skeptical. Curious, but skeptical. I saw the ballhandling, but I wasn’t sure about his decision-making.”
That was what this season would be about. LeVert seized some point guard duties last season, when the Nets lost both Jeremy Lin and D’Angelo Russell to injury. He would not give them back.
Only 10 rotation players have recorded more drives per 100 possession this season, per Second Spectrum tracking data, and the Nets have scored well when LeVert hits the paint.
He has an array of mean fakes for use in close quarters, including a Rajon Rondo-style move in which he picks up his dribble under the rim, reaches the ball far out with one hand, tricks his defender into jumping, and then lays it in. Vaughn urged him to develop a counter, and so LeVert did: He’ll extend the ball toward the baseline, and then spin back into the paint for a layup.
“Those are the things I love,” Vaughn said.
The ease with which LeVert reaches paydirt almost works against the notion of rounding out his game. “He gets going so fast in that tunnel that he almost can’t see,” Atkinson said.
He cited a play against the Pistons on Oct. 31, when LeVert followed a nasty in-and-out dribble — one of his best moves — with a crossover that nearly toppled Andre Drummond. But Drummond kept his balance, and recovered to swat LeVert at the rim as Dudley stood wide open in the corner.
Atkinson showed LeVert that clip after the game. “There are times he’s so hell-bent on driving, he doesn’t see guys are wide, naked open,” Atkinson said.
Dudley regularly shows LeVert one or two clips of missed passes, sometimes even at halftime. LeVert rewinds, and asks follow-up questions. “Some young guys don’t want to hear you,” Dudley said. “Caris does it the right way.”
LeVert understands he has to be more than a scorer. He repeats Dinwiddie’s advice in his head: “Be quick to the paint, but slow when you get there.” He has learned to zip around picks, pin defenders on his hip, and scan for open passing lanes.
Like many of the best ball handlers, LeVert does a lot of his work before even using a pick. He baits defenders into lurching the wrong way with several pet moves — shoulder fakes toward a pick or away from it, ball fakes, that nasty in-and-out dribble.
He knows all the basic pick-and-roll reads. He has a nice chemistry on drop-off passes with Jarrett Allen, fast emerging as another Nets centerpiece. He can slingshot passes to shooters in the weakside corner with either hand; before his injury, LeVert was starting to time those passes so that help defenders were still leaning into the paint — momentum going away from LeVert’s target — when he released the ball.
“He’ll throw a left-handed hook pass to the corner, and you’ll say, ‘Holy s—, where did that come from?'” Atkinson said.
It comes from work. “Getting into the paint is easy,” LeVert said. “Seeing if the help comes is easy — they either come or they don’t. The hard part for me is seeing early where it’s coming from and when — and if I can still finish, or if I should pass it off. Deciphering all that without overcomplicating it has been a challenge.”
Part of the challenge: Sometimes going slow is the wrong answer. LeVert is lethal when he cuts down the dance moves and just goes:
He could not have powered through a big man with such ferocity last season. This season was all about finding balance — between shooting and passing, fast and slow.
LeVert grew comfortable enough to sometimes wave off Atkinson’s play calls — to Atkinson’s delight. “He used to listen to me,” Atkinson said, laughing.
Everything had been coming together before Monday. As he asserted his place within the Nets, LeVert readied to do the same within the larger Brooklyn community. He recently launched the “22 Initiative,” selecting 22 (LeVert’s jersey number) high school students around Brooklyn for a mentorship program. LeVert will follow their academic progress, visit their schools, organize training events, and invite them to games.
On the court, LeVert wasn’t all the way there. He hit just 31 percent from deep before the injury. He can get too cute with interior passes, and over-dribble into tight spots.
He’ll pass up the occasional open 3 for high-wire drives.
“I tell him, if you shoot 10 open 3s in a game, that’s good,” Atkinson said. “Driving is his comfort zone. The next level is getting him out of that comfort zone and accepting those 3s.”
The Nets had been on him to finish possessions on defense, and bump his rebounds up from 4.3 per game to seven, coaches said.
But LeVert was, and is, unquestionably on his way. LeVert developing into at least a borderline All-Star would mean everything to the Nets. All the fawning over Marks’ rebuilding of a broken franchise resulted in some snickering among rivals: For all the losing, and all the savvy trades on the margins, what exactly do the Nets have in high-end talent? Do they have one guy who would start on a good team?
There was some truth in that. Russell remains a question mark. Dinwiddie is a wonderful find, but his absolute ceiling is probably something like an average starting point guard. The Nets chose Allen Crabbe over acquiring another first-round pick in a salary dump, and that bet looks like a bust.
LeVert gives them something real to build around. Without him for at least part of the season, Brooklyn might accidentally tank out of the playoff race — and into position to find another such player.
“He wants to be great,” Marks said, “and he’ll put in all the work it takes to get there.”
Monday won’t change that.