CLEVELAND — Caris Le Vert’s rookie season is just 24 games old, but the trend on his performance graph is angling sharply upward not only in terms of raw numbers but based on the growing confidence coach Kenny Atkinson has expressed in the Nets’ first-round draft pick.
When the Nets stalled offensively while losing an 18-point fourth-quarter lead to Miami on Wednesday night, the coach put the ball in the rookie’s hands. Atkinson recently also expressed hope that LeVert will become the Nets’ defensive stopper even against the LeBron Jameses of the world.
That’s a tall order, but LeVert likely will get a shot to contain “King James” Friday night at Quicken Loans Arena, where the Nets (9-36) will face the defending NBA champion Cavaliers (30-14), who have lost six of their past eight games.
LeVert’s breakout game was his career-high 19-point effort in a 116-108 loss to the Cavs on Jan. 6 at Barclays Center. James scored 36 points, but when Le Vert covered him, the four-time MVP had to work for it.
At the time, Ohio native Le Vert spoke of facing James as a dream come true, but now he’s downplaying the matchup. “I’m just going to go in there and compete, play hard on the defensive end, lock in on what he likes to do and try to stop him from doing what he wants to do and then just play hard,” LeVert said. “Honestly, it’s not just LeBron, it’s anybody. I play hard every game.”
Atkinson is confident that the 6-7 wing has the length, speed and athleticism to defend multiple positions. “I think Caris can guard one through three,” Atkinson said. “I think he’s fast enough to guard the one, has the size to guard the two position.
“With starting threes, it’s a little difficult, you know, the LeBron Jameses of the world. But I think that’s the future for him. You’re putting him on their hot player or their best players. As he gets stronger, I think that will be his role.”
His offense isn’t bad, either. In the past 10 games, LeVert has averaged 10.9 points, shot .534 from the field and contributed 2.6 rebounds and 3.0 assists in 23.1 minutes.
“Right now, I feel like he’s a darn good pick-and-roll player,” Atkinson said after the Miami loss. “He did some good things and made some young mistakes. There’s got to be a balance between getting Brook [Lopez] the ball in the post and playing pick-and-roll.”
The significance of Atkinson’s words isn’t lost on LeVert. “Obviously, I’m a young guy,” he said, “so to get that kind of trust from the coach is big for me.”