OAKLAND — Tell them Caris LeVert is coming.
That was the word that went out from the beginning of training camp almost to a man from LeVert’s teammates and coaches. It’s his time, they all said.
And LeVert has made them all look like prophets while emerging as the go-to guy for a Nets team that is off to a surprising 6-6 start and carries a three-game winning streak into Oracle Arena Saturday night against the two-time defending NBA champion Warriors.
LeVert kept the Nets’ resurgence going when he hit the last-second shot that beat the Nuggets, 112-110, Friday night in Denver. It was the second game-winner this season for LeVert, who is averaging 20.3 points to lead the Nets, and he is playing outstanding defense.
Obviously, LeVert had a great offseason body of work that impressed his teammates, but he says the difference in his game is as much mental as physical. “I think my confidence is a little bit higher,” LeVert said. “Last year, I had a tough start. I think it was more mental than anything else. I put a lot of pressure on myself. I’m not a lot different than I was last year, but it’s crazy what confidence can do.”
LeVert’s play has inspired coach Kenny Atkinson’s confidence in him. Atkinson routinely puts the ball in LeVert’s hands whenever the Nets need a big basket. The coach also challenged his 6-7 two-guard to try and make the same impact on defense that he does on offense.
“Listen I think he's grown,” Atkinson said. “Yes, he's grown in the end-of-game situations, but he's grown as a player. I thought he did a heck of a job on Gary Harris [who was held to four points on 1 of 11 shooting]. I keep saying he’s doing it on both ends, and he’s doing it consistently. That’s the big difference from last year.”
The third-year player responded to Atkinson’s challenge with his characteristic quiet determination. “Coach was like, ‘I feel like you’re good enough to play both ends of the court. We need that every night,’” LeVert recalled. “As one of the leaders of the team, I feel if guys see I’m kind of slacking off and I’m very capable of playing great defense, they’re naturally going to do the same thing. I try every night to take the challenge of whoever it is at two-guard or point guard that they put me on. I try to slow them down.”
LeVert’s growing confidence has spread to his teammates, who lately have cut down drastically on turnovers and stepped up their own defensive intensity. D’Angelo Russell suggested it is a function of a young core of players that is gaining experience together.
“A lot of guys had their first year [with the Nets] last year,” Russell said. “We’ve got a lot of guys coming back. We know what Kenny wants. It makes it easier for us.”
In his earnest, self-effacing way, LeVert said he’s not raising his sights to see how far the Nets might go. He’s staying in the moment, focusing on the next game.
But when asked to reflect on how far he and the Nets have come compared to his first two seasons, LeVert said, “It was tough. We had a lot of these games go the other way. My rookie year, we won one of those games when [Randy] Foye hit the game-winner, and that was kind of a desperation shot.
“My first two years in those situations have not gone well at all. It’s very demoralizing when you play a great game and you come out losing. This summer, we all kind of prepared our minds for those type of situations.”
LeVert is coming and he might be bringing the Nets with him.