Brooklyn Nets guard Caris LeVert gestures in the second half...

Brooklyn Nets guard Caris LeVert gestures in the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Memphis Grizzlies at Barclays Center on Wednesday, March 4, 2020. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

For the past year since the Nets acquired superstar free agents Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, the core topic of discussion has been whether the Nets have a homegrown “third star” to pair with them or whether they need to trade assets to find one. But as they prepare for a first-round playoff matchup against the defending NBA champion Raptors that begins Monday, it’s clear Caris LeVert has emerged as their leader and leading candidate for that “third star” designation.

On Saturday, LeVert was voted to the second team of the All-NBA seedings team based on the last eight regular-season games played at Disney World in Orlando. But really, LeVert took over for the Nets starting in March with his career-high 51-point game in a road win at Boston that was followed two games later by his first triple-double. In the 11 games he has played in that span (sitting out two in Orlando), LeVert has averaged 26.1 points, 5.6 rebounds, 6.4 assists and 1.3 steals while shooting 48.6 percent overall and 35.4 percent from three-point range.

Coach Jacque Vaughn made him the point guard and has given him freedom to post up or to create for his teammates. It was all on display in Thursday’s one-point loss to Portland when LeVert had 37 points but missed a buzzer-beater that would have won the game.

“He had a really great pace about him,” Vaughn said of how LeVert kept the Nets’ offense on a par with the Trail Blazers and all-seeding MVP Damian Lillard. “He was surveying the defense and getting to his spots, pull-up, attacking the rim. He had that balance of creating for himself, getting out in transition, getting into the paint and just making the right play. No better person to have the ball in his hands [at the end].”

LeVert credited his close relationship with Vaughn and the trust they have built for allowing him the opportunity to take control and excel. “He’s still my development coach, and we still work out as if he was the assistant coach,” LeVert said of Vaughn, who succeeded Kenny Atkinson in March two games before the NBA hiatus. “He’s still in drills with me. He’s still doing my pregame rituals.

“I feel like it’s just that everyday camaraderie. We trust each other.

“We look forward to the series against the Raptors. It’s my job to go out there and make the right decision. I’m still working through that, and it will be better in the playoffs . . . We know that we have a battle, we know they’re the defending champs, but we’re going in there knowing that we like our chances against anybody.”

Following practice on Saturday, LeVert said Irving called him Friday morning to discuss his play. “He was just giving me encouragement, telling me to keep going and he’s watching all the games and things like that. It’s always good to hear from those guys. They’ve been in this position before, fighting for something. So, I really cherish those conversations.”

Over the second half of the schedule in the NBA bubble, Vaughn paired veteran Garrett Temple in the backcourt with LeVert, and they quickly developed a rapport. Temple said their play against the Trail Blazers’ backcourt of Lillard and CJ McCollum was great preparation for facing Raptors guards Kyle Lowry and Fred Van Vleet.

“Caris, his leadership has taken a big, big step,” Temple said. “He’s usually a very quiet, chill guy, but he’s been more vocal since we’ve been here in the bubble. I’ve encouraged him to speak even more, and he’s done a great job of taking over the team . . .The way he leads is contagious. It’s great to see him taking on that leadership role because he definitely has that in him.”

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