PORTLAND — As a long, difficult season winds down, the Nets’ primary focus is on the Brook Lopez-Jeremy Lin pairing and whether to maintain it as part of the future. But the real building block, the one player who is sure to be part of the foundation, is forward Caris LeVert, who just recently became a fixture with the starting unit.
LeVert made his second career start in Denver at the beginning of their current eight-game road trip, and after missing the Golden State game with an illness, he was scheduled to make his third straight start against the Trail Blazers Saturday night at Moda Center.
In his first two games as a regular starter, LeVert scored in double figures at Denver (10 points) and at Sacramento (13), but he struggled along with the rest of the starting unit in a loss at Utah, scoring just four points, missing his three three-point attempts and finishing with a minus-19 rating for his 20 minutes on the floor.
But the ups and downs are part of the learning process, and coach Kenny Atkinson is thrilled with what he has seen from the first-round pick the Nets acquired last June in a trade for Thaddeus Young. “We’re really pleased with Caris and his progression so far,” Atkinson said earlier on the Nets’ road trip.
“We really like what he’s bringing defensively with his length and versatility. Offensively, he’s doing a great job. He passes the ball well, he’s good in the open court. He hasn’t shot the ball as well as I think he’s capable of, but that’s going to come with time and more reps and reading the game. I know he’s a first-round pick, but he’s a pleasant surprise for us.”
One of the traits Atkinson likes best about LeVert is the maturity he has shown for such a young player along with his ability to learn what is demanded of him quickly. Describing what he must do to maintain his starting status, LeVert said, “I just have to go out and do my job and compete defensively, make all the hustle plays and then knock down open shots.
“I just take every game as its own. Every game presents different things. Break down every possession. Don’t try to do too much or look at the game as a whole. Look at every possession and break it down like that.”
LeVert’s defensive ability jumps out right away. Atkinson hasn’t hesitated to match him against some of the league’s best scorers. Sometimes, the rookie gets burned, but just as often, he uses his athleticism to come from nowhere to make a steal and take it the length of the court for an easy basket.
Ever since his breakout 19-point performance against the defending champion Cavaliers on Jan. 6, LeVert’s progress on offense has been clear-cut. His scoring has gone up from 4.4 points in his first 14 games after recovering from offseason foot surgery to 8.9 points over the last 21 games before Saturday night’s game He’s scored in double figures 10 times compared to once in his first 14 game, and his shooting percentage has risen from .362 to .451.
LeVert’s three-point shooting remains a work in progress. He was 2-for-15 from beyond the arc in his previous five games before Saturday night. “I’m not really worried about that,” LeVert said of his improving offensive production. “I’m just worried about breaking down each possession and doing my job and then looking at the game as a whole.
“I feel like it’s an every day improvement type of thing. Nobody is where they want to be right now. I’m just trying to learn from other guys, learn from myself.”