As the Nets approached the regular season, there was a steady drumbeat of praise predicting great things for Caris LeVert in his third season after he seemed to take a quantum leap over the summer and in training camp. LeVert backed up the hype by scoring at least 19 points in nine of his first 11 games before suffering a dislocated right ankle on Nov. 12 in game No. 14.
The injury had such a chilling effect on the locker room that many players were in tears after that game and worried LeVert’s season not only might be over, but his career might be compromised. As it turned out, no surgery was required and LeVert returned with 11 points, five steals and four assists in 15 minutes of a loss to the lowly Bulls Friday night.
Despite the loss, LeVert’s teammates were thrilled to see how healthy he looked. “He looked comfortable,” Allen Crabbe said. “Game rhythm may have been a little off for him. He hasn’t played in three months. But he looked good. He looked aggressive. He got to the basket like he usually does. It’s just going to take probably not even that long for him to get back to himself. I don’t think he lost too much of a step.”
LeVert’s five steals tied his career-high and were the most in a game by anyone on the Nets this season. Despite a poor defensive effort by the Nets overall, it’s clear LeVert’s length can make a difference on the perimeter.
“I was just in good position,” LeVert said of his steals. “They kind of threw me the ball. A couple of them, I gambled, and it turned out the right way.”
In the fourth quarter, LeVert scored nine points on 4-for-8 shooting, going hard to the rim on all four baskets and playing through contact that left him sprawled on the floor twice. He bounced right back up, which was a heartening sight for his teammates.
“It’s encouraging that he’s still going up with a lot of confidence,” center Jarrett Allen said. “He’s not letting the injury hold him back . . . It’s amazing seeing him back out there. He’s coming back to his old self. He’s still not totally there, but you saw a glimpse of it.”
The timing of LeVert’s return on the day after the NBA trade deadline was almost too good to be true, as if choreographed by the Nets. General manager Sean Marks denied that was the plan, crediting the Nets’ performance team and LeVert’s own determination.
“If you want to talk about driven and a purpose, the way Caris attacked his rehab was phenomenal,” Marks said. “Credit to the performance team and [assistant coach] Jacque Vaughn, specifically, who was really with him through this whole thing. The performance team did an amazing job, and honestly, it was led by Caris.”