Through the first 13 games of last season, third-year guard Caris LeVert was such a dominant presence for the Nets that he was generating All-Star buzz. But in Game No. 14, he suffered a horrific dislocated right ankle that sidelined him for the next 42 games before he returned and again assumed the role of the Nets’ best player in their first-round playoff loss to the 76ers.
That comeback was enough to convince the Nets to give LeVert a three-year contract extension worth $52.5 million, but he faces a different dynamic this season in terms of learning to mesh in the backcourt alongside free-agent All-Star Kyrie Irving.
For the third straight day, Irving sat out practice because of a facial injury suffered in a pickup game a week ago, but LeVert said he and his new backcourt partner made good progress playing together in the offseason.
“It’s been fun,” LeVert said after Monday’s practice. “I’m learning a lot from him, and we’ll continue to build that chemistry . . . I think we’ll be able to play off of each other, make the game easier for each other and hopefully get a lot of wins.”
Coach Kenny Atkinson called the new partnership a work in progress, but when asked how two players who both like to have the ball in their hands and drive to the basket might adjust, he cited their versatility.
“Kyrie is a great catch-and-shoot shooter,” Atkinson said. “Kyrie always tells me, ‘I’m really good off the ball, too.’ When Caris is driving, you know you have another shooter out there, so I think it works well . . . I always say that I’d love multiple ballhandlers, multiple downhill guys. At the end of the day, that’s what sucks the defense in.”
The key to success for LeVert simply is remaining healthy. In three NBA seasons, he has played in 168 games and missed 78. When he recovered from his dislocated ankle in February, he struggled to find his early-season form, but when it counted most, he came through in the playoffs.
“It was very important,” LeVert said of his comeback. “Last season I experienced a lot of emotions with basketball from the highs to the lows, game-winners to being scoreless. I feel like I really grew as a player in a lot of those moments, especially coming back from injury. I feel like I’m back to myself.”
Atkinson said LeVert “is always top of the chart in terms of offseason dedication” and suggested he’s much stronger than he’s ever been. Incoming veteran Garrett Temple, who figures to be LeVert’s backup at shooting guard, has been very impressed.
“He can really score the ball,” Temple said. “Offensively, he’s very gifted. He plays like he’s 230 pounds when he’s really like 200. With his ability to create off the dribble, he’s going to be a really good player in this league for a long time.”
The question now is whether LeVert can match last season’s hot start. “There are guys that want to be great, and then there are guys who are desperate to be great,” Atkinson said. “He’s in that desperate category, and there’s only a small percentage of guys that are like that.”