Rave reviews about the maturation of third-year wing man Caris LeVert have been a staple of training-camp practices, so the Nets’ preseason opener against the Knicks Wednesday night at Barclays Center figured to be a kind of unveiling with LeVert moving into the starting lineup.
After a slow start, LeVert demonstrated the kind of moves his teammates have been talking about, getting to the rim at will and sharing ballhandling duties with point guard D’Angelo Russell. But after building an early 15-point lead in the opening quarter, the Nets’ defense fell apart in the middle two quarters of what became a 107-102 loss.
LeVert led the Nets with 15 points, and second-round draft pick Rodions Kurucs made an impressive debut in fourth-quarter garbage time, scoring 13 points in 12 minutes to go with four rebounds, two assists and four steals. Besides a poor defensive effort that yielded 25 points to backup Knicks guard Allonzo Trier and 22 points and 20 rebounds to center Enes Kanter, the Nets shot only 19.5 percent from three-point range (8 of 41).
Before the game began, Nets coach Kenny Atkinson hinted that LeVert might remain in the starting lineup even when Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (strained adductor) returns from his injury to reclaim the power forward position played by DeMarre Carroll against the Knicks. Carroll was the starter at small forward last season but might give way to LeVert.
“He keeps getting better,” Atkinson said of LeVert before the game. “To be confirmed, right? But in offseason and even training camp practices, there’s definite signs that he’s made a bit of a jump. He’s got to do it during the regular season.”
Atkinson generally liked what he saw from LeVert during the game but was critical of his 1-for-5 three-point shooting. “Some of our contested threes were on his plate,” Atkinson said. “He needs to clean up his shot selection. That was one of the things that concerned me.”
LeVert smiled when that observation was relayed to him. “When I have a big guy on me, he prefers for me to drive to the basket,” LeVert said. “It’s a matter of finding the right rhythm.”
When the Nets’ starters were on the court, it was obvious LeVert and Russell could split the ballhandling almost equally this season, especially after LeVert spent so much time last season filling in as backup point guard. “He’s confident with or without the ball, and I am, too,” LeVert said of Russell. “Playing off each other is something we’re working at.”
Russell totaled 11 points and three assists but was only 1 of 4 from three-point range. Asked for his take on sharing the ball with LeVert, Russell said, “I think we have a lot of ballhandlers on the team. We complement each other. The more we play together, the more the chemistry will grow.”