ANNAPOLIS, Md. — The brightest development of the Nets’ miserable 20-62 season had to be the promise shown by first-round rookie Caris LeVert, who got a late start coming off foot surgery but became the starting small forward following the All-Star break when they played their best basketball.
LeVert and 21-year-old guard D’Angelo Russell, who was acquired in the offseason from the Lakers, are viewed by most Nets fans as core building blocks for the long-term future, but the addition of veterans DeMarre Carroll and Allen Crabbe have complicated LeVert’s immediate future. Carroll can play both forward positions, Crabbe is a combo wing player like LeVert and both are better three-point shooters than LeVert.
Asked to describe LeVert’s role following the first training camp practice Tuesday at the U.S. Naval Academy, coach Kenny Atkinson said, “Caris is going to make it hard on me, he’s going to make it hard for the guys he’s competing against. That being said, I know where he is in his career and the type of guy he is, he’s going to accept whatever role it is.”
Atkinson agreed it’s important for LeVert to develop chemistry with Russell, but he suggested the urgency to win games might mean that those two could play with the second unit when starting point guard Jeremy Lin sits.
“We have to do what’s best for the team at the end of the day,” Atkinson said. “I’m not going to look at the media guide and say, ‘He’s 22. We’re going to play him,’ and the other guy is playing better. I’m not going to do that. Let’s see how it works out.”
As a team-first type of player, LeVert said it doesn’t matter whether he starts or comes off the bench. But he and Russell have been working over the summer to get to know each other’s games.
“It’s very important,” LeVert said. “We’re two young guys along with the other young guys, and we’re looking forward to playing with each other for a long time. The quicker we get used to playing with one another, the better.”
LeVert’s defensive skill will help him. He was a part of the improved team defense that helped the Nets go 10-12 in the final quarter of the season. Atkinson said 90 percent of the first practice and film session were devoted to developing defensive principles. Of course, Carroll, who played for Atkinson when he was an assistant in Atlanta, also is regarded as a defensive stopper.
If LeVert wants to expand his role, he must improve his three-point shooting. He hit a pedestrian 32.1 percent beyond the arc as a rookie but was 57.1 percent on two-point shots because of his ability to get to the rim.
“With Caris, it’s a little bit of the curse of the really good driver and creator,” Atkinson said. “It’s like, ‘Man, I know I can make a move and get by a guy.’ He had a super-high finishing rate last year.”
Studying film of his summer-league play helped LeVert recognize that he sometimes passes wide-open perimeter shots to drive inside. “I feel like a lot of it was just being more ready to shoot and then just trusting it,” LeVert said. “Like coach said, a lot of times, I think basket first and I’m wide-open. So, it’s just having that shooter’s mentality and shooting the basketball.”