NBA PM: Caris LeVert Flashing Major Upside

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In today’s age of information and analytics, even the casual NBA Draft aficionado knows the Plight of the Four-Year Senior.

As the thinking goes, many of these guys are already at too advanced an age for much more development at the next level. Combined with numbers often inflated by playing as 22-year-olds against teenagers, it’s easy to see where the concerns come from.

They’re regularly legitimate too, and some will tell you that standouts like Damian Lillard are the exceptions that prove the rule. This isn’t to say that college upperclassmen entering the NBA are doomed for across-the-board failure outside a few outliers like Lillard; plenty still carve valuable roles in the league. But from a purely quantitative standpoint, there’s no denying that the chances of finding a true star with several levels of NBA success still waiting to be unlocked are simply lower for seniors than blue-chip freshman or sophomores.

Context remains king, though, and it could look benevolently upon Brooklyn Nets rookie Caris LeVert.

Firstly, the whole “four-year” element doesn’t really apply to LeVert’s University of Michigan career.

“I only played, like, really two seasons of college,” LeVert told Basketball Insiders. “So I do still have a lot of development left.”

A foot injury began in his sophomore season before multiple re-injuries to the same foot cut short both his junior and senior years, plus his ability to participate in the NBA Draft Combine.

Consider fellow four-year senior Frank Kaminsky, drafted a year before LeVert in 2015. LeVert actually logged more total games than Kaminsky during their respective freshman and sophomore seasons, but his injuries saw him finish with 103 games played at the NCAA level, barely two thirds of Kaminsky’s 144 appearances over the same four-year period.

The obvious part first: The injuries are concerning, independent of any other trend they may relate to. LeVert’s eventual surgery in March of his senior year chased off some scouts – foot injuries are scary for tall people, and multiple issues with the same one signals a potentially recurrent issue that could have long term implications.

At the same time, a two-year injury history in the same location is far from a death knell. Plenty of guys have survived a couple unlucky breaks (pun partially intended), even before their NBA days. The odds are just lower, and that’s why LeVert made it all the way to pick 20 instead of the lottery, where he was projected to be selected for much of his pre-draft period. Meanwhile, maybe he never quite reached the point in his developmental trajectory that many guys his age do before hitting the NBA.

His time in college wasn’t wasted, by any means. LeVert is already well ahead of many of his rookie peers from a system standpoint, this after playing in a very pro-oriented John Beilein system for his entire collegiate career.

“My offense at Michigan was very similar to the one we run here [in Brooklyn],” LeVert told Basketball Insiders. “So I do think it prepared me. We had a lot of guys that played the wing position, played [the] guard position. We had four-out, one in, kind of like we do here, so it was real similar.”

The Nets’ offense is a Kenny Atkinson creation: Connect the dots a little, and LeVert’s presence in town seems like a bit more than a coincidence. Atkinson was hired well before the 2016 draft, and he freely admits to his interest in LeVert prior to the draft process. He even called Beilein to discuss the prospect before the draft.

The Nets were (and remain) in a really tough spot asset-wise after disastrous pick-related deals from the previous administration; finding high-ceiling guys without the proper draft avenues is really tough. It’s impossible to say what Atkinson’s involvement was in a trade that brought LeVert over from Indiana, but regardless, the Nets killed two birds with that stone – upside and fit.

LeVert’s length is where his positive projections first began. He’s part of the new breed of long guards, with a 6-foot-7 height supplemented by a long 6-foot-10 wingspan. Tweeners between positions used to be viewed negatively, but today, that kind of size at his position is an asset. That’s what Atkinson saw, too.

“Really what stood out first, before the offense, was his defensive versatility and IQ,” Atkinson said. “And that’s hard for a rookie.”

The Wolverines under Beilein are known historically for mixing up their looks between hybrid zones and man coverages, but LeVert describes it slightly differently.

Honestly, we didn’t even play zone that much,” LeVert told Basketball Insiders. “It was just kind of a gimmick defense, we kind of just scouted for it game-by-game. We played a lot of man-to-man.”

It’s important not to get too caught up in his use of the word “gimmick,” and here’s why: To some degree or another, and especially in the matchup-driven intensity of a playoff series, that’s what all NBA defenses are. Individual, game-by-game scouting is the way it’s done, particularly in the games that matter most. The ability of players to adapt between approaches is vital, especially for guys like LeVert who could see multiple assignments in the same game.

It’s early, but he’s already showing an advanced knowledge of timing for jumping passing lanes, a welcome sign.

LeVert moves in smooth, long strides, but with quicker reflexes than offensive players expect. His hands are quick and active, a big part of solid steal numbers at Michigan that have translated instantly to the NBA (his per-minute NBA steals actually exceed his NCAA totals, though on a smaller sample).

LeVert leads the Nets in per-minute deflections, per, and is in the league’s top 25 among guys logging at least 500 minutes on the year.

The team impact isn’t there yet, with LeVert grading out badly in the limited defensive metrics we have available. The noise created by playing for the worst team in the league plays some role, though, and his potential is unquestionable: With a little more work on his body, something both LeVert and teammates emphasize for him, he could be just the sort of switch-heavy perimeter defender the entire league covets today.

Long term, his offensive upside is at least as great. LeVert’s size allows him advantages on this end as well, and they’re supercharged when combined with his advanced eye for the game.

“What I’m really impressed with is his pick-and-roll ability,” Atkinson said. “He can pass the ball.”

LeVert averaged nearly 10 assists per-100-possessions in his senior year at Michigan, and his figures in the NBA so far have been good despite limited usage. The percentage of his passes that result in assists or positive results for his team trails only Jeremy Lin among Nets players, per SportVU data. He uses that height to make passes smaller guys probably aren’t trying.

That size is likely the reason he was so effective in college at finding the roll man – easily his greatest strength in pick-and-roll, per Synergy Sports data provided to Basketball Insiders. He’s carried that through to the NBA, with even greater passing efficiency figures (on an admittedly small sample): His roll men are finishing plays in the 88th efficiency percentile for the year, and he hasn’t turned the ball over a single time while finding his rim-runners this season. The spot-up shooters he’s found with pass-outs from the pick-and-roll are posting a gaudy effective field-goal percentage of 74.

A couple inches of height means more than you’d think, especially for a high-level thinker. His indicators here could improve even more when more of his teammates are NBA-level shot-makers.

Through the glare of his immense potential, though, we haven’t even gotten to LeVert’s most bankable current skill, one that’s never been more valuable in the NBA: Shooting.

Guys in high school used to call him “Baby Durant,” a nickname that’s lived on and made its way to his player page. LeVert was in the NCAA’s 99th percentile for spot-up shooting as a senior, per Synergy data, and crossed the 40 percent barrier from the college three-point line from his sophomore season onward. There’s a sample of 300-plus shots strongly suggesting he’s a knockdown shooter, and that combined with great form makes shaky early returns as a spot-up man in the NBA less concerning.

“Getting more comfortable with the NBA line,” LeVert told Basketball Insiders, when asked what his next step was as a shooter. “I think this summer will be big for me.”

In the meantime, he’s been flashing some other positives as well. He was one of the NCAA’s most efficient transition scorers, per Synergy data, a skill that’s immediately translated to Atkinson’s run-and-gun style. He’s showing strong initial returns as an isolation player, a role he wasn’t expected to play much coming out of Michigan. His stunningly deceptive jab-fake first step is a major asset both there and in pick-and-roll, and will mean even more when his spot-ups start falling and guys start closing out harder on him.

All this potential looks tantalizing for the 20th pick, regardless of his age, but it could come crashing down in a hurry if the injury bug rears its head again. An injury and subsequent re-injury to one area can be overcome; a third major issue anytime in the next few years will be a lot tougher, whether or not it’s anywhere near his foot. LeVert is focused on putting himself in the best position to avoid that, and it all starts with body work and strength.

“That’s an everyday thing,” LeVert said. “I think we lift, like, every day here.”

With little pressure elsewhere in Brooklyn, that’s the name of the game now. LeVert is one of the few true young rays of hope for the Nets, and keeping him on the court is vital.

He’s still going “a million miles an hour right now,” as Atkinson puts it, and that’s more than okay – Atkinson appreciates the hustle on nights when that sort of thing is tough to find for an 11-win cellar dweller.

“He tends to rush, like a lot of young players do,” Atkinson said. “I think when the game slows down and he gets more experience, he’s going to be a heck of a player in this league.”