On June 22, the Brooklyn Nets traded Brook Lopez and the 27th pick in the NBA Draft for D’Angelo Russell and the contract formerly known as Timofey Mozgov. Moving DLo for Lopez was an understandable move for both teams, as the Lakers wanted to create cap room to make a splash in 2018 free agency, and so they took on Lopez’s expiring contract. Meanwhile, the Brooklyn Nets took a flyer on the 2015 second overall pick D’Angelo Russell, due to their lack of draft picks and need for young talent.
After this move, many people thought that Russell would immediately become the face and first option of this Nets team desperately in need of an identity that doesn’t scream hilariously awful because seriously, the Nets pretty much did NBA heroin, by risking their future (first round picks) for temporary enjoyment (36-year-old Paul Pierce and 37-year-old Kevin Garnett), and haven’t recovered. However, despite this move definitely being a step in the right direction for the Brooklyn Nets, D’Angelo Russell will not be the main face of this franchise, as the team already has their future star and main ball handler in Caris LeVert. I know what you’re thinking. LeVert just came off of a pretty mediocre rookie season averaging 8.2 points per game with a -1.1 box plus minus, which was not very spectacular, and played 84% of his minutes at small forward. However, behind these numbers have been a pretty promising rookie season, and I expect a very improved sophomore year to follow.
The first thing particularly noticeable about LeVert’s game is his ability to handle the ball. Despite being 6’7” and playing most of his minutes at small forward, LeVert can pretty much handle the ball like a guard, with an above average 12.3% turnover percentage. We’ve probably all seen him crossover Wayne Ellington and nail a three...
...but his handles aren’t just good for breaking ankles, as he has also proven to navigate the pick and roll very well, with an effective field goal percentage of 53.4% in those situations. This is better than legitimate point guards like Deron Williams, John Wall, Ish Smith and Jrue Holiday, who were all put in at least twice the pick and rolls.
This is because not only can LeVert handle like a point guard, but he also has the speed of one, as well. Not only does this speed make him very effective in the pick and roll, but it also makes his a great transition player with 1.21 transition points per possession. He also happens to be a very crafty passer, who can make quick decision plays. This makes him a very dangerous player on drives, as not only does LeVert have a 55% field goal percentage in those situations, but he also has an 11.1% assist percentage on drives, which is better than point guards like Jeff Teague, Goran Dragic and John Wall, who are known for their clash and kick style.
Part of the reason why LeVert is so intriguing is because he is pretty much a point guard, or at least a combo guard, but with small forward length, standing at 6’7” with a 6’10” wingspan. He is an effective scorer in many ways, as shown by his above average 55.6% true shooting percentage and 57.1% two-point percentage, and also happens to be a decent playmaker.
However, with all of this being said, LeVert’s game is not perfect, as he has three notable flaws in his NBA career so far, being three-point shooting, defense and his extensive injury history. Though, at least for the first two, he should be able to improve these to get to at least league average, which would make him an even more dangerous scorer.
Let’s start with his three-point deficiencies. Although LeVert shot just 32.1% from three this year, which is about four percent less than average, he did have a mid-range shooting percentage of 48.7%, which was one of the best in the league. He also happened to shoot 40.1% from three-point land in college, meaning that this drop-off in three-point percentage could have very well been because of the switch from college to the NBA, and the extended three-point line, as he has definitely shot the ball well, just not from three this year. This is not unique to him at all, as rookies have shot just 32.2% from three-point land. I expect LeVert’s three-point percentage to go up when he is comfortable with the NBA three-point line, which should be pretty soon, as his three-point percentage did rise from 30.1% from before the All-Star break to 34.1% after, and so a league average 36% is definitely not out of the question, especially due to the fact that he did not have time to work on his jumper in the offseason last year, as he was recovering from a Jones fracture (but we’ll get to that later). Expect him to be at least a league average three-point shooter next year.
Let me make something clear, LeVert’s -.4 defensive box plus minus is below average by definition. Let me make another thing clear, on a team like the Brooklyn Nets who had a 23rd in the league defensive rating of 110.7, a DBPM of -.4 is tied for fifth best on the team. And if you look at some of LeVert’s play type defensive stats, in certain situations, he was a very good defender. He allowed just .84 points per possession in isolation, which is better than defensive juggernauts Kent Bazemore and Andre Roberson. Admittedly though, LeVert is not a great defender overall, with an opposing field goal percentage of 47.3%, 2.4% worse than the average field goal percentage of LeVert’s defensive assignments, but once again, this could just be because rookies happen to have trouble defensively. The average opposing field goal percentage for rookies was 46.6%, and of the eleven rookie perimeter players who played as many minutes as LeVert, only Kris Dunn, Rodney McGruder and Andrew Harrison had positive DBPMs, so much like his three-point percentage, you should expect LeVert’s defense to get better with age, as well, and it is not jeopardizing to the team right now as it is, as the team’s defensive rating improves by 1.4 points per 100 possessions when he is on the floor.
The last main problem for LeVert is his extensive injury history. In his sophomore year at the University of Michigan, LeVert fractured his foot in May. In his junior year, LeVert played just 18 games, due to him reinjuring his foot in January. In his senior year, LeVert suffered a Jones fracture and played just 15 games. In his rookie year with the Nets, LeVert missed the first 20 games in the season recovering from the fracture, and then missed five more throughout the rest of the season. Unlike with his three-point shooting and defense, I cannot give proof supporting the fact that he will improve on his injury proneness, and at 6’7”, 200 pounds, LeVert does need to gain some weight, which could potentially be part of the reason he is getting injured so often (I’m not a doctor). However, I can say that when he was on the court, he did not play hurt, which is really all you could ask for. He was fifth among rookies of his minute total in drives per 36 minutes, with 5.6, which proves that he is still getting to the basket. He was also tenth in minutes per game for rookies with 21.7. As well as that, there have been players with foot injuries who have had long and successful NBA careers, and so this is not really an NBA death sentence, but just one of LeVert’s few major faults as a basketball player.
LeVert has proven to be a better player on the ball than D’Angelo Russell, who has an awful 43.6% effective field goal percentage in pick and roll situations, a 46% drive field goal percentage and 8.1% assist percentage, and despite having one less year of experience, LeVert is the more polished player, as he is better than Russell in field goal percentage (45%>40.8%), true shooting percentage (55.6%>51.2%), win shares per 48 (.07>.015) and box plus minus (-1.1>-1.2). The Lakers already planned to play D’Angelo Russell off the ball and let Lonzo Ball run the offense if they kept Russell, however, now that Russell is a Net, it might still be more beneficial to play him off the ball, with a player like LeVert. Russell’s three-point percentage is four percent better on the catch-and-shoot anyways, so having more of those opportunities would be more beneficial, while LeVert’s drive assist percentage shows that he is willing to dish it out. Russell also has the size, at 6’5” to offensively play shooting guard, as well.
In an era where players like Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden have become successful as non-traditional point guards, I see no reason why LeVert cannot be one as well. Sure, he is not (and probably never will be) as good as Giannis and Harden, but in his rookie year, he is certainly more polished as a main ball handler than Giannis and Harden were in their rookie years in terms of assists and turnovers, as well as true shooting percentage (55.6%>Harden’s 55.1%>Antetokounmpo’s 51.8%), which indicates that he probably had a better shot selection, as well.
Although LeVert was not nearly as proven as Harden and Antetokounmpo were when they were given de facto point guard duties, which was this season for James Harden when he was already one of the best players in the league, and last year for Antetokounmpo, LeVert seems to pretty much play point guard better than D’Angelo Russell, and also better than Jeremy Lin, who started at point guard 33 of his 36 games for the Brooklyn Nets. Lin’s 46.6% effective field goal percentage on pick and rolls and 44.4% drive field goal percentage and 10.6% true shooting percentage happen to be much worse than LeVert’s, and like Russell, Lin shoots four percent better on catch-and-shoot threes than on pull ups. Perhaps it would be best for the Nets to not play a traditional ball-dominating point guard, but multiple guys who can handle the ball, with LeVert being the main, but not overpowering ball handler, similarly to when he was at Michigan in his senior year, when led the team in assists per game at 4.9.
In this new age NBA, teams are not boxing their players into traditional positional roles, and offenses have been better than ever, with 2016-2017’s offensive rating being the highest in league history at 108.8. Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson also happens to be a coach willing to try new things with the team finishing 20-62, so why not experiment with the idea of letting LeVert run the point.