By Steve Lichtenstein
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The NBA landscape is as arduous as the Ural Mountains for the Brooklyn Nets.
Losers of eight consecutive games following Thursday’s 104-95 crunch-time collapse against New Orleans, Brooklyn has a long way to go to just locate respectability. I mean, if the Nets can’t beat the Anthony Davis-less Pelicans at home, then who can they beat?
With no first-round draft pick of their own until 2019 and marquee free agents loathe to come to such a losing environment, the Nets, who dropped their league-worst record to 8-30 with Thursday’s loss, are the picture of gloom and doom.
But when I look closer at that picture, far into the distance, I can see a glimmer of light. I know that it’s way too soon to say for sure that it’s a diamond in the rough, but I can dream that it could be.
That glimmer of light is Nets rookie Caris LeVert.
LeVert, Brooklyn’s first-round pick after general manger Sean Marks dealt veteran forward Thaddeus Young to Indiana on the day of the draft, just might be the only reason to pay any attention to the final 44 games of this season.
The 6-foot-7 wing fell to the 20th overall selection because three foot surgeries in 22 months during his University of Michigan career scared off everyone but Marks, who to this day insists that he had LeVert going in the lottery on his draft board.
Marks fell in love with LeVert’s complete package — his length and athleticism to guard multiple positions, his ability to both score and create for teammates, and, most of all, his work ethic.
LeVert spent all summer and the first 20 games of this season rehabilitating from the most recent surgery in March. He waited until the Nets’ “performance team” gave coach Kenny Atkinson the go-ahead to work LeVert into practices and then, finally, games.
It was far from an explosive debut. LeVert had four rebounds and three steals in his nine minutes against the Nuggets on Dec. 7, but he was off the mark on all three of his field-goal attempts.
As is the Nets’ culture, young players are brought along sloooow-ly.
LeVert’s minutes were cut off somewhere in the teens for most of December.
In the last couple of weeks, however, Atkinson has put more on LeVert’s slight shoulders. His on-court time has exceeded 20 minutes in eight of his last 10 games and he experienced end-game duty against the Pelicans.
More impressively, LeVert has advanced from simply hanging around along the 3-point arc to facilitating offensive possessions from the top of the key.
“I’m similar to you guys — I’m learning about him,” Atkinson said of LeVert prior to Thursday’s game. “I watched a lot of film in college of him, but this is a different deal. I’m starting to just feel out who he is as a player. We’ve started to realize that he can create plays out of nothing, he can play a little pick-and-roll, which is a pleasant surprise. It’s hard because you don’t want to put too much on his plate. He’s trying to learn the wing position and the simple stuff in our offense, so we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. But on the other hand, I think we are willing to (let him) take some of that ballhandling responsibility. I like where he’s trending overall.”
Regarding his recent rise in aggressiveness on the offensive end, LeVert said, “I’m just trying to take advantage of situations. There’s a lot of focus on Sean (Kilpatrick) and Bojan (Bogdanovic), so I’m trying to take advantage of that.”
LeVert is more than a willing passer. His vision while dribbling is noticeable on a team with many players who often, as WFAN radio analyst Tim Capstraw puts it, “get caught in the air without a flight plan.” LeVert’s 2.25 assist-to-turnover ratio leads the Nets.
Defensively, LeVert’s long arms help him create shots in addition to deflections and steals. LeVert said learning how to defend pick-and-rolls is his biggest challenge.
“That’s something that we did differently in college,” LeVert said. “It’s just a matter of getting reps in games.”
As for the other areas where we can expect improvement, LeVert said, “Hopefully I can start hitting some shots soon. I feel like every other part is starting to come together slowly; the last part is me hitting some shots. I find myself open a lot in the corners, so I’ve got to knock that down.”
LeVert made only one of his five 3-point attempts versus the Pelicans, dropping his long-range efficiency for the season to 30.2 percent, including 28.6 percent from the short corners. He was a 40 percent 3-point shooter in college, so the form is there.
In any event, it isn’t fair to expect LeVert to have the league entirely figured out in his inaugural season. Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry was discussing his own rookie, forward Cheick Diallo, in his pre-game media scrum, but his comments were pertinent to LeVert as well.
“It’s tough to step in this league and just all of a sudden be this great player — not named LeBron James,” Gentry said. “But everybody else — you go back and look at Kobe (Bryant) his rookie year — has had to grow and understand.”
I’m willing to wait this out and get a longer look. Sure, it might turn out to be a mirage, like MarShon Brooks and so many other Nets’ draft day flashes.
For now, rooting for a team with so little hope, I can’t afford to dismiss the possibility that LeVert just might be a real jewel.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1