Brooklyn Nets: Caris LeVert puts on a 2-way show

Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images)
Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images) /

Caris LeVert was positively dominant for the Brooklyn Nets Tuesday night, scoring 26 points at one end and neutralizing Devin Booker at the other.

The unluckiest break of Caris Levert’s career might have turned out to be the best break possible for the Brooklyn Nets.

LeVert’s breakout tour through the 2018-19 season rolled through Talking Stick Resort Arena Tuesday night, as the third-year wing scored a game-high 26 points and locked down Phoenix Suns’ star Devin Booker as the Nets rolled to a dominant 104-82 victory.

The 26 points marked the seventh time this season LeVert scored at least 20 points in a game, matching his total from his first two NBA seasons.

The players knew. They knew right away. From the time training camp opened, Nets players raved about how far LeVert had come, how much he had improved, what a huge season he was in store for.

The coaches knew. Their assessments of LeVert two months ago or so were just as complimentary as were those of his teammates.

But this is the NBA and every year guys are lauded for great training camps and great offseasons, only to turn out to be pretty much the same guy they had been before.

But LeVert is delivering the goods.

After the win in Phoenix, LeVert is averaging 20.5 points per game, adding 4.6 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.5 steals in 31.5 minutes a night, while shooting .491/.353/.792.

He was 10-for-16 on Tuesday, 3-for-6 from deep, and the job he did on Booker was just as important.

Booker, one of the NBA’s top scorers and owner of a 70-point game already in his young career, was harried and harassed by LeVert much of the night. Booker scored 20 points, but it took him 21 shots to do it.

Booker was just 6-for-21 and 2-for-8 from 3-point land. The open looks just were not there. LeVert was always around, restricting Booker’s space. When the Phoenix star tried to go inside, LeVert was there to challenge, blocking one of Booker’s drives with the left hand.

At age 24, LeVert is proving that you don’t have to be a one-and-done collegiate player or a high lottery pick to become a star.

While at the University of Michigan, LeVert was being forecast as a lottery pick before a troublesome left foot intervened. His junior season at Michigan was shortened by a broken bone in the foot. So was his senior year.

Surgery in March 2016 left him hobbling around the NBA Combine in a walking boot, unable to show off any of his on-court skills.

And on draft night, pick after pick came and went with LeVert still on the board. He was finally taken 20th overall by the Indiana Pacers before new general manager Sean Marks swung a deal to sent veteran power forward Thaddeus Young to Indiana to get LeVert’s rights.

Still recovering from surgery, LeVert didn’t make his NBA debut until December 2016. He wound up playing in 57 games, starting 26, for a Nets team that won just 20 games. He averaged 8.2 points and 3.3 rebounds in 21.7 minutes per game, shooting .450/.321/.720.

There were flashes, but he had a long way to go.

Last season, LeVert was mostly used as a reserve, but got an opportunity to play some minutes at the point guard spot early in the season when first Jeremy Lin and then D’Angelo Russell went down with knee injuries.

His playing time increased to 26.3 minutes a night and his numbers went up accordingly, as he averaged 12.1 points, 3.7 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 1.2 steals. His shooting was a struggle early in the year, but improved as the season progressed and he wound up at .435/.347/.711.

Fast forward to the beginning of this season and LeVert is playing like a guy who — particularly if the Nets continue to hover around the .500 mark — could end the franchise’s All-Star drought.

Brooklyn’s last All-Star was Joe Johnson in 2014, but LeVert has the look of a player on the cusp of that status.

He’s got a whole cabinet full of moves once he gets into the paint and his touch from 3-point range is much more consistent than it had been.

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Throw in his ball-handling skills and a defensive game that is hugely improved and you’ve also got a guy who is very much throwing his hat in the ring for Most Improved Player honors this season.