Brooklyn Nets: 2 players make ESPN’s young stars list

Brooklyn Nets D'Angelo Russell Caris LeVert (Photo by Matteo Marchi/Getty Images)
Brooklyn Nets D'Angelo Russell Caris LeVert (Photo by Matteo Marchi/Getty Images) /

Earlier this week, ranked the top 25 players in the NBA younger than 25 and the Brooklyn Nets got some attention with 2 selections.

ESPN’s NBA Insiders earlier this week released their updated list of the 25 top players younger than 25, based on potential. The Brooklyn Nets landed two selections this year, with D’Angelo Russell and Caris LeVert both making the list.

Russell tied for 13th on the list with Finnish forward Lauri Markkanen of the Chicago Bulls, while LeVert was in a tie for 21st with Sacramento Kings rookie big man Marvin Bagley III.

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But here’s the thing about a list based on potential: Neither Russell, now 23 years old and in his fourth NBA season, nor LeVert, who will turn 25 in August and is in his third year, made last year’s list from the same source.

Impressive that Russell and LeVert were able to add so much potential over the last 12 months.

Even more impressive that the Nets — 28-54 last season — had no one on their roster with top-level potential a year ago and suddenly now have two such players when they are playing better than .500 basketball.

Lists such as these will always contain a great deal of recency bias. Russell is playing well this year while being injured for much of last season, LeVert got off to a terrific start this season after being injured, while playing mostly as a reserve in 2017-18.

More than that, however, is the fact these two guys are playing for an organization in the Brooklyn Nets that has turned some heads this season with its improved play. Las Vegas projected the Nets win total at an over/under mark of 32.5.

Brooklyn currently has 32 wins with 19 games remaining in the season, so the over appears to have been a safe bet.

The analysts — Chris Herring, Bobby Marks and Kevin Pelton — ranked their top 25 “based on future potential,” but the list reads much more like a list of the best 25 players right now in the specified age bracket, with some future potential talk tossed in.

More precisely, how center Jarrett Allen — who will complete his second full NBA season before his 21st birthday — isn’t one of the top 25 NBA players younger than 25 based on potential is mystifying, considering so many analysts specifically refer to Allen when talking about the future of the franchise.

Allen didn’t get a mention from any of the three evaluators.

Another mystery of the list: Kristaps Porzingis, who last year had the same torn ACL from which he’s still recovering, fell from a tie for sixth all the way to 11th. His potential has lessened considerably over 12 months, apparently.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with doing a list of the top 25 players right now who happen to be younger than 25, but couching it in potential when it’s clear the list refers much more to how those players are performing in the present is a bit disingenuous.

Here was what the report had to say about Russell, who was ranked 15th by Herring, 20th by Marks and ninth by Pelton (who wrote the narrative):

"It took four years for Russell to make good on his potential as the No. 2 pick in 2015 by the Lakers, but improved 3-point shooting (2.8 makes per game on career-best 37 percent accuracy) and greater maturity translated into an All-Star selection.Russell’s defensive limitations put a cap on his long-term potential, which explains why he rates behind younger players who are currently less productive. He’ll also have to prove his success is sustainable. Still, Russell’s breakout came at the right time, as he’ll be a coveted restricted free agent this summer."

Speaking of that defense thing, Russell is averaging 2.0 deflections per game this season, second on the Brooklyn roster behind LeVert. That is up from 1.7 last season.

Deflections aren’t an end-all definition of a player’s defensive prowess, but the increased numbers do show an increased attention to detail at the defensive end. He’s not Tony Allen, but Russell now fights hard to get over screens, tries to stay engaged with his assignment and keeps his hands active.

And his block on Derrick White of the San Antonio Spurs Monday night after White had erased one of his attempts at the other end was a play Russell doesn’t make before this season.

As for LeVert, he was ranked 16th by Herring and was not mentioned by either Marks or Pelton. Not surprisingly, Herring wrote the narrative:

"The Brooklyn swingman was fortunate to avoid what, at the time, looked like it would be a season-ending injury when he suffered a dislocated right foot. But in the time he missed, D’Angelo Russell became an All-Star, perhaps forcing LeVert to take at least a half-step back in the offense while he regains his bearings.Nonetheless, the 6-foot-7 wing has shown the ability to potentially average 20-5-5 in extended minutes, all while playing above-average D. It just may take him time to shake off rust — or an opportunity to showcase his ability without having to split the ballhandling responsibilities with such capable players as Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie."

Yes, it’s taking LeVert some time to get his rhythm and timing back after being away for almost three months and missing 42 games.

In the seven games he’s played since coming back Feb. 8 against the Chicago Bulls, LeVert has started the last five and is averaging 8.9 points, 3.9 assists, 3.0 rebounds and 1.3 steals in 23.6 minutes per game while shooting 32.4 percent overall and 25.9 percent on 3.9 attempts per game from 3-point range.

Athletically, LeVert has looked solid — same quick first step, same burst to the rim, same long, rangy defensive skills.

It’s just a matter of timing and repetition now. It’s extremely difficult to step back into a rotation after missing more than half a season and it’s made more difficult by the Nets being in a playoff race — the first for many of the key performers on the roster.

The biggest thing LeVert needs is playing time and the biggest thing the fans need is patience.

It is nice to see the Nets getting some recognition on the national stage for the young talent they’ve managed to accumulate despite not having lottery picks with which to do it.

There are other young players on the roster to be bullish about — second-round pick Rodions Kurucs is fearless, active, plays hard on defense and could develop into a high-level starter and role player.

Dzanan Musa‘s offensive potential is gigantic, particularly as a 6-foot-9 player with point guard and shooting guard skills.

His lack of length may hamper him defensively and he’s still got a lot to learn in terms of decision-making at the offensive end, but he often pops out in NBA G League play as the best player on the court for long stretches at a time.

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For the seventh-youngest player in the league, a kid who won’t turn 20 until early May, that would seem to speak to big potential.