Lichtenstein: Expecting Nets' LeVert To Make Leap Requires A Gigantic Leap Of Faith

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Like all NBA head coaches, Kenny Atkinson plans to use the Nets’ preseason games to experiment with lineups.

With nominal power forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson sitting out Wednesday’s opener versus the Knicks at Barclays Center with a left abductor strain, Atkinson trotted out a small-ball starting five, with wing DeMarre Carroll in Hollis-Jefferson’s place.

An intended consequence was for Atkinson to get a look at how third-year wing Caris LeVert fit amongst the starters.

If you polled the Nets at last week’s Media Day, LeVert would have been the runaway winner as the player with the biggest “wow” factor during summer pickup games at Brooklyn’s HSS Practice Facility.

He was noticeably stronger, even more explosive.  He was finishing better at the basket.  His basketball IQ was always advanced, with a knack for finding open teammates.

Is LeVert, Brooklyn’s first-round pick (20th overall) in the 2016 NBA Draft, primed for a leap this season?

“To be confirmed,” Atkinson said prior to the Nets 107-102 loss to their cross-town rivals. “There’s definitely signs that he’s made a bit of a jump, but again, to be confirmed.  He’s got to do it during the regular season, obviously.  I think, number one, he’s made a big improvement physically.  He’s gotten a lot stronger, I think his movement patterns are better, he has better balance.  I think he’s really kind of understanding the pace to play at—changing speeds.  His first couple of years, he was always on fast forward and now he’s just mixing it up a lot more.  I want to see improvement from him defensively.  He’s going to have to be a stopper for us too. We’re looking for big things from him this season.”

Wednesday was only one meaningless exhibition, but I’m more skeptical than Atkinson.  The player I saw Wednesday looked awfully similar to last season’s version, with the same shooting mechanics that produces inconsistent efficiency from three-point range, the same problems navigating screens on the defensive end, and the same tendency to go for the high-degree-of-difficulty play when a simpler option was available.

MORE: 'City Game' Podcast: Breaking Down Knicks-Nets Preseason Action

Granted, LeVert has the ability to make some of those contorted shots, but not enough of them.  He went 6-for-14 from the floor (1-for-5 from three-point range) Wednesday with 2 assists and 3 turnovers in 21 minutes.

“I thought (LeVert) was up-and-down,” Atkinson said.  “I thought he did some good things.  Obviously, he gets to the rim well.  I thought some of those contested threes were on his plate.  Shot selection was one of the things that concerned me a little bit.”

LeVert was one of several Nets defenders who had issues staying attached to Knicks guard Alonzo Trier, a two-way contract player who scored 17 of his game-high 25 points during a second quarter run that turned a 15-point Nets lead into a 50-46 halftime deficit.

“It’s the first preseason game, so a lot of ticky-tac fouls were called,” LeVert said.  “I was kind of feeling the refs out a little bit.  Early in the season, they tend to call a little more fouls.  I think (Trier) took advantage of that and played a great game.”

Again, this is not about agonizing over the results of a meaningless game.  Several players (I.e. Carroll) did not appear to be giving full efforts, though LeVert should have been more motivated to show Atkinson he deserves more court time than the standard 24-26 minutes everyone seems to get in the Nets’ crowded guard/wing rotation.

This is about the premature elevation of LeVert into a player he might become, but also might not. At 24, the window where he is labeled “a young player” will close before you know it. 

LeVert might be a steal for his draft slot, which was due more to his multiple foot surgeries at Michigan than his talent.  However, as long as he’s a below-average three-point shooter (34.7 percent last season), turnover-prone (12.1 percent), and picked on defensively, he won’t become the star the social and mainstream media hype him to become.

The idea that the Nets should pass on adding a legitimate All Star like Minnesota’s Jimmy Butler just because they can’t part with LeVert is ludicrous, even if Butler: a) is 28 with loads of miles on his legs, and b) will be a free agent expecting to demand a max contract after the season.

It’s likely moot anyway, given that Minnesota is allegedly asking for the sun, the moon, and the stars in return for Butler.  If that is indeed the case, then Brooklyn general manager Sean Marks has been wise to stay away from depleting his limited assets for such a risk.  We can only wait to see what the end package comprises before making a judgement as to whether the Nets had a real opportunity.

However, someone like Butler has a history of making winning plays in fourth quarters on both ends.  Can LeVert develop into a player like that?

That’s a huge maybe.    

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Devils and Jets, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.