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Lowe: Caris LeVert is still a cornerstone for Brooklyn

No one who has gotten to know Caris LeVert over the past half-decade — as an almost redshirt at the University of Michigan, and breakout star with the Brooklyn Nets — will be surprised to hear there will be minimal sulking after LeVert’s devastating leg injury Monday.

It is one of LeVert’s defining traits — something that has made him a beloved teammate, and cultural keystone of the Nets’ long rebuild: He takes joy in the success of others, even when things are not going well for him. At Michigan, those in the program were stunned LeVert sustained such positivity even as three foot surgeries derailed his career.

Across the Nets, there had been universal exhilaration at LeVert’s rise from preseason backup to franchise centerpiece. Even rivals for that status found themselves swept up in it, in part because LeVert always offers them the same emotional support.

“It is all genuine with Caris,” Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson said during an interview at the team’s practice facility two weeks ago. “He is real.”

It all overflowed after Brooklyn’s second game, when LeVert dusted Tim Hardaway Jr., his college teammate, and coaxed in a tilting layup to beat the Knicks. When Atkinson embraced LeVert in the locker room, LeVert smiled and told him, “I owed you one, Coach,” referencing some crunch-time error from Brooklyn’s season-opening loss in Detroit that Atkinson couldn’t even recall.

Player and coach fast developed a special relationship. Two years ago, Atkinson called LeVert to wish him a happy birthday but activated FaceTime by accident. (“I don’t even FaceTime my wife,” he said, not joking.) LeVert, surprised, picked up. Six months later, on Atkinson’s birthday, his FaceTime went off again. It was LeVert, unprompted, creating a tongue-in-cheek tradition.

“Like, who even remembers their coach’s birthday?” Atkinson asked. “And then remembers we have this silly thing?”

Jacque Vaughn, the Nets assistant who has worked most closely with LeVert, searched him out after that game winner. That shot, Vaughn told him, was proof of what coaches preached all summer.

“Never feel rushed,” Vaughn said, repeating a mantra they had developed. “You can get to any spot you want. You dictate everything. That was the shot you wanted, and no one was able to get you off of it. Never feel rushed.”

LeVert thought back to advice from Spencer Dinwiddie: “Be quick to the paint, but slow when you get there.” LeVert could blow by the first line of defense at will. Dinwiddie was reminding LeVert to look around for passes once he did.

In other situations, envy might grow between Dinwiddie and LeVert. Not in Brooklyn. Dinwiddie’s success doesn’t threaten LeVert. He welcomes help from anyone. He wants to be great, but not at the expense of others.

“He’s a fierce competitor, but he’s not a jerk about it like some guys,” Atkinson said. “Some guys are motivated by a big chip on their shoulder. It’s, ‘I’m better than that guy over there.’ Caris never talks like that. That is the ultimate culture fit to me: the guy who plays super-competitively, but in a classy way.”

Everyone in Brooklyn knew LeVert had earned the right to take those last-second shots. While most players decamped for Los Angeles or various home bases in the summer, LeVert stayed at his apartment in Brooklyn so that he could work out with the Nets’ coaching staff. He even let Tahjere McCall, a Nets G League player LeVert befriended during summer league, crash at his place all summer.

When he left Brooklyn in past summers, it has mostly been to train with Kevin Durant in Southern California. (Durant loves him.)

LeVert bulked up his lower body to help him absorb contact. During his first two seasons, the Nets tracked how often LeVert went flying out of bounds after layups.

“He was on the floor all the time, to the point you were concerned about his health,” Atkinson said.

Coaches nicknamed LeVert “Bambi” for the way his skinny legs splayed out from under him when defenders bumped him. “They finally just stopped calling me that,” LeVert told after a Brooklyn practice earlier this month.

He gave up beef and pork. “Burgers was hard,” LeVert said. “I love burgers.” He started practicing meditation. For an hour a week, LeVert slips into a sensory-deprivation float tank, closes the lid, and floats atop mineral-infused water in darkness. “You can have music, but I prefer silence,” he said. He visualizes in-game scenarios. “Sometimes, I even fall asleep,” he said.

During his first two seasons, LeVert was one of the league’s pre-eminent “everything but” players: He would juke into the lane, only to bonk floaters. “I had the process right, but nothing would go in,” he said.

He found a YouTube video of Kyrie Irving standing under the backboard, practicing ways to spin the ball in off the glass from crazy angles. LeVert imitated Irving. He hoisted thousands of jumpers, and wrote out goals before the season: make 200 3s, shoot 40 percent from deep. Atkinson emailed him articles listing the top 10 shooters at LeVert’s position, urging him to make the next list. Durant suggested he get more arc under his jumper.

LeVert took it all in. Even so, Atkinson planned to bring LeVert off the bench. That didn’t last long.

“It hadn’t revealed itself before camp,” Atkinson said. “And then camp started, and it was eye-popping.” Veterans, including Jared Dudley, whispered to Atkinson that LeVert might be their best player.

A fast, unlikely rise was nothing new for LeVert. He was lightly recruited out of high school, with just a single scholarship offer in the fall of his senior year — from Ohio University. When the University of Illinois poached Ohio’s coach, John Groce, in March of LeVert’s senior year, Groce declined to carry LeVert’s scholarship with him.

Soon after, LeVert visited Michigan for an informal workout. Coaches and players had low expectations.

He wowed the team immediately, staffers recall, and Michigan coach John Beilein offered a scholarship. The team viewed him as a deep bench player and discussed redshirting him; he was behind five future NBA draft picks. But LeVert was so good in practice, coaches quickly slotted him into the rotation.

He was the team’s best one-on-one player, staffers recalled, regularly working Hardaway, Nik Stauskas, Trey Burke, and other future pros with a herky-jerky style that flummoxed them. Teammates and coaches nicknamed him “Baby Durant.”

At Michigan, players couldn’t access the gym without a manager after certain hours. Staffers remember LeVert sheepishly calling managers after midnight, asking them if they might let him in. They always did, and stayed past 2 a.m.

Foot injuries sidetracked LeVert’s progress, but never his engagement level. Everyone who was at Michigan for LeVert’s senior season remembers Kameron Chatman’s game-winning buzzer-beater against Indiana in the 2016 Big Ten tournament. What they remember even more than Chatman’s shot is LeVert’s reaction on the bench. He was out with another foot injury. They would have understood if he pouted. Instead, he stood rapt next to the coaches in street clothes, a white towel draped over his head.

LeVert crouched as the shot was airborne, almost willing it in. When it dropped, he darted into the pile ahead of almost everyone.

Surgery later that month — his third in about as many years — threatened LeVert’s draft status. He could not work out at the NBA draft combine. Some doctors suggested he interview with teams via Skype so that he didn’t have to endure long flights. LeVert and his team at Roc Nation refused. They knew he would ace in-person interviews.

The Spurs had been eying LeVert for months, wondering whether he might slip to them. In February 2016, the Nets hired Sean Marks, San Antonio’s assistant general manager. Brooklyn did not have a first-round pick and did not control their picks in 2017 or 2018, either — remnants of their disastrous 2013 trade for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.

Marks interviewed LeVert anyway. Flanked by coaches, trainers, and mental performance experts, Marks peppered LeVert with tough questions. Marks would not reveal specifics, only that the Nets were interested in how LeVert might respond to their intensive sports science program — minutes restrictions, close monitoring of every aspect of his health.

“He didn’t shy away from any of it,” Marks said. “He owns everything. ‘I’ve missed games. I understand the risk you’d be taking.’ We came away saying we loved his makeup — the humility and the honesty. There was no question he was going to max out his talent, and to me, that is always the defining question.”

LeVert was a gamble. Marks figured the Nets, climbing from perhaps the deepest hole in league history, had nothing to lose.

“The chances of the 20th pick panning out aren’t great,” Marks said. “We can take our time. We are in a rebuild. We are going to bet on our performance team and our player development team to take the 20th pick and turn him into something more.”

During the draft process, Marks confided in Atkinson that he thought LeVert, a 6-7 wing, could develop into a lead ball handler. “Sean was the first one in our group to say that,” Atkinson remembered. “I was skeptical. Curious, but skeptical. I saw the ballhandling, but I wasn’t sure about his decision-making.”

That was what this season would be about. LeVert seized some point guard duties last season, when the Nets lost both Jeremy Lin and D’Angelo Russell to injury. He would not give them back.

Only 10 rotation players have recorded more drives per 100 possession this season, per Second Spectrum tracking data, and the Nets have scored well when LeVert hits the paint.

He has an array of mean fakes for use in close quarters, including a Rajon Rondo-style move in which he picks up his dribble under the rim, reaches the ball far out with one hand, tricks his defender into jumping, and then lays it in. Vaughn urged him to develop a counter, and so LeVert did: He’ll extend the ball toward the baseline, and then spin back into the paint for a layup.

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