With fewer than nine seconds left in the second quarter of Monday’s game between the Nets and Timberwolves, Minnesota wing Josh Okogie raced down the court after Caris LeVert missed a 3-pointer. LeVert recovered quickly enough to chase Okogie down and attempt a block on the layup attempt. Their bodies collided midair, with LeVert landing awkwardly on top of Okogie. The crowd in Minneapolis fell silent, according to reports from the arena. LeVert had suffered a serious leg injury, and the reactions in the building were eerily similar to the ones that emerged after injuries suffered by Gordon Hayward, Paul George, and Shaun Livingston. There’s no need to subject yourself to the video. LeVert was taken off the court on a stretcher with a towel over his face and was immediately transported out of the Target Center to a local hospital for further evaluation. In a matter of seconds, the Nets’ entire season was turned upside down.
We probably had, until this moment, not talked nearly enough about the kind of season Caris LeVert was putting together. In the first month of the season, LeVert had separated himself from the rest of the Brooklyn Nets’ glut of young, interesting players. His flashes of stardom became more and more consistent. LeVert had averaged a career-high 19 points a game on a career-high usage rate, with career-high offensive efficiency numbers to go with it. It went beyond the numbers: LeVert looked more aggressive, and his game had a shinier polish to it. He looked like a burgeoning leader on a team still trying to find its identity. LeVert’s high school teammates called him “Baby Durant.” After a month, that was certainly whom the Nets seemed to have uncovered.
The injury could be career-changing for many reasons. LeVert had emerged as an effective two-way player and had a clear runway for more. It was a season that could have become the same kind of leap as the one Victor Oladipo took last year, and would have set the 24-year-old LeVert up for a big contract if he continued at the same pace all season. Now, with great uncertainty surrounding his future health (the details of his injury were not reported at the time of publication), a big pay day might be in jeopardy. LeVert has one more year remaining on his four-year, $7.5 million deal until he hits restricted free agency in 2020. He will be 26 then, the age when most NBA players enter their prime years.
The timing of the injury can seem like a cruel case of déjà vu. At Michigan, LeVert was a three-star recruit who emerged out of nowhere to become a core piece on the Wolverines, and he spent two years showing glimpses of being a special player. Going into his junior year, LeVert was set to have a breakout season, but due to multiple stress fractures in his left foot, his final two seasons were cut in half and his career as a Wolverine ended up being a big “what if.”
LeVert, who was drafted 20th overall in 2016, likely would have been a lottery talent if it weren’t for the foot injuries that plagued him in college. It looked like a gamble on draft night, because that’s exactly what it was. For a team ravaged by the blockbuster trade with the Celtics in 2013, the Nets needed to find the diamonds no other team was looking for. In LeVert, Sean Marks saw a player who showed potential; LeVert delivered by improving statistically in each of his three seasons, following a well-paced, but effective development model that is not dissimilar to what the Nets are trying to do as a franchise. In some ways, LeVert is the embodiment of Sean Marks’s plan.
Prior to this season, LeVert had always been obscured by another one of Marks’s projects. Brooklyn traded for D’Angelo Russell in 2017, which at the time felt like a splash; Spencer Dinwiddie emerged as a Most Improved Player candidate for the Nets last season. But what LeVert showed in just 14 games this season eclipsed nearly every other development on the roster. He’s every bit the ball handler and facilitator that Russell and Dinwiddie are, but with a bigger frame and 6-foot-10 wingspan. He is a homegrown talent who, up until this point, projected as one of the most valuable types of players in the league: a primary 3-and-D wing.
Improvement for young players isn’t always linear, but it seemed like LeVert was following a star’s trajectory. The Nets clearly thought so too. Before Monday’s game, reports surfaced that the Nets refused to include LeVert in any trade packages for Jimmy Butler. That’s as clear a sign as any that LeVert had something special, and hopefully he’ll get a chance to show it again.