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The Nets Reinvest in the Young Core That Helped Land KD and Kyrie

Brooklyn’s outlook radically changed this summer, but the hard work continues. The Nets signed Caris LeVert to a three-year, $52.5 million extension, with hopes of bridging the past with the future.

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After a brick-by-brick rebuild that returned a decimated franchise to the postseason, the Nets swung for the fences this summer and connected, adding superstar free agents Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to their emerging core. Now, having committed to the marquee veterans expected to lead Brooklyn to unprecedented heights, the Nets have ponied up to lock down perhaps the most intriguing piece of that young core: swingman Caris LeVert.

LeVert celebrated his 25th birthday on Sunday by agreeing to terms on a new contract extension with the Nets, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, which makes the Michigan product the fourth member of the 2016 draft class to land a lucrative new deal. Ben Simmons and Jamal Murray each received five-year maximum-salaried extensions, while Malcolm Brogdon secured a four-year, $85 million pact in the sign-and-trade that sent him from the Bucks to the Pacers. LeVert’s deal, though, is both shorter and less costly: a three-year, $52.5 million agreement that provides security and preserves options for both player and team.

In a vacuum, it seems like LeVert might have sold himself short by taking this deal now rather than waiting to reach restricted free agency in the summer of 2020, when a free-agent pool light on exciting talent could have resulted in one or more suitors handing him a monster offer sheet. If the 6-foot-7, 204-pound wing continues the trajectory that had him looking like an All-Star in the making early last season, and like the Nets’ best player in their loss to the 76ers in the first round of the playoffs, the offers might have gone all the way up to the max. But players don’t make decisions in vacuums, and the context surrounding LeVert’s choice demands we consider his injury history.

LeVert flashed lottery talent at Michigan, earning a second-team All-Big Ten selection after his sophomore season. But three separate surgeries to repair fractures in his left foot—in May 2014, January 2015, and March 2016—limited him to just 33 games over his final two seasons in Ann Arbor and raised concerns about his long-term health entering the 2016 draft. He’s yet to play a full season in three pro campaigns, making 57 appearances as a rookie, 71 as a sophomore, and just 40 last season, when his early-season rise to prominence was brought to a screeching halt by a dreadful dislocation of his right foot against the Timberwolves.

LeVert miraculously avoided a fourth surgical procedure, returning before the All-Star break and getting all the way back to his pre-injury level in an impressive postseason debut that saw him average 21 points, 4.6 rebounds, and three assists per game in Round 1 against Philadelphia. But a player who’s experienced four serious lower-leg injuries before age 25 knows better than anyone how one false step can change everything. Armed with that knowledge, securing a $52.5 million bag seems like sound decision-making—especially when doing so still affords LeVert the option to hit unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2023, when he’ll be turning 28 and, should he remain healthy, will still be in line for a big deal to cover the rest of his athletic prime.

For the Nets, the deal represents an upside play for a rising talent who has shown signs of being a legitimate perimeter creator. Brooklyn has now locked in a core of Durant, Irving, LeVert, and DeAndre Jordan for the next three seasons, as it looks to leap from the lower tier of the Eastern Conference playoff bracket into the ranks of legitimate championship contenders. (Spencer Dinwiddie, another key part of Brooklyn’s core, is also under contract through 2022, but holds a player option for the final year of his deal.) If LeVert blossoms into an All-Star, they’ll have him under contract at a below-market price. On the flip side, if he suffers another significant injury or underwhelms in a more featured role, his deal still shouldn’t be a millstone. (It’s worth noting that ESPN’s real plus-minus and player impact plus-minus, two metrics aiming to capture a fuller picture of a player’s on-court impact, both marked LeVert as a net negative, even in his breakout season.) LeVert’s contract, like the three-year, $34.4 million extension that Dinwiddie signed last season, should still be movable as matching salary in a bigger deal for another high-priced star that might come on the market in the years to come.

Yes, $52.5 million is a pretty penny to pay for someone with LeVert’s dicey medical history, but the Nets have already invested a ton in LeVert’s growth and development, and already committed to living around the luxury-tax line during the KD-Kyrie window. Paying early to keep him is the cost of doing business for a team with title aspirations. The question now: What is LeVert on this iteration of the Nets? And how well will he fit in an ideal version of the roster with Durant and Irving atop the food chain?

Through three seasons, LeVert has proved that he’s at his best with the ball in his hands, and that he’s capable of getting to the basket. Only 23 players averaged more drives to the cup per game last season, according to Second Spectrum’s tracking data, and 41 percent of his shots last season came within 4 feet of the basket, according to Cleaning the Glass. He shot 59 percent on those up-close tries—a middling number for a wing player, but one that could rise as he continues to build strength and develop seasoning with more reps against the tall trees. (Working daily with lethal scorers like Durant and Irving probably won’t hurt.)

LeVert’s got the size, handle, quickness, and patience to get to his preferred spots on the floor and find the shots he wants. He scored 0.94 points per isolation possession used last season, according to Synergy Sports Technology’s game-charting data, 25th out of 51 players to log at least 100 such possessions, and he’s already accomplished at using his herky-jerk rhythm to wrongfoot defenders into contact as he attacks, drawing fouls on nearly 12 percent of his shot attempts. Improving on his 69 percent free throw percentage would help turn that talent into a consistently viable source of offense for Brooklyn when possessions stagnate.

Given more opportunities to facilitate last season, LeVert showed advancing touch and feel as a half-court orchestrator. He produced 0.93 points per possession as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll, 28th of 81 players to finish at least 200 of those plays last season. He handled with care, too: Among wings who logged at least 1,000 minutes last season, only LeVert and DeMar DeRozan dished assists on more than 22 percent of their teammates’ buckets, while also turning the ball over on fewer than 12 percent of their offensive possessions, according to Basketball-Reference.com. There’s also a chance that his facilitation will play up on a Nets team featuring more bankable shooters than last season’s model; LeVert averaged nearly twice as many potential assists per game (7.5) as actual helpers (3.9) in 2018-19.

The next developmental inflection point for LeVert will be finding ways to produce without the ball in his hands: dribble handoffs, off-ball cuts, and running around off-ball screens each made up less than 5 percent of LeVert’s overall offensive diet last season, as he generally operated either as a lead guard in his minutes or in a time-share with Dinwiddie or D’Angelo Russell. LeVert might not need to submit to a radical alteration of his former role this season, with Irving essentially slotting into Russell’s spot in Brooklyn’s ballhandling hierarchy, but it’d be nice to see signs that he’s developing a more well-rounded offensive game, since he’ll eventually have to cede some of the playmaking spotlight to make more space for the integration of Durant.

How comfortably LeVert will fit into Brooklyn’s new structure will likely depend on his jump shot. He’s a 32.9 percent 3-point shooter on just under 600 career NBA attempts and he shot just 25.7 percent on catch-and-shoot jumpers and 34 percent on pull-up tries last season. Sixty-two players logged as many minutes as LeVert and used as large a share of their team’s offensive possessions in 2018-19; only six posted a lower true shooting percentage. An iffy J isn’t a deal-breaker when you’re the primary ball handler. A spread pick-and-roll-heavy offense like the one Brooklyn runs under Kenny Atkinson can still hum along just fine so long as everybody else on the floor’s a credible threat to knock one down. It’s tougher to function when you’ve got shaky shooters spotting up while other players run the primary action, though. LeVert’s going to find himself occupying that kind of role more often when he shares the floor with Irving and Durant, and if he can make himself dangerous in it, the ceiling of Brooklyn’s offense will rise considerably.

Leveling up to land Durant and Irving meant the Nets had to sacrifice Russell, the reclamation project they turned into an All-Star, and one of the linchpins of the culture that Atkinson and general manager Sean Marks have been building over the past few seasons. Extending LeVert, though, amounts to a reinvestment in that process. Marks and Atkinson have been dreaming big with LeVert, the injured prospect they plucked with a first-round pick they landed by trading Thaddeus Young, then developed into a player they believe can be a future star and cornerstone—and one that KD and Kyrie reportedly love. Now, it’s time for LeVert to turn those dreams into reality.