Indiana Pacers’ Caris LeVert watches from the bench during the first half of an NBA basketball game … [+]
Indiana Pacers All-Star center Domantas Sabonis was recently taking questions from media members when he was asked about how much better the Pacers can be when guard Caris LeVert returns to the court.
“I feel like that’s what we’ve been missing,” Sabonis said after rattling off many of LeVert’s skills.
The “that” he’s referring to in his answer is many things. It’s LeVert’s ball-handling. It’s his playmaking and aggression — his dynamic style of play. Caris LeVert would add a ton to the Pacers, and many of his best skills are ones that the blue and gold desperately need.
“He looked great. He looked confident,” Sabonis said of LeVert’s performance in practice with the team. “Really good in the pick-and-roll, being aggressive, going downhill, giving us more options. I feel like he’s going to attract a lot of defense to him, creating open shots for everybody.”
LeVert hasn’t suited up for the Pacers since they acquired him in a trade for Victor Oladipo about two months ago. During the health screening process teams go through to complete trades, a cancerous mass was discovered on LeVert’s kidney. It required surgery to remove, but the Pacers guard will require no further treatment and is expected to recover fully.
After healing from said surgery, LeVert’s debut for the Pacers will come tonight against the Phoenix Suns. He confirmed he would play in that game after the Pacers lost to the Lakers on Friday. “I do expect to play tomorrow against Phoenix,” he said.
This timing is fantastic for the Pacers. The team currently sits at 16-20, and they have limped to an 8-16 record since they sent away Oladipo in a trade. The team needs the skills LeVert can provide — he could get their season back on track.
At the forefront of the benefits LeVert offers is offensive variance. The Pacers have been mediocre when it comes to scoring, they rank 18th in offensive rating this season. In recent weeks, the team has often looked static when they have the ball. Opposing team’s have figured out many of the things Nate Bjorkgren’s team wants to do, and defenses are able to send double teams at Sabonis and other ball handlers to slow down the blue and gold. The offense dramatically slows down for a few instances every game.
LeVert will reduce, and potentially remove, those stale stretches. He isn’t so dominant that he can singlehandedly save the Pacers when they are out of rhythm, but the Pacers desperately need another creative ball-handler, and LeVert can be that. He will draw the attention of defenses even when he’s away from the play, and he’s more than capable of getting a good look when he has the ball in his hands. He provides a level of creation that the Pacers don’t have on the roster right now.
INDIANAPOLIS, IN – DECEMBER 23: Caris LeVert #22 of the Brooklyn Nets dribbles against Cory Joseph … [+]
“He can be huge. Complete game changer,” starting point guard Malcolm Brogdon said of LeVert’s coming return. “He changes the scouting report. Having another dynamic scorer on the floor… can really help this team.
“He looks good. To me he looks ready to play,” Brogdon added.
Brogdon handles the ball often for Indiana — LeVert’s return will scale back some of the defensive pressure that Brogdon deals with each game. LeVert canned over 65% of his shots off of cuts during his last full season, and he’s a fine enough spot-up shooter. Those skills put together will give Brogdon another option that he can fling the ball to when the team needs a bucket. LeVert can be a safety valve.
He also has the ability to create shots for himself. That will deter opponents from loading up on Brogdon as often as they do now, LeVert can carve up a defense that gives him too much space. His return from injury will change the way the Pacers are defended, and his presence and skills will create some space for others.
If the Indiana coaching staff wants to, they could let LeVert facilitate some actions and allow Brogdon to work off the ball. Brogdon thrives as an off-ball shooter and slasher, and LeVert can slice through defenses with his handle. Those two should thrive playing off of each other.
“He can play the point,” Bjorkgren said of LeVert, possibly hinting that the two ball handlers will share lead guard responsibilities.
Should LeVert be given chances to run the offense, his effectiveness in the pick-and-roll will be a boon for the team. He scored on 37.1% of his possessions as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll with Brooklyn this season, and he averaged seven points per game in that play-type alone. He can get tunnel vision at times, but he is effective when navigating around a screen.
His finishing at the rim is solid, LeVert hit 66% of his shost from 0-3 feet prior to missing time this season. He pairs that efficiency around the basket with a crafty floater game — the Michigan product has many ways he can score once he gets by his defender.
“He’s going to put more pressure on the defense in areas where we haven’t been putting pressure lately,” Sabonis said of LeVert.
LeVert’s passing has improved drastically throughout his career. After averaging just 3.2 assists per 36 minutes during his rookie year, the 6’6 wing has grown that number up to 7.8. He was given copious opportunities to be a distributor with the Nets this season, and he took full advantage of the chance to refine his craft. LeVert isn’t going to throw his teammates open or create opportunities with passing creativity, but he’s slowly gotten better at reading the game and can make the easy passes accurately and without delay. Bjorkgren should be able to confidentially draw up plays that use LeVert as a passer and trust him to make correct decisions.
It isn’t known what LeVert’s role will be in the immediate aftermath of his return. LeVert himself mentioned on Friday that he is not exactly sure what his playing time situation will be. He will likely start alongside Brogdon in the backcourt when fully integrated, but as he eases into action, there is a chance he comes off the bench in his first few games. Once he does start games, one of Doug McDermott or Justin Holiday will be moved from the opening five to a bench role, which is a spot in the rotation that both players are more accustomed to. Edmond Sumner or Jeremy Lamb will see reduced minutes with LeVert getting playing time.
Regardless of LeVert’s specific role, his versatility on offense will allow him to succeed with the starting five and with the second unit. He could flourish playing an off-ball role with the starters and a more ball-dominant role with the bench. His versatility allows him to be a part of a variety of lineups at any guard spot.
“When Caris does come back, it gives us a different look there in itself. He’s a downhill player,” Bjorkgren said. “He can play off the ball. He’s really good coming off screens and attacking and drawing the defense.”
NEW YORK, NEW YORK – OCTOBER 30: Caris LeVert #22 of the Brooklyn Nets drives the basket past … [+]
LeVert’s defense, meanwhile, isn’t anything noteworthy. He stays engaged and has the length to be a disruptor on the less glamorous end of the floor, but he’s not a go-to stopper either.
Still, he can provide positive value on that end of the court. He’s a better defender than McDermott and Lamb, and Bjorkgren’s disruptive defensive style should suit LeVert’s shifty existence well. The Pacers 13th ranked defense should continue on at about the same level with LeVert in the lineup.
“On defense, he’s long and athletic,” Sabonis said of LeVert. “He’s in the gaps. He’s aggressive.”
LeVert has multiple 40 point games in the last couple of seasons — he’s a sensational player at his best. At his worst, his offense can be clunky, but his firepower will still add a ton of value to a Pacers team that desperately needs it. He can hit unique shots, he will open up space for others, and he can get his feet into the paint when handling the ball. LeVert will change the offensive geometry in a way that will improve the team.
Combine that with defensive capabilities that won’t be a hindrance, and it’s clear how much LeVert can help a struggling Pacers team.
“He’s going to put more pressure on the defense in areas where we haven’t been putting pressure lately,” Sabonis said. “He’s going to give us an all-around game that we need.”
“Need” may be strong diction, but the Pacers could use a jolt. LeVert can provide it, and his return could not come at a better time for the blue and gold. After going through one of the most difficult weeks imaginable for an NBA player back in January, Caris LeVert will return to the court soon. The Pacers, and LeVert, will hope that his return can save Indiana’s season.
I cover the Indiana Pacers and NBA players from the state of Indiana. I have done so for many years with written content, both as the Site Expert for the Fansided