Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

Caris LeVert’s Pacers debut tonight after overcoming kidney cancer is rare 2020-21 bright spot

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Image: Getty Images

When James Harden was traded to the Nets on January 14, one of Brooklyn’s prized outgoing pieces was rising swingman Caris LeVert.

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Unfortunately, LeVert was immediately sidelined after a physical uncovered a mass in his kidney, which was to sideline him indefinitely. But luckily, LeVert is not only expected to play again; he’ll reportedly debut tonight, suiting up for the team who technically drafted him nearly five years ago. According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, who also reported that LeVert had successful surgery to remove a small cancerous mass on his left kidney in late January, LeVert’s also been “ramping up his practices” in recent weeks, anticipating a return post-All-Star.

LeVert’s return couldn’t arrive at a more ideal and needy time for his new squad. Following an 11-7 start to their season, the Pacers have since dropped 13 of 18 contests, putting them at 16-20 and 10th in the ever-changing Eastern Conference standings. Malcolm Brogdon, who was playing at an All-Star level in that 11-7 stretch, has dropped slightly in terms of productivity during their current 5-13 run. Brogdon also had a nine-game stretch where he averaged 17.8 points on just 40-percent shooting (32.7 on threes) from January 29 through February 13. Elsewhere, the Pacers have struggled to get reliable production from their bench outside of TJ McConnell, and they are not expected to get TJ Warren back anytime soon, or possibly ever, this season. With Victor Oladipo being the outgoing player exchanged for LeVert, that’s been a difficult void to fill.

The 6-foot-7 former Net LeVert hasn’t played since January, but does have a body of work to build from. In 12 games with the Nets this season, he averaged 18.5 points, 6.0 assists, and 4.3 rebounds. In his five final games as a Net, LeVert posted 26.0 points, 6.6 assists, and 4.4 rebounds per game, a stretch including a 43-point outburst in a five-point loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on January 8.

He also notably broke out in the 2020 bubble, leading a Kyrie Irving- and Kevin Durant-less Nets squad down the stretch and into the first round of the NBA playoffs. Although they were swept by the Toronto Raptors, LeVert accounted well for himself, averaging 25.0-6.7-5.0 points, assists, and rebounds in six regular-season bubble appearances, followed by a 20.3 / 9.5 / 6.0 stretch in the four playoff games. Historically, LeVert hasn’t been quite as efficient as some may like, and left off this season with 43.5 / 34.9 / 76.5 shooting splits, but he’s supposed to be the Oladipo facsimile for Indiana, after all.

And, for the Pacers, it’s better contractually. Although Oladipo walking would’ve opened up cap space, Indiana isn’t exactly Los Angeles when it comes to attracting free agents. Following this year, “CL Smooth” is due just over $36 million over the next two seasons, giving the Pacers a Sabonis-Brogdon-LeVert core for the foreseeable future. (Myles Turner, too, if they don’t try dealing him again.)

“He looks good. To me, he looks ready to play,” Brogdon told the Indianapolis Star on Thursday. “A complete game-changer. He changes the scouting report. Having another dynamic scorer on the floor can really help this team.”

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“He’s getting closer and closer. It won’t be too much longer,” Pacers head coach Nate Bjorkgren offered after the team’s first session after the All-Star break. “I think there’s a chance (he plays). I can’t speak out of turn on it, but I think there is a chance we see him.”

The Pacers play the Suns tonight in Phoenix.