"It's one of the things we certainly need to do better," said Rod Thorn in his post-season talk with beat reporters. "You have to work at it constantly. You've got to let guys have some minutes in order to see."
Sounds like a criticism of Lawrence Frank, doesn't it? Not so fast.
"And I don't want to mislead - you've got to have the right people. If you don't have the right people, you can work and work and work (with them) and they're still only going to be OK. It's a combination of several things."
Sounds like self-criticism, doesn't it? After all, Who's ultimately in charge of finding those "right people"?
With the Nets having three picks in this year's draft and six players under the age of 25, player development is a big issue for the Nets.
The conventional wisdom is that Frank never gives young guys a chance. The conventional wisdom is that Frank doesn't like to give rookies significant minutes. But is that an accurate assessment? First of all, what coach, particularly one with a record of consistently making the playoffs, ever willingly gives rookies a lot of time on the floor...particularly those drafted after the lottery or in the second round? Remember this is a coach who won 49 games in 2005-06 with a bench whose only two reliable members were a 39-year-old Cliff Robinson and a 31-year-old Jacque Vaughn.
More importantly, the numbers suggest otherwise. With the exception of Antoine Wright and Mile Ilic, the ill-fated 2005 draft class, Net rookies have gotten minutes quite comparable with what players selected at the same level in the draft have gotten elsewhere, according to a NetsDaily analysis.
Frank has often had to play rookies out of necessity and he has often resisted. After all, this is a coach who won 49 games with a 39-year-old Cliff Robinson and a 31-year-old Jacque Vaughn as his first options off the bench. He wants to trust his veterans, but the veterans he has found on his roster aren't as good as the kids. (Do the names Rodney Buford, Jabari Smith, Rodney Rogers, Marc Jackson, Lamond Murray, Linton Johnson III, Scott Padgett, Jeff McInnis, Travis Best, Eric Williams, Jamaal Magloire mean anything to you?)
Specifically, here's how Frank has played rookies in each of his four full years as coach. For the sake of clarity, we're not going to include rookies who were called up from the D-League, players like Billy Thomas and Derrick Zimmerman, or those went back and forth, like Ilic.
2003-04: The Nets first European player since Drazen Petrovic is drafted amid high hopes and nostalgia. Zoran Planinic arrives in the US and at first impresses the team in summer league. "He had a VERY good summer league" Ed Stefanski says later. But a lot of things intervene. Planinic is lonely, homesick. Stefanski admits the franchise didn't know how to handle international players, particularly one who speaks such poor English. Byron Scott reportedly tells the front office, "get me an AMERICAN point guard". It's tough to lay this one at Frank's feet, at least this year. A year later, Richard Jefferson publicly says Planinic needed more time to develop. Then he breaks his hand and misses half the season.
2004-05: Euroleague star Nenad Krstic comes to the US. He cannot speak English. He is 20 years old. He sits on the bench for a few games, then in December after Alonzo Mourning starts to sulk, Frank gives him a chance. He plays 75 games, including 57 as a starter, racks up 1,965 minutes, seventh among rookies, and averages 10 points in the regular season, eighth among rookies. In the playoffs, he plays 38.5 minuts a game and averages 18.3 points and 7.5 rebounds in five games, tops among rookies. He makes the All-Rookie Second Team. Not bad for a guy who was drafted #24 in 2002. The Nets learn their lesson, getting him a translator. Planinic helps him adjust.
2005-06: At #15, Antoine Wright is the highest Nets' pick since RJ. He is a bust. Deal with it. It happens. In his first year, he shows he is not good enough, not mature enough. Helpful hint as to why his playing time is limited: Wright plays 39 games and only 370 minutes and shows he has a long way to go. Over the next two years, Frank gives him plenty of chances. He remains inconsistent. How's he doing in Dallas? Will be even be in the league next season? Is this who Thorn is referring to when he says, "If you don't have the right people, you can work and work and work (with them) and they're still only going to be OK"?
2006-07: Three rookies--Marcus Williams, Josh Boone and Hassan Adams--make the Nets' roster and get a grand total of 2,375 minutes. The total would have been higher if Boone hadn't been hurt in the summer. That's an average of 30 minutes a game for three back-ups. Adams starts eight games after being drafted at #54. No player taken in the bottom half of the second round starts more than two. Let's compare those numbers to the Hornets who also have three rookies in 2006-07, each taken before the players the Nets selected. Hilton Armstrong was taken ten spots ahead of Williams at #12 (and had been the object of Thorn's desires), Cedric Simmons was taken eight spots ahead of Boone at #15 and Marcus Vinicius, a Brazilian sharpshooter, was taken 11 spots ahead of Adams at #43. They play a grand total of 1,271 minutes, half what the Nets' threesome plays. Williams, in spite of his up-and-down season, makes the All-Rookie Second Team. Then, he breaks his foot just before training camp.
2007-08: The Nets' high-risk/high-return rookie, Sean Williams, has a mediocre summer league and is described as a "project" by everyone. Yet, he winds up playing 1,278 minutes, starting 29 games, the most by a Nets' rookie since Krstic. No player drafted after him starts more than 16 games. Nine of the players taken before him don't start that many. After several miserable outings and an admission that his legs "feel heavy", he sits at the end of the year. Anyone going to say he deserved to play...after he played poorly, particularly on defense, and after the team acquired two similar players with more experience? Not to mention complaints about his attitude and maturity from his teammates.
Of course, it's not all about numbers. It's about "development", certainly a subjective term. Yet, in two cases when dealing with key young players, Frank made his mark this year.
On arrival in New Jersey, Devin Harris, age 24, is handed the keys to the team. Obviously, Frank wouldn't have done that if Kidd was still around, but Kidd wasn't. Harris, frustrated by Avery Johnson's control-freak coaching, rewards Frank's trust by setting career highs in points, assists, rebounds, field goals made and attempted, three pointers made and attempted, steals, blocks and, perhaps most importantly, minutes...all in 25 games.
And what about Boone's development? After missing two training camps due to surgery, Boone got his shot this year, less than a third of the way into the season. He winds up with 13 double-doubles, more than anyone in his draft class, which includes highly prized prospects like Andrea Bargnani, Tyrus Thomas, and yes, even LaMarcus Aldridge.
Frank isn't perfect. And the Net system, for better or worse, is tough to learn, particularly for rookies. Read what Rod Benson said about Nets' training camp in this month's SLAM Magazine: "There is so much to deal with mentally. First it was all the plays--it was damn near like trying to memorize the dictionary. And New Jersey's plays were all based on reads, which made it even tougher. Basically, the five guys you see in those bright red Nets jerseys on the court have to be a bunch of tall Peyton Mannings."
Here's the reality: Frank gives minutes to players he trusts, no matter what the experience level. When those players don't perform, they sit. He uses the prospect of big minutes as an incentive. That Frank doesn't encourage or play young players is not just conventional wisdom. It is 180 degrees wrong.