On Draft Night in 2008, the Nets already felt blessed by the time the 21st pick was called. They had taken Brook Lopez with the 10th pick, believing him to be, correctly, the steal of the Draft.
Now, they had a choice. The four players they liked were all still on the board. Ryan Anderson was one, Chris Douglas-Roberts another and Courtney Lee was also in the mix. The Nets have never said who the fourth was...although Nicolas Batum has been rumored. In any case, the choice ultimately came down to Anderson and Lee. Kiki Vandeweghe admits the oldest bias in basketball, height, was a big factor. Well, that and the Nets had an All-Star at the shooting guard and someone they thought, again correctly, could be All-Star at the point. And they didn't have much depth upfront. So they took Anderson and got lucky again at #40 when CDR was still available. They closed out the night happy.
Then, exactly a year later, they had the same choice, just different circumstances. The Magic, having been rebuffed by Hedo Turkoglu the weekend before the draft, called the Nets about the last of the "Big Three", Vince Carter. They offered the expiring contracts of Rafer Alston and Tony Battie along with J.J. Redick, a legendary Duke sharpshooter who had never made the grade in Orlando.
The Nets wanted Lee, not Redick. Without him, the deal was a no-go. The Magic relented but said if the Nets wanted Lee, they wanted Anderson. So the Nets again had the choice between Anderson and Lee. This time, they took Lee. Realistically, the Nets made two trades that day: one a salary dump of Alston and Battie for Carter, the other a trade of two solid young players: Lee for Anderson. (Plus the Nets got those two trade exceptions, worth $3.76 million and $1.2 million.)
Nets’ brass won’t say so directly but they think they have traded for another Devin Harris, an underrated but highly athletic, motivated and reliable young player who’s moving from fourth or fifth option on an NBA Finalist to the second or third option on a rebuilding club.
There are indeed similarities. Both were 23 when they reached the Finals. They played well and looked like long term pieces for their franchises.
Their numbers were similar as well. Now, what the Nets have to hope is that Lee, with his 8.6 ppg scoring average, takes off like Harris did. Harris arrived in New Jersey with a career average that was only slightly higher, at 9.4 ppg. Both had career game highs of 24 before joining the Nets.
No one is expecting Lee to have games of 47, 42, 41, 39, and 38 twice next season as Harris did. Of course, no one expected Harris to put up those numbers either, but he did. What the Nets do expect is a player who can make up some of Carter’s lost scoring, play great defense—and inspire Harris to do the same; fill in at the point and small forward in some sets and of course make them look good by winning.
Courtney Lee does win. At Pike High School in Indianapolis, Lee led his team to the state championship in 2003, going 29-0. They were ranked second in the nation behind LeBron James' St. Vincent-St. Mary team. He had academic problems though and was lightly recruited by top college teams. Only Georgetown and Purdue among the big programs pursued him. He chose Western Kentucky, where he won again. His teams averaged 24 wins a year over four years and took the mid-major to the Sweet Sixteen his senior year before losing to UCLA, a team that featured Kevin Love, Richard Mbah a Moute and Darren Collison. And of course this season, his team got to the NBA Finals.
There were signature moments in each of those quests where Lee had the opportunity to step up and did. He played tough as well. He played with a broken hand in the Sunbelt Conference finals his junior year and with a broken sinus bone in the Eastern Conference and NBA Finals, his face guarded by a Rip Hamilton-like mask.
That toughness extends to his defense, in which he takes a great deal of pride. He did help hold Ray Allen to 13 ppg on 34 per cent shooting. "Coach emphasizes defense so I knew coming in that it would be that way," said Lee of Stan Van Gundy. "If you don’t help out and make the right rotations, you’re not gonna play. But I was OK; since I was always a good defensive player, I had quick feet and good instincts."
We’re sure his new coach appreciates hearing that as well.
The newest Net also has a reservoir of mental toughness and maturity. One telling story concerns his early days at WKU. He was homesick and wanted to leave, calling his mother back in Indianapolis daily until she stopped taking the calls.
Danny Rumph, then a junior on the Hilltopper squad, befriended him. Rumph’s transition had been similar and he came from farther away, in Philadelphia. They shared their feelings and became close friends and roommates. They were inseparable. Rumph went to Indianapolis with Lee during breaks.
"If it weren't him, no, I don't think I would have lasted,'' Lee has said. "I probably would have transferred back home, but I was lucky. Danny was the first person I latched onto.''
Then, in May, a mutual friend called Lee at home to ask if the news about Rumph was true. Lee didn’t know what his friend was talking about. Rumph, in fact, had died that day playing a game of pick up in Philly. The autopsy showed an enlarged heart.
After a summer of depression and confusion, Lee decided to dedicate the rest of his career to Rumph’s memory and getting a tattoo he would look at after every basket.
Although he didn’t show it at his Nets' press conference, Lee also has a lot of confidence. He recently told Khalid Salaam of SLAM, "I’m prepared for all situations, whether offense or defense. I watch a lot of film so I can get more in tune with the other team’s personnel, but what I’ve really learned from the Playoffs is that I can play with anybody, I can be a dominant scorer and be one of the go-to guys on this team."
By "this team", of course, he meant the Magic. Now, "this team" will have to become "his team", the Nets. He certainly has the tools. He is athletic, can take his opponent off the dribble and finish, using his lithe frame to "carve out space" as one writer put it. He also has a quick release on his jumper and can hit the three with great regularity, making 40.4% of his attempts in the NBA after making 40.1% at WKU. During February and March, he was hitting nearly 45%.
And remember, this is a guy who was last shooting guard on the Magic depth chart last October, behind Mickael Pietrus, Keith Bogans, and Redick. He didn’t score 10 points in a game til December and had five DNP’s in the Magic’s first 12 games. By the end of the season, Lee had played in 98 games, between regular season and playoffs. That's more than any other rookie.
What are his weaknesses? Just like Harris is not Jason Kidd, Lee is not Vince Carter. He's a bit undersized, with some even questioning his listed height of 6’5" and his listed weight of 200 pounds. His handle could use some work, too. Will pairing him and Harris, two quick but admittedly light guards, make sense, particularly when faced with bigger, stronger backcourts?
Thorn thinks they’ll be fine. "We have some great athletes and we think that's the way the league's going...We've got guys that know how to play. We've got guys who can pass the ball. Those are players I like, that can do that. We think we're going to be exciting, going to play together, play hard every night. We've got guys with tremendous growth potential."
The Nets have always liked Lee’s game. In March 2008, the Nets chief scout Gregg Polinsky traveled to the Sunbelt Conference tournament in Mobile, AL, to scout him. He liked what he saw. At Lee’s workout with the Nets three months later, Polinsky talked about just what he liked.
"Always knew he was a good defender and a good athlete but today you saw more from him in terms of a middle game and being able to create space off the dribble," said Polinsky after the workout. "He did a real nice job of that. Then when you sit down with him you realize all the good things you heard about him are actualized because he is such a first class kid."
A lot has been made of his shock and dismay at being traded from Orlando to New Jersey. Dwight Howard, his best friend on the Magic, says he's "still hurting". Lee tried to explain his feelings at his Nets press conference.
"Going all the way to the Finals on a good team, just expecting to regroup for next year and make it back to the playoffs again, and to get the news that you’ve been traded—it definitely was a shock but it’s one I have to live with," said Lee.
Since then, three of the game’s great players have predicted stardom for him in his new digs. Howard said in a farewell on his blog: "He’s going to be a great player in this league and it’s hard for me to think about him playing somewhere else. But in Jersey, he’ll have a bigger role now and get more shots."
Shaquille O’Neal said he was "shocked" at the trade. "The only move that really, really shocked me was when Orlando got rid of Courtney Lee. That dude is going to be a star, I’m telling you right now… They’ve done in an excellent job building that team but Courtney Lee, that’s a star, brother. Star, star, star."
"Courtney, he’s unbelievable. I like him. He’s a high-energy, athletic guy," said Carter.
It might not be a bad thing for Lee to move on. He will forever be remembered in Orlando for what he didn’t do--make that layup at the end of Game 2 of the NBA Finals.
What he’s remembered for in New Jersey is up to him. He, like Harris last year, is going to get a green light for the first time. No longer the fourth—more like the fifth option—on a team of All-Stars, Lee is likely to become second or third on the Nets. Actually, that’s more his game.