Three Bigs Look for New Start

No one's saying they're the answer to the Nets' long quest for a starting power forward, one that stretches back eight years since Kenyon Martin left for Denver, but three forgotten big men have some potential to fill out the roster when and if there's a season.

They are all 6'10" and between the ages of 21 and 26. One was a Net last season and now a free agent; another was taken in the NBA draft and is the Nets property while the third is fighting for a job, and a career, with the Springfield Armor.

Brandan Wright just turned 24, Jordan Williams just turned 21, and Chris Taft is 26. All have been at one point or another in their careers viewed as top prospects.

Brandan Wright was the highest pick of the three, at #8 in the 2007 draft, which some thought could be the greatest draft of all time.  It hasn't worked out that way for the draft or for Wright.  After being named MVP of the ACC Tournament and ACC Rookie of the Year (14.7 and 6.2), after being compared with Chris Bosh and Shareef Abdur-Rahim by draftniks, he became a classic draft bust.

His career started badly. He was drafted by the Bobcats, then traded to the Warriors for Jason Richardson and #36 pick Jermario Davidson. It was all part of a Warriors' plan to trade for Kevin Garnett. Wright was to be part of the Golden State package. Indeed, the ACC Rookie of the Year with the 33" vertical leap and 7'4" wingspan was that highly thought of before the draft ... but there was always a catch. How badly did he want it?

Draft Express, writing about him in the NCAA Tournament in 2007, noted that Wright "once again showed flashes of downright amazing ability against Georgetown this afternoon. In addition to the usual assortment of athletic dunks, rebounds and fast break exploits, Wright showed off immense offensive skill in specific moments".

But DX also pointed out, "'Phrases like "effortless" and "too easy" don’t get attached to him for nothing...This is the main beef scouts we spoke with in Tampa had with him, wondering just what kind of drive he has to be the best possible player he can be."

Perhaps because of that, he never became a favorite of Don Nelson's and then turned injury prone. Over the three and a half years he spent in Oakland, Wright played a total of 98 games, missing the entire 2009-10 season to a shoulder injury.  By the time he returned, he was an after thought, making nearly $4 million on an expiring deal.

The Nets thought he was worth pursuing, that he had potential, size and athleticism. Perhaps e was a fallen angel. On the afternoon of a day dominated by the Deron Williams deal, they sent their 2012 second round pick and Troy Murphy out west for Wright and Dan Gadzuric. WIth Murphy quickly waived and Gadzuric at the end of the Nets bench, it became apparent the deal was Wright for a pick. Minimal risk, maximum gain was the gamble.

He did have his moments. Wright turned his first double-double, 15 and 11, against the 76ers. But the next game, against the Heat, Avery Johnson pulled him three minutes in and replaced him with Travis Outlaw, wanting to go small.

That night, Wright said, "I would love to come back here. Everything in the organization is on the way up." Since then, he's said he's talked progessively less enthusiastically about a return, but not closing the door. He's also reportedly added 17 pounds, helpful since he never filled out after being drafted. The Nets reportedly would like to bring him back, under the right circumstances and the right salary.

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Two years before Wright was taken, Chris Taft crashed and burned on Draft Night. In the summer of 2004, The Brooklyn native was seen as a top three pick in the 2005 draft, sitting atop the NBADraft.net mock for most of that summer.  Like Wright, he had all the skills, along with a 6'10" frame. His wingspan is a slightly more modest 7'2" but his frame needed no filling out. He weighs 260 pounds now, as he did then. And his vertical leap at the pre-draft combine measured the same. Like Wright, he had been Rookie of the Year in his conference, the Big East, averaging 13.3 and 7.5 and shooting 58.5%.

Then, in his second year, he regressed and got a reputation for dogging it before entering the draft. 

Here's what Chad Ford wrote at the time. "On potential, he's a lottery pick. On heart and desire, he's a second-rounder. Right now, most teams seem to be down on him, but we've heard his name everywhere from Golden State at No. 9 to the second round. I'm not sure anyone in the history of the draft has had such a dramatic gap in the draft range".

Even GM's publicly criticized his workout performance. Raptor GM Rob Babcock wondered aloud about his heart. "That's the toughest thing to measure," Babcock told the Globe and Mail after Taft worked out. "Even the mind's easier to measure than the heart. It's difficult. It's very difficult."  He denied it all then, but ultimately admitted his conditioning was not the best. His defense was atrocious. At his Nets workout, he was reportedly outplayed by a 6'11" Serbian.

He eventually fell to #42 to the Warriors, just ahead of Mile Ilic.  He had some back problems in summer league (where he was coached by Mario Elie.) It went down hill from there. He had surgery for a herniated disk after 17 games with Golden State and in the process was diagnosed with condition called polymyositis, an inflammatory muscle disease that causes weakness and pain, often in the trunk area. He spent much of his summer of 2006 in the hospital, later telling Joe Starkey of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, "I had trouble walking at times."

More bad luck ensued. After being waived by the Warriors in 2007, he spent a year rehabbing and in 2008, joined the Rio Grande Vipers, a Rockets D-League affiliate. Eight games into his first D-League gig, he had just filed away back-to-back double-doubles in the D-League Showcase when he disclocated his foot. It was poorly reset, he said, and he developed a bone infection. More time on his back, more rehab.

Finally, he went back to Pitt, with his new wife, son and stepdaughter, to work with one of the leading specialists in polymyositis, work out and finish up a degree in accounting.  He also worked in the community with a young dancer from the Congo, the two of them talking to grade school kids about resilience.

He was drafted by the Armor in the fourth round of the D-League draft earlier this month. The Armor brass, all Nets employees, were visibly thrilled to take him. In return he was grateful. It's hard to tell how he's doing in the Armor training camp. Not a lot of news from there. He still has to make the team, but by every account, he is in the best shape of his life.  If indeed that's true and if there is a season, there is nothing to stop the Nets from calling him up for training camp.  

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In high school, Jordan Williams had one of the greatest senior years of any scholastic basketball player...ever.  A man in a boy's league, he brought down a backboard in one game and averaged 35.7 points and 20 rebounds for the season, getting his team to the state finals. Because he was a heavyweight and not an elite athlete, he didn't get the buzz Wright and Taft did. Although he wasn't Rookie of the Year as a college freshman at Maryland, he was first runner-up and was selected to the All-Rookie team. And he did  become only the third Terp to score 250 points and grab 250 rebounds as a freshman, after Buck Williams and Joe Smith.

His sophomore year, he wound up as the third leading rebounder in NCAA Division I, averaging 16.9 points to go with 11.8 boards. But it's what he did after the season that got him on the Nets' and other teams' radars: losing 20 pounds of what he called "baby fat", dropping from 13% body fat to eight and improving his jump shot.

Draft Express dropped by one of his workouts in May and was impressed. "Not only has Williams put in some serious work on his body, he's also made a considerable effort to add to his game. Williams was one of the few players in three-on-three competition not named Jon Diebler confident enough to attempt jump shots under the one-shot-and-out rules the prospects were playing under."

Chad Ford snapped this picture to show the transformation. Ford in fact was a big fan, believing he could land as high as #25 in the first round (where the Celtics took MarShon Brooks and then traded him to the Nets).  He said he was told the Nets might have taken him at #27 if Brooks hadn't been available, requiring the trade of the pick.  Instead, he went at #36 in the second round.

J-Will, as some have taken to call him, played a bit this summer in the Impact League in Las Vegas while waiting for the lockout to end.  He averaged 12.3 points and 7.0 rebounds while shooting 62.9%. But as summer turned into fall, he said he's been mulling "overseas options".  Saturday night, his agent, Andy Miller, announced he had signed with Zastal in western Poland.

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Will any of them work out? And what does "work out" mean anyway.  Wright might be worth the LLE which under the last owners proposal would still exist for teams under the cap; Taft, IF he shows well in Springfield and has no relapses of his polymyositis, could be worth a small guarantee on a vets minimum deal. Williams salary will likely be league minimum for a rookie.  That's if everything goes well.  It's possible the Nets have lost their enthusiasm for Wright or vice versa; Taft could get cut in Springfield and Williams might not even get signed. He doesn't have a guarantee as a second round pick. That's the worst case scenario.

But two things should be considered, if you're an optimist. 1) The Nets wanted all three of them, gave up a second rounder to get Wright; and 2) Popeye Jones and Avery Johnson have a very good record of rehabbing bigs who others had given up on.  DeSagana Diop, Brandon Bass and Kris Humphries never had as good a season as they had with Jones and Johnson. 

Of course, we may not know the answers to any of this for a while, maybe till next July when hopefully the Nets will be working out in East Rutherford, getting ready for Brooklyn.  That would be a bummer.

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