As Armor open season Friday, a former high school superstar gets a look

USA TODAY Sports

We take a look at the most intriguing prospect on the Nets D-League team: a 20-year-old who two years ago was one of the top high school prospects in the country, then went undrafted. The Armor opens Friday vs. Maine.

At the end of the first round of last June's draft, the Nets staff was spent. At around pick #18, they had gotten word from Kevin Garnett's agent that their big deal with Boston was on. A few minutes later, ownership was disappointed when Russian sharpshooter Sergey Karasev went to Cleveland. At #21, Gorgiu Dieng, the 6'11" Louisville center who many on the staff liked, wound up in Minnesota. One pick later, they happily took Mason Plumlee, who they thought would be gone in the teens.

Some fans expected the night to continue, that the Nets would buy picks in the second round as they did in 2011 and 2012, but word came down that the Nets were done for the night. And really after a nine-player, three-pick trade and the addition of an athletic seven-footer, who cared? Apparently, they did.

The Nets didn't buy picks with the $3 million they had available that night but in the months since, they quietly acquired the D-League rights to two 2013 college players, players who they believe have NBA potential and who they could very well have been picked in the 40's or 50's on Draft Night.

One, ironically, was Lorenzo Brown, who was taken by the Timberwolves at #52, a pick Minnesota obtained from the Nets in 2011 (for Bojan Bogdanovic). But before he could play for the Armor, he was called up this week by the 76ers. Like any other D-League player not on assignment from an NBA club, Brown could be called up any team. The other is Adonis Thomas, who meets the description of "fallen angel." Thomas, ranked a top --if not the top-- high school prospect in the US two years ago, went undrafted. Now, he's looking like the best NBA prospect on the Armor roster ... as well as the youngest.

The powerful 20-year-old is intriguing. Thomas was signed by the Nets at the end of camp, but never joined the team. The University of Memphis product was signed to be cut so the Nets could assign his rights to the Armor. It's the first time the Nets have employed the strategy. Thomas was seen as low-risk, possibly high reward.

Two years ago, the Memphis native looked like a future one-and-done. A 6'7" forward with a combination of length (7'1" wingspan); athleticism (40" maximum vertical), strength (220 pounds) and touch (range out to the NBA arc), he was hotly pursued by all the top schools. An honor roll student and model citizen, his signing was considered a major coup for his hometown team, the University of Memphis.

He played in all the high school all-star games and his resume included two FIBA world championships as well, the Under-16 title won in Mendoza, Argentina in June 2009, and the Under-17 title won in Hamburg, Germany the next summer. He started for both squads. His Team USA teammates included Andre Drummond, Bradley Beal, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, all later high lottery picks, as well as Tony Wroten, a first rounder in 2012, and James McAdoo of North Carolina, likely a first round pick next June. How high was he regarded his senior year? Sporting News named Thomas the nation's top prospect. ESPN rated him eighth, Scout.com ninth.

Thomas' time at Memphis wasn't a happy one. In his freshman year, supposed to be that one-and-done season, he blew out his ankle in practice, requiring surgery. He did make it back in time for the NCAA tournament but hardly set the world on fire, averaging 8.8 points. He did shoot nearly 50 percent overall and 40 percent from deep. When he came back his sophomore year, the Tigers had high hopes for their prized recruit. But as the season progressed, it looked like he had regressed. His three point shooting fell under 30 percent, his overall shooting number was just over 40. He averaged only 11.8 and Memphis was out of March Madness in the second round.

Matt Norlander of CBS Sports wrote just before the draft that Thomas "has the look of an NBA player. The skills still need much developing, however."

There's another issue. What's his NBA position? At 6'7" and 240, is he a small power forward or a powerful small forward? Is his stroke good enough? Can he run fast enough? His numbers at the PreDraft Combine were well above average. He retains that 40" vertical and was measured at 11'8" vertical reach. His hands are huge and his time in the 3/4 court sprint was better than most guards drafted, including speed merchants like Dennis Schroeder and Michael Carter-Williams Although he went undrafted, he was signed by the Hawks. They dumped him midway through camp, permitting the Nets to sign him.

Here's a lengthy compilation put together by the University of Memphis before the draft.

There's a downside risk to using the D-League to develop a player instead of drafting him. As the experience with Brown showed, If they got noticed, any team can call them up. The Nets have no exclusive rights. On the other hand, if Thomas had been drafted in the second round, he'd likely have been cut and wound up in Springfield anyway. The other issue is that right now, the Nets have no openings. Without a lopsided trade or some other unforeseen move, there will be no call-ups.

There are others who have a chance. Dennis Horner, the 6'9" power forward who had two short stints with the New Jersey Nets, is looking particularly good ... but he is 25. So is Willie Reed, the 6'10" center who was called up from Springfield last season by the Grizzlies.

Are any of them good enough to replace second round picks never used or if they get really lucky, replace one of those (hopefully) late first round picks the Nets sent away in the trades with Atlanta and Boston? It's a long shot but it's part of the Nets' new expanded D-League strategy to take those risks, take full advantage of the D-League. Putting Doug Overton, the Nets long-time development assistant, in Springfield is part of it as well.

The Nets (and other teams) will get a look at the possibilities starting Friday night when the Armor travel to Portland, Maine, to face the Red Claws. We'll be covering it all.

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