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Wondering About Josh

Wondering if Josh Boone can help the Nets this season? Wondering how good he can be in the NBA?

Welcome to the Boone Identity, the Nets' mystery.

Boone is not just a great unknown for the Nets. He was a great unknown for many NBA GM's last June. Almost everyone agrees the Nets took him higher than most GM's thought wise. Even Nets GM Ed Stefanski admits there was some risk there...and not because of his physical talent set. It's just that Boone has been remarkably inconsistent throughout his career, starring in the NCAA's as a freshman, disappearing as a junior. Having what Chad Ford called "horrible workouts" prior to the draft, then leading the summer league in rebounds and blocks while shooting 61.5%. His shoulder surgery was supposed to limit his ability to bulk up, but he wound up adding 18 pounds during rehab.

Still, the only men who matter now, Stefanski, President Rod Thorn, and Coach Lawrence Frank are all on the record saying they like what they see in Boone. Stefanski has described himself as a "big Josh Boone fan". And Stefanski saw a lot of him before the draft.

"I must have seen Connecticut 10 or 11 times this year and the one guy I was always looking at was Josh Boone," Stefanski said after the draft. "This kid is 6-foot-10; he runs the floor and has a terrific pair of hands on him. He is a very good rebounder and a shot-blocker, which we desperately need."

Thorn and Frank, as is often the case, were more measured.

"Josh is very athletic, can run the floor, can finish. He's a good finisher and can block shots. Josh needs to get stronger," said Thorn. "If you're going to play inside in the NBA, strength is a big plus to have."

"He plays with good energy, runs the floor well, is good around the basket, has good hands, finishes well around the rim, is aggressive on the offensive boards, and showed the ability to block some shots," added Frank.

Any review of Boone's career leads to different, sometimes unbalanced, assessments of his potential. In fact, simple year-by-year reviews of his career will.

As a freshman, Boone played alongside two guys who have gone on to solid NBA careers: Emeka Okafor and Charlie Villaneuva. His numbers that year were more than respectable. He averaged 5.9 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.7 blocks while shooting 55.4% from the floor. He was named to the Big East All-Rookie team and more importantly, he was the starting power forward on UConn's NCAA champions. No other Net has an NCAA championship. He was especially outstanding in the 2004 Final Four, scoring nine points in both games and grabbing 14 rebounds in the National Semifinal win over Duke. He also had an outstanding Big East Tournament, averaging 8.0 points and 11.3 rebounds in three games. He even set a tournament record for rebounds in a game by a freshman with 16 in the quarterfinal win over Notre Dame.

The next year, he moved to center and got off to a terrific start that made people think he could be a high lottery selection in the 2005 draft. He averaged 17.5 ppg, 11.3 rpg and 3.7 bpg in non-tournament games before Big East competition slowed him down a bit. Still, he finished with good numbers--12.4 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2.9 blocks--and was named Big East Defensive Player of the Year. That last accolade alone was enough to keep his name in lottery conversations that spring. But Boone decided to play another year in Storrs. It probably cost him money.

He went back to power forward, after Hilton Armstrong was inserted at center. Armstrong developed quickly while Boone seemed to regress.

As ESPN's Chad Ford wrote: "After a stellar start to his sophomore season, he's had a number of truly awful performances for UConn that really make you wonder."

Rotating in and out of the Huskie frontcourt didn't work well for him...although it did for Armstrong, who looked increasingly like the lottery pick Boone was supposed to be. At season's end, his poor numbers told only part oft story. All were down: From 12.4 to 10.3 in points, from 8.4 to 7.0 in rebounds, from 2.9 to 2.0 in blocks, from 60.9% to 56.4% in shooting percentage, etc., etc. Worse was his performance in the NCAA. He disappeared in the second round versus Kentucky, not even taking a shot, and was held to six points in the overtime upset loss to George Mason, getting beaten up by Jai Lewis, who is barely 6'7" but with NBA girth. Thorn and the Nets think the fatigue may have been a problem.

Not everyone was as kind. Others attributed his dropoff to a general lack of focus, perhaps even interest.

Prior to Draft Night, Glenn Consor, an NBA TV analyst, summarized the issue for a lot of scouts: "I think the big question mark on Josh Boone right now is his ability to sustain intensity. I think he disappears. Sometimes, the motor is turned off. You can't do that in the NBA." Still, Consor looked at the other side as well: "what makes Josh Boone so attractive I think is his ability to play weakside defense, his ability to rebound. I think he runs the floor well."

Ryan Blake, the NBA's assistant director of scouting, didn't disagree on that same NBA TV draft preview program: "He is a three-year starter...showed some flashes of brilliance and upside. His freshman year, he averaged 6 and 6. Then we sought after him his sophomore year, he sort of did the same thing--flashes of brilliance then down low, sort of disappeared at times. We have questions about him."

But like Consor, Blake saw the potential as well...with a proviso: "He's shown an array of post skills. He has a nice jump hook. He does show some flashes of where he can put the ball in the basket. He can be tenacious at times, BUT he has to prove it."

Draft pundits were all of the same mind: The potential, particularly on defense, is there, but... NBADraft.net, who had seen him as a lottery prospect after his sophomore year, praised his defense, then noted: "Can get down on himself when things aren't going well, needs to become better composed." DraftExpress was even harsher: "There are major question marks about just how much he enjoys playing basketball...He shows very little emotion and passion on the court" and even suggested Boone is lazy. ESPN's Ford added some uncomplimentary "insider" information: "I'm not a huge fan of Josh Boone...Does he have the heart to help the Nets? That's the big question. His workouts were horrible, with numerous scouts saying he didn't really compete. If his attitude changes, he'll be a good pick." Andrew Skwara of Sporting News predicted disaster, calling Boone's last season at Storrs: "Disappointing. Underachieving. Inconsistent and lacking."

Draft Night was kinder to Boone. The Nets taking him at #23 was a surprise. Few mock drafts had him going any higher and most had him slipping to the end of the first round or the beginning of the second. More importantly for him and the Nets, his UConn roommate, teammate and runningmate Marcus Williams went to the Nets at #22.

Boone recalled that after the Nets' surprise pick of Williams he kept saying to himself, "Let me go at 23, Let me go at 23." The Nets had lucked out repeatedly to get there: first when the sign-and-trade for Shareef Abdur-Rahim had fallen though in 2005, meaning the pick stayed in New Jersey, when they won a coin toss with Memphis to get the 23rd pick, when 18 teams passed on Williams--three of them twice, and finally when they were able to take Boone secure in the knowledge that Williams would push him--and give him and them a security blanket. Williams admitted after the draft that one of his jobs is to get Boone playing at the top of his abilities.

"I couldn't have picked a better team," Boone added. "I know this, believe me."

He also foresaw where he fit in the Nets' lineup, but showed some rookie humility.

"Basically, they were really one big man short," he told reporters. "Jason Collins has been great for them. Nenad (Krstic) was really, really good for them. But they played a lot of minutes, and I think there were times when they played against a deeper team, and they got worn out at the end. So I'm going to be another body, I'm going to be a guy who can spell minutes - or play a lot."

Vince Carter thought Boone could help as well.

"I like what Josh brings to the table," Carter said. "He's a big man who can run and jump and block shots. We need a big man like that. He's not afraid to throw his body around."

A couple of draft pro's liked the pick. Jay Bilas called him "probably the best offensive rebounder in the draft" and was kinder than most in talking about his downside: "I think he's hard on himself." Greg Anthony was positively enthusiastic: "when you look at his skillset, and the things Josh Boone does well, it's exactly what the New Jersey Nets need. They need some athleticism, they need some energy on that interior, they need shot blocking, and they need a guy who can finish at the paint. Rod Thorn has done a great job."

Thorn said he was happy, if not effusive. "We need some help front court wise. We need some size, we need some athleticism, we need an athlete and we feel that Josh fits all those assets." And although he didn't say it, Thorn had admitted before the draft that he was quite enamored of Armstong and reportedly tried to trade both the 22nd and 23rd picks to New Orleans for the 12th pick, hoping to get him.

Jim Calhoun, who coached both Williams and Boone at UConn, called Williams the "steal of the draft" and added of Boone: "The only thing he has to do is develop more self-belief. And I think he will. He needs to start believing in Josh Boone as much as we all do. I just think that in the NBA, it's going to show up."

Indeed, it did start to show up in the Pepsi Summer League. Williams and Antoine Wright got a lot of the attention as both proved they could play. Boone led the league in two key categories: rebounding at 7.8 per game and blocks, at 2.0, beating out players like Tyrus Thomas, Cedric Simmons and Armstrong, all drafted well ahead of him. Not bad considering two things: he played with what was later diagnosed as a torn labrum in his left shoulder and played with a perimeter-oriented team. He shot 61.5% from the field, although an embarrassing 27.8% from the line.

Even after being told he would have to have surgery and lose at least a month of playing time, the summer league had to be considered a big plus in his development. Dave D'Alessandro of the Star-Ledger described the Nets as being "smitten" with Boone's summer league performance because "he gives them something they haven’t had. He’s a long, athletic power forward/center who can get them some rebounds, block some shots, run the floor and offensively can play some pick-and-pop. They wont be running too many plays for him…and he is behind the curve. He is athletic enough and enough of a defender he will get into the rotation."

Rick Kamla, the NBA's fantasy guru, liked what he saw as well. "The Nets desperately need a big man who can bang bodies and block shots, and that's exactly what Boone did in Orlando, averaging eight rebounds and two blocks," he said on NBA TV.

So what is the bottom line for the Nets in looking at Boone's prospects for the remainder of this season? Lawrence Frank probably gave the most balanced assessment recently: "With Josh, it's hard to give any sort of comment other than he was a significant contributor in the summer league in that for a young player, he knows exactly what he can do and he tries to maximize those strengths...[but] he was very, very good during summer league."

For a fan, Boone has obvious strengths and weaknesses. He is a solid weakside defender, one with shot blocking ability that is a function of his 7'1" wingspan, leaping ability, good timing and experience. He has good hands and can finish. He is also likely to be the team's best running big man since Kenyon Martin, being able to take a pass on the run and slam it home or use his athleticism to make a reverse layup in traffic. His passing, like most of Jim Calhoun's charges, is solid. On offense, he appears limited. He hasn't shown great post moves. He doesn't have a mid-range game. His foul-shooting has historically been below par or worse. He is going to rely a lot on Jason Kidd and his college roommate for scoring opportunities. A look at the UConn highlights from last year, as well as predraft highlight reels for both Williams and Boone, shows repeated alley-oops and paint passes leading to slams, etc.

As one Nets' Insider told Al Iannazzone of YES: "Jason Kidd will make Boone a better offensive player."

And there is always hope that he will be better offensively in the NBA than he was at UConn. Okafor is. Villanueva is. Williams is. "Offensively do we know what he can do?" asked Consor, the NBA TV draft analyst. "because you're playing with a college team that has six or seven NBA players, did he get the ball enough? I think he has pretty good offensive instincts...Although they are unrefined."

Boone himself would agree. "When you play on a roster loaded with NBA players, your numbers can't be the same."

He is also one very smart player. He scored better than 1200 on his SAT's and had a 3.6 GPA in high school. He majored in psychology at UConn and as his website shows, he can write as well, describing his days at the NBA Rookie Transition Camp this way: "So we have been stuck in this facility for four days now. ive been outside twice. we wear uniforms, eat at exact times, and cant have visitors. but the worst part of this week: the fact that on the way back from visiting an elementary school, I could see my house from the road...and couldn't get there. cant wait for tomorrow :-)(and no, though it sounds like it, its not prison...it's the rookie transition program)."

Publicly at least, he has toned down aspirations for what he can do on the NBA level. He is well aware of the doubts surrounding his attitude and his focus, even his insecurity. He reads and Stefanski reportedly talked to him about it all following his workout with New Jersey. Now, he just wants to play.

"I'm just ready to get back on the floor," said Boone Friday. "Nobody likes having to sit on the sidelines, especially when it's something that you've been wanting to do for 22 years. I just want to play."