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Long Time Coming: Nachbar's Success

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Sometimes, Rod Thorn and Ed Stefanski get lucky, real lucky.

Take this string of events: In July 2004, the Nets sent Kerry Kittles to the Clippers for a second round pick and a $10.4 million trade exception. That pick, along with the Nets’ second round pick in 2007 and half the exception turned into Cliff Robinson. But the second half of that exception had a long and tortured path. First it was offered to Trailblazers along with the Nets’ first round pick in 2006 for Shareef Abdur-Rahim. That deal famously fell through.

So instead, the exception wound up going to the Sixers along with the right to swap second round picks in return for Marc Jackson. The Nets even got $3 million from the Sixers to help pay the costs of Jackson’s salary. That didn’t work out either. Jackson didn’t fit well into the Nets’ system and by February they wanted rid of him.

They also needed to get under the luxury tax threshold by the trade deadline and make room for another player, Tim Thomas, who they hoped they could lure back to New Jersey once he was dropped by the Bulls. With Jackson not commanding any offers, they were ready to deal him—and that same first round pick—to the Bobcats simply to get cap relief and roster space.

Then, at the last minute, a second deal emerged. The Hornets were desperate for a big man after Chris Andersen was banned by the league and Jackson Vroman broke his wrist. In return for Jackson, they were willing to give up Bostjan "Boki" Nachbar for Jackson, little used Linton Johnson III and $100,000. Done. The Nets kept the draft choice, which became Josh Boone, and welcomed Nachbar, a disappointing #15 pick of the Rockets in the 2002 draft. In the course of the deal, the Nets saved themselves $7 million in salary and luxury tax and had enough room to sign Thomas. That didn’t work out either.

The Nets thought Nachbar had some potential as a running big man and a shooter, but the primary reason they had acquired him was financial. Thorn said as much at the time: "It (the trade) gives us the ability to remain under the luxury tax and to sign a player -- whoever that player may be, if there is a player that would fit our needs."

Ironically—and luckily for Thorn and Stefanski, the player that ultimately fit the Nets' needs was not Abdur-Rahim, who has disappointed big time in Sacramento; Jackson, who moved further and further down the bench in New Orleans/Oklahoma City and is now out of the league; or Thomas, who once again is showing why he will never reach his potential, this time in Los Angeles. Instead, it is Nachbar, who has become one of the most effective, if not the most effective, bench player since Thorn took the reigns in New Jersey.

Nachbar averaged 9.2 points and 3.3 rebounds while shooting 45.7% overall and 42.3% from downtown in 20.2 minutes a game last season. On a per 48 minute basis, he scored at a better clip than any of the others, shooting better from the arc as well. Jackson and Abdur-Rahim don’t even have that range. Only Abdur-Rahim had a better overall shooting percentage, barely, and while Thomas and Abdur-Rahim are somewhat better rebounders, they are also playing more power forward. Moreover, the other three each made twice what Nachbar earned and are between four and six years older. Overall, in spite of his defensive lapses, he is still better than they are. And there is no way to quantify attitude.

It sure didn’t look that way a year ago when the Nets traded for him.

It had been a slow decline for Nachbar, from being the fifth highest international player ever drafted to an afterthought in a salary dump. He had been seen as the next European shooting star in the run-up to the 2002 draft. He had been compared to Peja Stojakovic. He had had an excellent coach in Mike D’Antoni.

Nachbar has been a professional basketball player since shortly after his 16th birthday, playing in Slovenian leagues with much older players. He averaged 6.5 points per game for Maribor at 16, and 7.4 for Olimpio Ljubljana at 17. He was so precocious he was asked to join the Slovenian Under-20 team for the European championships. And by now, the stories of how his father drove him 60 miles to practice every day starting at age 11 and then sold a printing press for $50,000 to buy out his contract are well known.

At 20, he had gotten noticed on the international scene, playing well for Slovenia in the European Under-20 championships against players like Pau Gasol and Jose Calderon of Spain, Vladimir Radmanovic of Yugoslavia and a young Zoran Planinic of Croatia. He was a top international invitee at the Nike Hoops Summitt. At 21, he was one of the top players in the Italian League and Euroleague, playing for powerhouse Bennetton Treviso outside Venice.

Rudy Tomjanovich, the Rockets coach who picked him, raved after seeing him first in a Bennetton scrimmage, then on tape: "In that scrimmage, Nachbar had 10 dunks mostly on the fast break, knifing-type plays. But then I watched a lot of tape on the kid after that and he’s a pretty versatile offensive player. He can make outside shots, can flip the ball over his head when he’s posted up. He can just do a lot of things like some of the other guys in the NBA. He isn’t quite the shooter of a [Peja] Stojakovic, but probably a better driver."

Here’s what NBADraft.net said about him just before the 2002 draft:

"Combines great athleticism with good intelligence. Very smooth player with offensive skill and court sense. Great understanding of the game and plays under control and with great competitiveness. Runs the floor very well and can get off the floor well and finish. Can actually create off the dribble and his ball handling ability is good and looks like it can become very good. Is still prone to having his pocket picked, but his handles are adept for a SF. Will be able to help a team right away as he is probably more NBA ready than any player in the draft." (Emphasis added)

All that may now sound familiar to Nets fans, but it must have sounded like a joke to Rockets' fans in 2002. In spite of the hype, Nachbar did little that year. A hernia early in the year slowed him and he played in only 14 games all season, averaging 5.5 minutes per game. Reports that he was the "most NBA ready" player in draft looked like bad fiction.

The next season, things didn’t improve much as Nachbar stayed at the end of the bench, getting in only 45 games and averaging a mere 3.5 ppg. His only bright spot: a moment in the playoffs when Karl Malone of the Lakers tried to intimidate him and Nachbar came right back at him. At the end of the 2003-04 season, Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle gave the then 23-year-old a "C", but not a very positive one: "Did not play much but had his chances to earn more playing time, beginning with summer league and again in preseason. Diligent and determined, he worked hard but was not enough of a defender or catch-and-shoot forward to play more."

By the beginning of the 2004-05 season, the Rockets had given up on Nachbar, trading him and Jim Jackson to the Hornets for guard David Wesley. In 75 games, he had played only 797 minutes for Houston, an average of 10.6 per game. He had scored only 2.9 ppg and shot only 35.6% overall. From downtown, this supposed Peja clone was only slightly better at 37.2%. "Bust" was not too strong a word to describe him.

The trade became somewhat of an opportunity. The Hornets were on their way to an 18-win season. Jackson refused to report to New Orleans, willing to sit out until he could sign with a better team. Nachbar though proved himself a willing worker. In his first game, he scored seven points and grabbed seven rebounds in 21 minutes.

"I'm very excited about being here, because I see it as a change for myself," said Nachbar in an interview with a New Orleans newspaper. He showed himself a decent bench player, averaging 8.3 points and 2.8 boards. He was a defensive liability and, strangely, a mediocre shooter, not reaching 40% for the season. He did hit 75 three’s that season.

Things were looking up that summer. The Hornets gave him a three-year, $7.5 million deal and he was viewed as an integral part of the team’s future…even if Hurricane Katrina had shifted the team's future to Oklahoma City. Then, once again, an injury intervened. He sprained his knee in November and by the time he got back, Rasual Butler had taken his place and the team started playing well in its new Oklahoma City digs. Butler and Nachbar, along with starter Desmond Mason, had created a logjam at the small forward position.

"I am very excited about coming to New Jersey," Nachbar said again, using almost the same language he did after the Rockets traded him. He added, "Jason Kidd has always been an idol of mine and I look forward to playing with him."

At the time, scouts gave opposing assessments of Nachbar to NBA writers, but neither foretold what he could become.

"He's a perimeter jump shooter, basically, not overly athletic," said one scout. "And he's not a great defender."

"He's a little intriguing because he's got good size and length," another said.

Lawrence Frank likes to stick with veteran players and so Nachbar sat and sat and sat, only getting big minutes in two meaningless games at the end of the 2005-06 season. One positive that ultimately bore fruit: he spent a lot of time with assistant coach Bob Thate, the Nets' shooting guru.

Nachbar wanted assurances during the summer of 2006 that he would get a chance after riding the pines for nearly the whole season. His friends, he admitted, had advised him to demand a trade. Thorn told Nachbar’s agent he would get a chance, that his exile was due primarily to his joining the team late and was not an indication that the Nets had given up on him. That conversation may have been the reason why out of the blue last August, Net P.R. man Gary Sussman wrote extensively of Nachbar in his blog, musing, "imagine the possibilities" of a 6’-9" big man who can run the floor and hit the open shot from deep. Sussman ended his item by noting however that Nachbar had to hit those shots if he was going to get playing time.

So, he took off for Slovenia and then the World Championships in Tokyo. Nachbar looked like a different player in Slovenia's uniform than the one who sat on the Nets' bench. Although the national team disappointed, he did well, scoring 15 points and grabbing 7 boards against Team USA in Japan and averaging 11 for the Worlds.

He got his chance, got good reviews in training camp and preseason, but after a good start, he fell out of favor. Too many jump shots, not enough defense. In December, he had an 11-game stretch where he played a total of 35 minutes with four DNP-CDs. He now says he decided it was time to be more aggressive.

"It comes with being more comfortable, being more confident, driving and not just settling for jump shots like I was at the beginning of the year," Nachbar told beat reporters in Salt Lake City in January. "I don't care what people think. I'm just trying to be as well-rounded as possible and not one-dimensional.

"I think I'm showing that more now than at the beginning of the season. For me, this year has been a season with a lot of changes. I've been playing two, three and four. For me honestly it doesn't matter what position I play."

After Richard Jefferson went down, Nachbar looked like a different player, becoming a fan favorite, capable of hitting the three, driving the lane and finishing with authority. He even took some alley-oops. Air Boki?

"You might forget he's 6-9, that he is athletic, that he can jump," Kidd said. "People are probably going to start running him off the three-point line. He can put it on the floor. He can pass but he can also finish."

Nachbar has returned the compliment, calling Kidd "the best I have ever played with".

Indeed in the games he has played while RJ was out following ankle surgery, Nachbar filled the stat sheet, playing the best basketball of his life. He averaged 12.3 points, 4.7 boards, shot 51.1% overall and 44.4% from downtown, all in 22 minutes off the bench. In one nine game stretch, when Frank upped his minutes to 27 minutes per game, he went for 16.7 ppg, shooting a torrid 57% overall and 47.7% deep. Twice in those stretch, he hit his career highs in points and in rebounds and recorded his first double-double. Those are the promised Peja numbers.

Moreover, he assumed a leadership role on the bench that both his coach and the starters have noticed. He is articulate and intelligent in his assessments of the game.

In spite of the Nets’ overall disappointment, Nachbar played well, honestly better than anyone could have expected. This season, he remains under contract for what now looks like a bargain basement rate of $2.5 million. He becomes a free agent on July 1, 2008.

He understands that at age 27, he finally has an opportunity to fulfill his potential. And he knows it took him a while to get there.

"Those are the worst times when you're out," Nachbar said. "I've been in this situation before. I knew one thing: This season is long and there are a lot of changes that happen during a season. You never know.

"I've seen it where guys were ready and they stepped up, and I've seen it when guys were not ready and they missed their chance. I didn't want that to happen to me."

Nachbar - 8.1 and 3.2 in 18.5 minutes, shooting 44.0% and 39.5% ($2.5 m)

Jackson – 7.2 and 3.2 in 18.7 minutes, shooting 38.4% and 00.0% ($4.85 m)

Abdur-Rahim – 9.9 and 5.1 in 25.1 minutes, shooting 47.0% and 07.7% ($5.4 m)

Thomas – 10.5 and 5.1 in 25.9 minutes, shooting 40.4% and 35.5% ($5.2 m)