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The June 26 Gamble - Update #4

Last June 26 was a day of big risks for the Nets–big risks with young players.

The team started the day by trading a popular player, Richard Jefferson, for Yi Jianlian, a 20-year-old who had started well, but finished poorly for the Bucks. Then that night, they took chances on two players who had fallen in the draft, Brook Lopez and Chris Douglas-Roberts, while making a reach for another player, Ryan Anderson. Lopez and Anderson are 20. Yi and CDR are now 21.

We’ll be providing occasional updates on the Gamble as the season progresses.

It’s hard to remember—or imagine--why Brook Lopez fell in the draft. A player once projected at #3 or #4, he was passed on by teams that took Danilo Gallinari (at #6 by the Knicks), Joe Alexander (at #8 by the Bucks) and D.J. Augustin (at #9) by the Bobcats.

It’s easy to forget that the first person to mention Ryan Anderson’s name on ESPN that night was David Stern, when he announced the Nets’ selection at #21. Afterwards, most pundits thought he had gone too high. Anderson’s nickname appeared to be "Reach" or "Stretch". Right now, there isn’t a player selected after him with as good numbers…although the other guy the Nets considered at #21, Courtney Lee, is very close. In fact, half of those drafted ahead of Anderson don’t have his numbers.

On the other hand, it’s not hard to recall, at all, the outrage at the Nets’ decision to trade Richard Jefferson that afternoon for Yi Jianlian (and Bobby Simmons). Remember, the Nets had considering trading RJ for established players like Boris Diaw, Leandro Barbosa, Jermaine O’Neal, Luol Deng, etc. etc. Yi was seen as a mistake at best, a bust or purely a marketing move at worst.

After all, the big gamble of June 26 was all about taking so many risks on very young big men, players who traditionally take a while to develop. None had reached their 21st birthday and Anderson had been a teenager only six weeks before the draft. By the time each of them started an NBA game, they were the second, third and fifth youngest starters in franchise history. It could have easily gone wrong. There were other risks as well that night. The Nets sent a signal to their fans that the remaking of the team had not ended on February 19, with the Jason Kidd/Devin Harris deal and would take a while. That cost them cold, hard cash in terms of lost season ticket sales.

Now with the season half over, it doesn’t seem like much of a gamble at all. Lopez has confounded his critics by having a season where every week he seems to get better while both Anderson and Yi have had recent stretches that have been eye-opening. Combined, they’re averaging 30.1 ppg, 18.9 rpg and 2.8 bpg for the season. They’re shooting a combined 45.5% overall, 38.3% from deep and, for big men, an astonishing 81.2% from the line (take note, Josh Boone)…all in 75 minutes per game.

What’s more important is their progress. In each case, their last five games represent their best stretch of the season.

In his last five, Lopez is averaging 17.4 ppg, 10.0 rpg and shooting 62.9% overall as well as 90% from the line. The same can be said for Anderson. He’s averaging 11.8 ppg, 6.6 rpg and shooting 52.6% from downtown over that same stretch. He’s only shooting 88.9% from the line. And in the five games before he went down with a broken pinky, Yi started to look like the player the Nets had hoped they were getting, with averages of 16.2 ppg and 7.4 rpg and shooting percentages of 46.1% and 35.7%. Like Lopez, Yi had two 20-point games in those five games and was on his way to a third when he hurt his pinky.

What’s also surprising for young big men is they aren’t getting in foul trouble the way you’d expect. That’s not to say there won’t be ups and downs or they won’t hit the wall (although Yao Ming, who qualifies as an unparalleled expert thinks the rest will be good for his Team China colleague.) But one has to think that in their secret councils, the Net’s brain trust is giddy with their good fortune.

The other pick that night, Chris Douglas-Roberts, wasn’t much of a risk at all (although giving him three year deal the next month might qualify as one). Taking a first team All-American at #40 hardly qualifies as a risk. But he, like his teammates, is improving. Over his last nine games, after two straight DNP-CD’s, CDR has averaged eight minutes a game, some of that time at the point. He’s only averaging 3.0 ppg over that stretch, but that’s better than what he had been doing after straining his meniscus and losing a month’s work.

With Simmons still out with an abdominal strain, CDR can be expected to see more action against Denver, Orlando and San Antonio. If he can match the improvement of his taller teammates, June 26 may turn out to have been one hell of a night.