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The June 26 Gamble - Update #5

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.

The last time we did an update on the June 26 Gamble, Brook Lopez had just won his first Rookie of the Month award, Yi Jianlian was still rehabbing his broken pinkie and Ryan Anderson had the highest player efficiency rating of any player taken between #21 and the end of the first round in the draft. Chris Douglas-Roberts was playing intermittently.

The gamble, adding three big men between the ages of 20 and 21, seemed like a no-brainer, win-win-win.

A month later, there are doubts. Not with Lopez, of course. He has just won his second Rookie of the Month award and increasingly looks like a legitimate candidate for Rookie of the Year. No rookie has won the monthly award more than twice. He even has a shot at getting his third monthly award for March. Although his scoring and rebounding stats for March are, so far, a little down from February, his shooting percentages are close to phenomenal. In March, Lopez is shooting 44-67 or 65.7% from the field, and from the line, he's shooting 14-16 or 87.5%. He has moved into the Top 20 in shooting percentage (#14), blocks (#8), and offensive rebounding (#10) and is just outside the Top 20 in rebounding at #21. He's also proved that he can produce late in tight games as he did in the loss at Portland. The only concern: he hasn't grabbed more than six rebounds in the last five games.

In fact, the Nets believe Lopez could become a Top 5 center. As YES' Brandon Shapiro pointed out recently, Lopez's rookie numbers compare very favorably with two Top 5 big men's first NBA season:

"In his first 63 games, All-Star Magic center Dwight Howard averaged 10.6 PPG, 49.8 FG%, 9.9 RPG, 1.71 BPG and a 67.5 FT%, and another All-Star center, Houston's Yao Ming, averaged 13.8 PPG, 51.6 FG%, 8.3 RPG, 1.87 BPG and an 80.5 FT% in his first 63 games. If Lopez can keep it up, he will find himself in some impressive company."

The problems are Yi and Anderson...for different reasons. Yi has been nothing short of disastrous since returning from his injury. In the three games before he went down, he looked like the player the Nets hoped they were getting back in June. Not since. He has looked like the Yi who the Bucks lost faith in at the end of last year. In the 12 games since he's been back, he's averaged 5.8 points a game. He's had only one double digit scoring game since his return. He has gotten into early foul trouble, looked passive when he hasn't and played fewer and fewer minutes. Against Portland, Lawrence Frank inserted him in the lineup during the fourth quarter for only the third time in the past three weeks. He quickly turned the ball over and he resumed his seat on the bench.

The Nets still have high hopes for him, but the Portland game may have been his worst as an NBA player...at least offensively. He scored one point, shot 0-5, and turned the ball over at a critical juncture. The one area where he continues to do well is rebounding. Since he's returned, he's averaging 10 rebounds per 40 minutes and is willing to mix it up underneath. That's actually a higher rebound rate than Lopez, who's averaging 9.4 per 40. The problem is that Yi is also averaging five personals per 40 minutes and seems to get two early in every first quarter.

The Nets have shown remarkable patience with Yi. Kiki Vandeweghe has said some of Yi's better games showed he was "ahead of schedule", not that he had reached a new plateau. Vandeweghe liked Yi because he saw Dirk Nowitzki in him...said that in 2007 when he was an ESPN commentator. What the Nets must be hoping now is that there's some Andrea Bargnani in him. The top pick in the 2006 draft took two long years to develop into a top-flight player.

Bargnani and Yi's second year averages are eerily similar. Last season, Bargnani averaged 10.2 points and 3.7 rebounds, shooting 38.6% overall and 34.5% from deep, in 23.9 minutes. Yi is averaging 9.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, shooting 40.0% overall and 36.4% from deep, in 24.5 minutes. The Raptors' patience was rewarded this season. Bargnani's averaging 14.7 points and 5.4 rebounds, shooting 40.6% from deep.

"He's really young and has not played a lot of basketball. So for me – because last year he got hurt and missed almost half the year – he's a rookie," Vandeweghe told HoopsWorld Saturday. "I think he is sort of growing into his role with the team."

Rod Thorn is patient as well, telling the Star-Ledger Sunday that while Yi may have a hard time offensively vs. Portland, he was impressed with his defense.

"I felt in the first half, Yi played as well defensively as he had all year," Thorn said. "They go to (LaMarcus) Aldridge a lot, but Yi was terrific. When he came back midway in the game in the fourth, he didn't play as well. But I was encouraged by the way he guarded, and the intensity level he played with.

"That's the kind of focus he has to come with every night. It shows he can do it. He contested every shot that guy (Aldridge) took. So that was encouraging, because it shows he can do it. Now if he can guard without fouling, you're halfway there. Because you know he can make an open jump shot. So I was encouraged."

The other player taken that night, Anderson, is now confined to the bench, which has frustrated him and fans alike. Reading tea leaves, it appears Anderson has become the victim of two shifts in Frank's thinking. Frank has gone to small ball, often playing his veteran small forwards--Bobby Simmons and Jarvis Hayes--at the power forward, feeling more comfortable with their defense, corner shooting and of course, veteran presence. Frank also has turned to Sean Williams for his defense, playing him with Simmons and Hayes. That of course is not a bad thing for the Nets, even if it is for Anderson. Williams is only 22.

Indeed, the Nets' brass thinks Anderson's defense needs work. "Defense is such a huge difference between college and the NBA," Rod Thorn told the San Francisco Chronicle last week. "It's been a challenge for Ryan defensively."

Still, Thorn told the Chron he envisions Anderson as a reliable "rotation player" for many years - maybe not a starter, but a valuable reserve with a clear niche (outside shooting). Thorn did say Anderson's rebounding and toughness are better than expected.

And in spite of his limited use lately--four straight DNP's and six DNP's in the last eight games--Anderson remains upbeat and says he's ready...as he proved vs. the Bucks when he didn't miss a shot and scored 13 points in 13 minutes. He's still averaging decent numbers--7.4 points, 4.7 rebounds and 36.4% from deep. And it was no accident that his name came up a lot in trade talks.

It also appears their teammates have faith in both Yi and Anderson. In a recent interview with WFAN, Keyon Dooling expressed optimism about both of them.

"Yi’s a very unique player...the fact that he’s seven foot, can shoot the ball so well and is extremely athletic. The thing about it is that Yi is young. He doesn’t have a lot of playing experience. He doesn’t have a lot of experience playing at this level. So there’s going to be growing pains like there are with any other second year player in this league. What he has to do is continue to keep working, try to get better. I still think the sky’s the limit for Yi."

And of Anderson, he noted,

"The thing that stands out for me about Ryan is that he is a tough kid. He’s been out of the rotation and for a young player that can be very difficult but he’s kept himself going in practice. He’s put in the extra time. Mentally, he’s been able to hang in there. So when his number is called, he’s always ready. He’s one of those guys who really responds well to adversity. If he gets snatched out of the rotation, he always seems to come back with reckless abandon and he was phenomenal in Milwaukee the other night."

As for Douglas-Roberts, he's had eight DNP's in the last 11 games, but did well when he got extended minutes vs. New Orleans, scoring six points on 3-5 shooting, grabbing three rebounds and executing a very nifty steal in 12 minutes.

The Nets haven't given up on CDR. In a talk with season ticket holders last month, Thorn said Douglas-Roberts needs to develop a reliable 16- to 20-foot jumper, but added that he is "super competitive" and "very clever" on the court. The jury is still out on what kind of an NBA player he will be, he added. Both Thorn and Vandeweghe admitted that CDR needs more confidence and that it’s tough for rookies who were the big man in college to adjust to the NBA, both in terms of their role and the grind. Thorn said that he believed if CDR played 32 minutes a game, he would score 12 to 16 points a game, but that isn’t possible with the players ahead of him, all of whom are veterans. A strong argument could be made, in fact, that three of the four best players on the Nets--Devin Harris, Vince Carter, and Dooling--are guards. And in the NBA, CDR is more suited to guard than small forward.

What's the bottom line? Anderson and CDR are rookies and Yi is a second year player who doesn't have a lot of big game experience. In playoff races, coaches don't like taking chances with young players, unless they are very special players...and that description now has to include Brook Lopez. Still, the Nets are way ahead of what other teams have done with big man gambles the last several years. Draft histories are littered with the names of big man busts taken in the lottery: Shelden Williams, Saer Sene, Patrick O’Bryant, Hilton Armstrong, Cedric Simmons, Sean May, Fran Vasquez, Ike Diogu, Yaroslav Korolev, Robert Swift, Rafael Araujo, Kris Humphries.

The Nets won't have to cash in their chips on the June 26 Gamble for a long time...til the end of the four players' rookie contracts. Between now and then, it's just a whole lot of shuffling.