Brooklyn Nets rookies Markel Brown and Cory Jefferson rang in 2015 with word that they were being assigned to the Maine Red Claws of the D-League. The Red Claws are technically not the Nets' D-League affiliate: that's the Fort Wayne Mad Ants. But Brooklyn shares the Mad Ants affiliation with 11 other NBA teams, and Fort Wayne can only take on so many NBA players. Those teams are allowed to do a "flexible" assignment, in the event that the Mad Ants have too many players assigned, and the Red Claws (operated by the Boston Celtics) took on the two seldom used youngsters, even though Maine doesn't present the most familiar of confines to young Brooklyn players stopping in.
"It really wasn't too weird, but having Markel out there with me that definitely helped to just have a familiar face around," Jefferson told me in the Nets locker room. "But as for just being out there it was cool and it gave us an opportunity to play and get some movement on the court."
The Nets entered the 2014 NBA draft with no picks, but their wealthy owner ensured Brooklyn didn't end the night empty-handed. General manager Billy King bought three second-round picks on draft night - No. 44 Brown, No. 59 Xavier Thames and No. 60 Jefferson, making him "Mr. Irrelevant," the last pick. In July Brooklyn signed Brown and Jefferson to multi-year contracts, but the two high-flying youngsters had already crossed paths numerous times before.
"He played at OK State and I was at Baylor. So we would see each other a lot on the court and then during the NBA combine we were even roommates during that time," said Jefferson, who has a wingspan of 7'1", and a max vertical of 37.5", which was the highest amongst the bigs drafted, trailing only Arizona's Aaron Gordon, the No. 4 pick overall. "So we had a relationship before we got here and that probably made it a little bit easier for us to talk to each other on and off the court. And even now we just hangout and things like that when we're not at practice or the gym."
Last year around this time, both Brown and Jefferson were finishing up two pretty successful collegiate careers. As an education major at Oklahoma State, the 6-foot-3 Brown played in 134 games during his four years, averaging 12.4 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists. He also became the only player in team history to record 300 assists, 100 steals and 100 blocked shots in his career and his 969 career points in Big 12 games are an Oklahoma State record.
Meanwhile, during his five-year stay at Baylor (he redshirted during the 2010-11 season), Jefferson played in 130 games, averaging 8.9 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.30 blocks in 19.9 minutes per game. He also became the first player in Baylor history to make three NCAA Tournament appearances and won a program-record 107 games during his four active seasons. After a strong Summer League and training camp appearance, both young rookies showed enough promise to make the squad. The Nets, however, did not expect Brown or Jefferson to contribute much this season and for long stretches both players rode the end of Brooklyn's bench. Jefferson cracked the rotation first, starting a game as early as December and he has picked up an increased bench role in recent weeks. However, Brown didn't get his first true shot at playing time until after the All-Star break.
He played in just 17 of the first 51 games - and had played more than 10 minutes just three times, all in garbage time. But in Brooklyn's first game after the All-Star Break, coach Lionel Hollins finally gave Brown a chance and he scored a then season-high nine points against the Los Angeles Lakers. The former Mr. Basketball for the state of Louisiana hasn't looked back since, as his length and leaping ability have turned him into a rotation cog and fan favorite in just a few weeks.
"At the end of the day I'm a ballplayer just like anyone else," said Brown, who boasts a 43.5-inch vertical leap and a 6-foot-5-inch wingspan, which he believes helps him to defend taller guards on the perimeter. "I had a lot of great support around me with the vets who always told me to stay ready because at any moment my time could come."
To both players' credit, they've been ready to play when called on. Before games and practices, Brown and Jefferson put in extra time to make sure they're ready. But not without a little extra help. Multiple times this season Hollins has specifically thanked assistant coach John Welch, who has helped keep the two rookies on the right track.
"He's definitely had a big impact on pretty much a lot of it," Jefferson said. "Getting us working out in the mornings, before practice or after practice. Before the games just giving us that little boost. Sometimes you don't really feel like working out, but he will make sure that you do it and after it's over you're glad you did it."
The Nets are just 30-40 and Brooklyn is proving to once again simply be a collection of overpaid, fading stars who can't keep up with younger and faster NBA flying past them. But Brown and Jefferson provide the Nets with much needed youth, leaping ability and speed -- areas they have been deficient in for quite some time. The two rookies have grown tremendously on the court throughout the season, but their unique friendship is one that goes beyond the basketball court.
"Before the year it was a pretty good friendship," said Brown, who lives about five minutes away from his good buddy Cory in New Jersey. "Not as strong as now obviously because we were kind of rivals in college. But it has grown tremendously since we became teammates."