It had all of the makings of a season opening blowout loss to the rival Boston Celtics…
The Nets were down by 20, the bench was on the floor, and the Celtics, who aren’t that good, couldn’t be stopped by a struggling Brooklyn defense. Then a couple of talented, raw, promising Nets took the floor and began to make plays, particularly on defense.
Brooklyn’s 2015 first rounder Chris McCullough and 2016 second rounder Isaiah Whitehead, the first Net to grow up in the Brooklyn, played stout defense down the stretch and ultimately aided Brooklyn in their eventual comeback, which saw them get within three with less than a minute to go.
Jeremy Lin after the game said he was ‘inspired watching what Whitehead and McCullough did defensively, and for Whitehead, it was only a four-minute stint on his NBA debut.
“It’s really just me going out there and giving it my all,” Whitehead said of his late game defense ... something he hasn’t been known for. “It’s great to hear that from coach and Jeremy. I spoke to Jeremy earlier in preseason, he really just said ‘every time you’re out there, play hard, as long as you do that good things will happen,’ I really just picked up from there.”
“Isaiah getting in there and causing four or five deflections causing chaos, that was good,” Net head coach Kenny Atkinson added. “Chris McCullough getting some minutes. We’ll try to do that as the year goes on and get those guys minutes when we can. They did a good job.”
Even though both Whitehead and McCullough came in for brief yet standout appearances at the end of the game, Atkinson hinted that the twosome, despite rumors of stints in the D League, could play their way into more minutes as the season progresses with performances like ones shown on opening night.
“I’m a big believer in that. Even if you get two minutes, make an impression,” Atkinson said. “They had an impression on the coaching staff and I think that makes it easier for us the next game and the next situation – ‘hey throw Isaiah in there, throw Chris in there.’ Even though it’s a short stint they had, it’s definitely an impression.”
Of course, the Nets and their affiliate, the Long Island Nets, have some unique advantages. The two teams will practice and play at the same facilities — the HSS Training Center and Barclays Center. “Sent down” or “called up” won’t mean taking a plane. It’s a difference between locker rooms in the same buildings.
Moreover, Sean Marks record with young players while assistant GM in San Antonio suggests you could see a lot of movement between the NBA and D-League clubs. When Marks was GM of the Austin Toros, the Spurs D-League team, players moved between the clubs frequency. Cory Joseph, then with the Spurs, went up and down five times that year,.
The Long Island Nets will take part in the D-League Draft on Sunday. Beyond the three players the Nets cut — Yogi Ferrell, Egidijus Mockevicius and Beau Beech, there’s been at least one other signing, Carrick Felix, a 6’6” shooting guard who played with Cleveland and its D-League affiliate, two years ago. He’s coming back from a knee injury. Long Island took him in the expansion draft.
One of the main discussion points Thursday was Brook Lopez’s usage. Some fans and writers can’t figure out how Lopez and Atkinson’s motion offense can coexist. Atkinson insists that the Nets will find ways to keep the career 18.3-point per game scorer — 20.6 ppg last year — happy and involved.
“For each guy we’ve developed a plan for the season in terms of how we’re going to use him,” Atkinson said in regards to Brook. “We have a plan for Brook to build him up as the season goes on. I think the buildup will be pretty quick, but I think we’re all on board with this, really thinking about long-term. We’re all on the same page.”
In the loss, Lopez notably recorded seven points and five rebounds on 1-of-7 shooting (the one make from three-point range) in 21 minutes. Simultaneously, his back-up Justin Hamilton, who others see as a more natural fit within the motion offense, came in and posted 19 points and 10 rebounds in 25 minutes off the bench, career highs.
“I know for him (Brook) it could be a little frustrating but when we sit down and talk about it he completely understands,” Atkinson continued. “I think we have a plan for each guy. We’ve looked at it, studied it, we’ve looked at their history, where we want to go and we look at the big picture. We obviously want to build up stable minutes for our guys.”