There were a lot of factors that played out in the Nets win over the Cavaliers on Thursday night. The Nets were at home while the Cavs were coming off a back-to-back and almost certainly took the Nets for granted. But for the long-suffering Nets fans, it was the team's youngsters who showed the way, who were the big story.
Considering Brooklyn's lack of draft picks, any young talent on the roster brings hope and Thursday night, as it has in wins and losses of late, hope was alive. Sean Kilpatrick, 26 but just out of the D-League, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, 21 and just off the injured list helped instill some optimism that night. Shane Larkin, whose inconsistent ways have driven a lot of Nets fans crazy, played well. He's 23. So did 24-year-old Markel Brown. Chris McCullough, the team's youngest player at 21, had his best game since missing 50 games with a torn ACL..
The Nets seemingly haven't given up on Sergey Karasev either, starting the 22-year-old the last two games and giving him big minutes.
It's always difficult to gauge a young player's talent level at the end of a miserable season. The sample size is small, the games are meaningless, etc., etc. If you want an example of false hope, look at the Nets last triple-double: Terrence Williams on April 9, 2010. It proved to be the highlight of his career. Yi Jianlian had 19 rebounds in the team's last game that year, too.
The biggest surprise, of course, has been Kilpatrick, who's been on a tear lately, making GM Sean Marks look smart for signing him to a multiyear deal. In his last 10 games, Kilpatrick is averaging 14.3 points, while shooting 50.9 percent from the field and 46.8 percent from three-point territory. The small sample keeps getting bigger and he keeps looking better. (One has to wonder where he was on the Spurs' D-League scouting reports.)
Giving him the initial 10-day was worth a shot and Kilpatrick has taken advantage of the opportunity. After Kilpatrick’s career night against the Hornets on Tuesday, he discussed the main reason for his recent success.
"I’m just playing with confidence. Just trying to out-work them. My ability and skill will take over." Kilpatrick said.
Kilpatrick is also winning over Nets fans with his classiness off of it. After his career night on Tuesday, Kilpatrick stopped by Mikhail Prokhorov's suite where the Brooklyn Brigade was hanging out, to thank them. "We’re nothing without you guys." Kilpatrick told the Brigade. Here’s a video of part of Kilpatrick’s exchange with the Brigade.
Kilpatrick’s 25 point outburst almost overshadowed the return of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Hollis-Jefferson played for the first time in 50 games and he had a positive impact. Hollis-Jefferson was originally a Portland Trail Blazers draft pick until Brooklyn acquired him on draft night. Hollis-Jefferson, who is known for being a funny, kind young man had violent intentions when he punished the rim on this dunk.
Hollis-Jefferson played in 15 minutes on Tuesday, scoring five points, while grabbing three rebounds, two assists and getting a steal. He followed up by dominating the fourth quarter vs. Cleveland on Thursday. He scored eight points and the guy he was guarding, by the name of LeBron James, had zip.
"I think he’s going to be a really good player for them," James said after the game. As LeBron learned, when Rondae takes the court, good things have a tendency to happen.
"That's his personality," Brown said after Tuesday's game. "He's a bubbly young man, and he displays that when he plays. His energy level is something that we've missed since he's been out. I wish I could've played him more. It's unfortunate." Hollis-Jefferson is on a minutes restriction which limits him to 15 minutes of playing time.
"It felt good just to be out there talking, playing defense and helping my team offensively," Hollis-Jefferson said. "It just felt good to be a teammate on the floor, instead of in a blazer on the sideline."
Hollis-Jefferson, 21, was unsure if he was going to play another game this year until late Monday afternoon. Here’s how Hollis-Jefferson said the conversation between he and trainer Tim Walsh went. "You can play tomorrow." Walsh said. "Oh. Okay. Thank you, I appreciate it." Hollis-Jefferson replied.
Zach Lowe of ESPN has criticized a lot of the Nets moves in recent years, but this week, he thought he saw some hope, even some "bop."
The Sean Marks era is off to a rip-roaring start. The Nets picked Sean Kilpatrick off the scrap heap, watched him infuse the team with a boppy new energy, and inked him right away to a multiyear contract. It's almost jarring to watch young guys like Kilpatrick, Shane Larkin and Markel Brown zip around with enthusiasm in the same arena that has hosted borderline comatose basketball the past four seasons. Oh, right. That's what fun looks like!
The focus of late has been, as it should be, on the future of the Nets, whether it's the distribution of minutes or front office hires. That future looks dismal, if you focus on the lack of draft picks. Over the next five years, Brooklyn has given up three first round picks traded or swapped as well as five second rounders traded or swapped. It is a scary thought about the future of the organization.
As Sean Marks noted earlier Thursday when introducing the Long Island Nets logo and uniforms, "As many of you are aware, we are short one or two draft picks, so (the D-League) will be another way to develop players." He said it with a smile, we think. So, he talks about getting around that problem.
Marks has already looked into the D-league to find talent that could be apart of the Nets future. He signed Kilpatrick to a multiyear deal after SK impressed the organization while playing on two 10-day contracts. If Kilpatrick works out, the deal --$2.3 million over three years-- will be a bargain. Marks also brought up Henry Sims, who has another two games to prove he warrants a second 10-day. If not, the Nets can make one final D-League call-up.
Hollis-Jefferson, as I alluded to above, was traded to the Nets on draft night. This is something that could become a theme over the next few years for Brooklyn. If Marks thinks really highly of somebody in the draft (especially a mid-level first rounder) they could make a trade to acquire that player. And the Nets have bought seven second rounders in the Prokhorov Era, including Bojan Bogdanovic and Markel Brown. Brooklyn’s draft pick situation isn't encouraging, but it doesn't mean that their future is a complete disaster.
The recent play of Hollis-Jefferson and Kilpatrick shows that there is some talent on Brooklyn’s roster that can help the organization in the future. The Nets will return to the D-league next season with those Long Island Nets, which can give the organization a platform to develop young talent. Also, for their inaugural season, the Long Island club will play their home games at Barclays Center and train at the HSS Training Center, giving Marks and the rest of the front office a front row seat on the players development. It's a dual advantage unique in the NBA.
But It IS going to be difficult to overcome the loss of a high lottery pick which the Nets would've had this year. That's a big negative. Overcoming the loss of a mid to late first rounder is not impossible if a suitable alternative can be round. So how will it work? There are some signs already of a plan.
Taking chances on injured young players is a tactic that Brooklyn could use to overcome their lack of draft picks, as they did last June. McCullough is the perfect example of that strategy, Brooklyn drafted McCullough in the 2015 draft despite the fact that he had a torn ACL. McCullough was projected to be a lottery pick until his injury dropped him to Brooklyn with the 29th pick in the first round. Nets fans need to be patient. McCullough didn't play for a year after playing only 16 games in college.
Another area where patience will be a virtue is watching stashed overseas picks develop. Juan Pablo Vaulet, who turned 20 this week, is the Argentine player who the Nets traded two second round picks -- in 2018 and 2020 -- and $880,000 to the Hornets to acquire his rights last June. Billy King and his front office thought very highly of Vaulet who is currently playing in Argentina. It's uncertain how Marks and his assistant Trajan Langdon feel ... and it's not likely to be a priority right now. Fans will likely to get to see him in action this summer. He will back up Manu Ginobili on the Argentine Olympic team.
Getting over the loss of draft picks is going to be tough, but it can be done with smart management and development. To be fair, the Nets started the process under King, but it's Marks and Langdon's top priority and it will be the task at hand over the next few years. Some of the players listed above won't make it or will make elsewhere, but if two or three of them develop --and if the front office can find some talent on Long Island or in Europe-- the pain could be lessened.