Once Tyler Johnson and Allen Crabbe were out of the picture, the Nets backup plan consisted primarily of handing out one-year deals to veterans to see who can prove themselves and would not hurt team flexibility going forward. The Nets gave one year deals to veterans Luis Scola, Greivis Vasquez, Randy Foye to go along with two-year deals signed earlier by Justin Hamilton, Trevor Booker, Joe Harris and Anthony Bennett. All three have partial guarantees in year two.
Four of those players are the bigs the Nets will have to rely on: Scola, Hamilton, Booker and Bennett, along with Brook Lopez and Chris McCullough That's a majority of the Nets front court. McCullough and Lopez are the only returning big men from last season. The Nets made no effort to re-sign Willie Reed and Thomas Robinson. So, as things stand, Lopez is the only starting 5 and the rest of the group can fight for rotation sports. It's an obvious downgrade from Thaddeus Young, but it is a cheap alternative that fills out a roster and provides the Nets with some ability to make moves at the deadline.
There are many questions to be answered with this group, the first being who starts next to Lopez. Initially, it looks like either Scola, who started 76 games for the Toronto Raptors or Trevor Booker, who played in three more games, but only started five with the Utah Jazz. Both have weaknesses.
Toronto was minus nearly 11 points per 100 possessions when Scola was on the floor, which was about 21 minutes . Despite that glaring statistic, the Argentinean might be the best option due to his ability to space the floor and create for himself. Scola has added a three-point shot to his game. This past one was the first time he has attempted more than one three pointer per game and hit on 40% of his shots. It's an impressive clip for a player who recently added this facet of his game. Scola may not be able to give a lot of minutes but he can complement Lopez and do the dirty work on the boards. Also, Scola played 10% of his possessions last season at center so he could potential cross-match with Lopez and play some small-ball center.
As for Booker, he is a 6'8" bruiser who is a superior rebounder to Scola but doesn't play much outside the paint on offense. Sixty percent of Booker's field goal attempts come from inside of three feet which leads one to believe that if he plays alongside Lopez in the starting lineup, Lopez may be shooting three pointers at times. That theory has been tried before by some over the past few years considering Lopez is a capable jump shooter, Last year there was some experimenting, and this may finally be the year it becomes a staple of the offense.
Back to Booker, though.
Booker averaged 10 and 10 per 36 minutes last season in Utah and was a solid defender playing behind Derrick Favors. Booker can give steady minutes at the 4 and the Jazz were slightly better with him on the floor than when he wasn't. Scola was benched in the postseason because he couldn't defend nor produce on the offensive end; Booker may have a higher upside. Booker is also eight years younger and has two years on his deal. Scola has one. Booker also has a rep as a great locker room presence and on a roster with a lot of kids, he and Scola are going to have big jobs off the court as well as on it.
Still, there is no denying that the Nets are going to have a weak front line, which will mean each player will have to be utilized over the course of the game as Lopez only plays around 30 minutes so new coach Kenny Atkinson is going to need to get creative. One idea Sean Marks suggested at the Nets unveiling of their offseason signings is former No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett playing center as well as power forward. "With the way the NBA is going, there's a little bit of small ball in there too. There's no reason why Anthony [Bennett] couldn't step in and relieve at the five spot," Marks said last week.
The Nets are in need of someone to give some spot minutes at the center position on a nightly basis, but is Bennett that option? In his 118 career NBA games, Bennett has shown to be an unwilling rebounder Bennett.
Atkinson alluded to that in discussing what the Nets thought he can do ... and where they need to push him.
"Rebound the ball, run the court and really help us on the defensive end with his length and size and speed. Then the other parts of the game, that’ll come," Atkinson told reporters last week. "I think he’s proved with Team Canada he can shoot the three, I think he’s proved that he can drive it, I think he can proved he can be a versatile offensive player, but with his package, we want to minimize it a little instead of expand it."
"If he misses two straight corner three’s, we’re going to say, take the next one," the coach added. "Now if he’s not rebounding, obviously that’ll be a different story."
Bennett stands 6'8" so he'd be playing with much bigger bodies, but he has a 7'1" wingspan and a max vertical of 36". Perhaps more importantly, he has changed his body, losing only seven or eight pounds by his count but losing a lot of baby fat as well.
However, it may be tough for him to acclimate to the 5 considering Cleveland and Minnesota rarely used him in that spot at the onset of his career. The one thing Bennett as center has going for him is that he shoots 65% from inside of three feet for his NBA career and shot nearly 75 percent this summer with Team Canada. If he can be a post presence and finish around the rim, the Nets might be able to steal some minutes from him at the five, but let's not count on it.
The reason why the Nets are in need of some extra minutes at center is because there is only one other center on the roster besides Lopez in Justin Hamilton, who just wrapped up a year stint in Spain with Valencia. Marks said he likes the cerebral Hamilton, but there's questions here as well.
Hamilton, 26, did play exceptional abroad, averaging 14 points and five rebounds in 40 games for the Spanish club, but has only played 49 games in the NBA over a two-year career. It's hard to say much about his game considering there is a small sample size but Hamilton isn't afraid to play beyond the arc and can finish around the paint.
Kevin Pelton of ESPN.com was a big fan of the signing, two years for $6 million, calling it a "great snag" by Marks. Can Hamilton can play significant minutes with his lack of NBA experience? His strong play in Spain suggests he will get a fair shot to prove himself early on. If he doesn't prove to hang with the rest of the league, the Nets do have the cap space to improve on a center.
Ultimately, though the future of Chris McCullough is as big an issues as any upfront, if you're going to be focused on player development. The second-year big man showed signs of potential at the end of last season, shooting 38.2 percent from deep in 24 games after returning from his ACL surgery and showed a knack for blocking shots. We saw more of that in Las Vegas earlier month.
McCullough was the the 29th pick of the 2015 Draft, but was still recovering from that torn ACL he suffered at Syracuse. Probably the best way to describe McCullough's effort at season's end was "admirable." McCullough has the length and the speed to help the Nets as a future cog at the power forward position but he doesn't have the weight to play center, yet. His full season in the league will be an intriguing storyline for Nets fans to follow.
McCullough was arguably the Nets most consistent and complete player in Vegas, averaging a steady 10 points and seven rebounds over five games. His shot wasn't falling, but his intensity was high and he was moving really well. Atkinson and Marks have to hope McCullough can take several steps forward this season in order to get the Nets out of the basement of the league. But also count on them to patient. He's still only 21.
The Nets are more focused on the future rather than the on-court product this season. If they want wins, they might go more to Booker and Scola. If they want development, think Bennett, McCullough and Hamilton, whose average age is 24. The Nets will also give Beau Beech, a 6'9" stretch 4 candidate, and Egidijus Mockevicius, the NCAA's top rebounder last year, a chance.
Might the Nets go for another big at the deadline or even before? They do have a ton of salary cap to make moves and can take on expiring deals contracts as the Sixers did over the past several years or offer players like Scola or Greivis Vasquez to contenders for picks or younger players.This being the pick-starved Nets, think draft.
But right now, the Nets are mostly lacking talent in the bigs department and will need someone to step up and have a career year in Brooklyn for them to have a more formidable rotation. One of the power forwards—Scola, Bennett, Booker—needs to give Atkinson some energy for a few minutes a night at center to give Lopez a breather and keep the pressure off the seldom-used Hamilton.
Keep an eye on the front court rotation because it will tell a great deal about who Atkinson trusts as well as who may be around past this year.