For someone who is only 28 years old, Brook Lopez has been throughout a lot in his NBA career.
The 10th overall pick by the New Jersey Nets in 2008, Lopez is the only player -- and one of the only people, organizational staff and all -- still with the franchise in 2016. He withstood the four consecutive losing seasons that ended the team's New Jersey tenure, including the 12-win season in 2009-10, and has gone through countless coaches, rebrands and even rebuilds.
Those New Jersey days were grim for the Nets, and there wasn't much reason for anyone to care a lot about teams with the likes of Jarvis Hayes, Trenton Hassell, Devin Harris, Jordan Farmar, DeShawn Stevenson and countless place-filling pieces. The only real star player, at least before Deron Williams was brought to town, for the Nets after the breakup of the Kidd-Jefferson-Carter Big Three was Lopez.
Once the team moved to Brooklyn, and made the trades for Joe Johnson and Paul Pierce/Kevin Garnett, the focus shifted away from Lopez, who struggled with injuries and was seemingly included in trade discussions every February. Through it all, the Stanford product always said the right thing and maintained -- at least outwardly -- some sort of loyalty to the team that drafted him out of the college.
It felt like the more the Nets tried to shop Lopez, as they spiraled from potential Eastern Conference contender to laughingstock, the more he was committed to the organization. Even this offseason, it was the 26-year-old Thaddeus Young who was traded to Indiana, firmly establishing the 2016-17 Brooklyn Nets as Brook Lopez' team, and his alone.
Sean Marks, who came over to Brooklyn from the Spurs, saw firsthand how a cornerstone center (or power forward) can shape a franchise's direction for years upon years. With Brook being surrounded by either extremely young players or guys that were cast-offs from their previous organization, it's clear the Nets brass -- and new coach Kenny Atkinson for that matter -- think he can be a guy the team can finally build around. I don't think we'll be hearing his name at the trade deadline this year.
It will be a bit of an attitude shift for Lopez, as he is suddenly an elder statesman to guys like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Chris McCullough. When you have just two players in their 30s (Luis Scola and Randy Foye) both being supplementary guys, the All-Star center who's always joking around with the media and his teammates is going to have to step in and be the defining voice in the locker room and on the court.
Lopez isn't that young of a player anymore; it's time for him to make the jump from "pretty good" to "great" both in terms of on-court production and off-court leadership. He's been through a lot of -- pardon the phrasing -- crap that has often been unfairly thrust on him throughout his Nets tenure and has always managed to get through it.
He's also going to have to get a lot better defensively, and on the boards. Lopez has always been a good shot-blocker, but his lack of foot speed tends to hurt him against more athletic bigs.
"The first thing we’re going to do is to challenge him defensively to improve," Atkinson in Tuesday's press conference. "Rebounding – I know that’s been a thing in the past – pick and roll defense and we have to find the right scheme that fits him."
"Offensively – I think it’s with all of these guys – become even more efficient than you are. Taking better shots, getting to the rim more, mixing in some 3-point shots to balance your game… We’re going to challenge him to improve in those areas that fit our style of play and we do believe that he can take another step."
To his credit, Lopez has been able to mask any issues he's had with the team's performance relatively well -- sometimes he'll make comments in post-game media availabilities that hint at frustrations -- but now it's up to him to deal with any problems as the defined go-to player.
Just this year in the NBA, multiple guys have taken the leap from good to great, such as C.J. McCollum with Portland and Giannis Antetokounmpo with Milwaukee, and for the Trail Blazers, that resulted in a massively improved team.
Now, doesn't mean an improved Brook Lopez will make the Nets a playoff team which would be a minor miracle. However, a top-flight center along with Jeremy Lin, Bojan Bogdanovic and a host of unproven young players plus journeymen with something to prove could turn into a somewhat decent team.
The Nets' current rebuilding process should not be described as a rapid one, as it will likely be awhile before Brooklyn fields a team as competitive as the ones it did the first three seasons at Barclays Center. That, of course, is thanks to the mismanagement of assets -- mostly draft picks -- by the previous regime. With Lopez being under contract for the next two seasons and a ton of controllable young talent, the Nets at least have a pretty good future plan, and a lot hinges on their 7-footer in the middle.