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Kenny Atkinson’s taste put to the test ... again

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NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Ever since Jeremy Lin went down with a ruptured patellar tendon on Opening Night, Kenny Atkinson has been forced to experiment. His lineups read like a menu at a restaurant that’s constantly running out of entrees’.

“Sorry, sir, we’re out of that.”

Injuries have taken their toll and surprisingly, because of the Nets development and performance staffs, the Nets survive. Now comes Jahlil Okafor and Nik Stauskas and out goes Trevor Booker and Sean Kilpatrick. Meanwhile, suddenly, Caris LeVert is looking more and more like a point guard and a very good one. So, Atkinson is scouring the menu once again looking for combinations that won’t poison him.

“As I’ve said before, we’re in that talent-acquisition mode,” said Nets GM Sean Marks on Thursday. “At the same time, I’m going to bet on (coach) Kenny (Atkinson) and his staff.”

How might things work now? Where does Okafor fit? Is he a starter or a dessert. Do he and Jarrett Allen provide too much protein? And what about dessert? Are there too many carbs in the backcourt which is becoming quite tasty. Let the review begin!

THE FRONTCOURT

Jahlil Okafor brings an interesting paint presence to the Nets. Based off what we’ve seen from him, he can be dominant inside the paint with great footwork and if he remembers his days at Duke, has the ability to swing the ball, find the open man. He struggles to defend and has shot 27 percent from 16-23 feet in his two and a half seasons.

So, he’s not your modern NBA center. He’ll need to improve his perimeter game. Without that, the Nets are likely to clutter the paint with their frontcourt and slow the motion offense to a crawl. The consequences aren’t limited to him.

Take Rondae Hollis-Jefferson for example. He’s having the best season of his young career by making a living inside the paint. However, Hollis-Jefferson’s inability to knock down the three has been an obstacle for the motion offense, which typically uses four players who can stretch the floor. Again, if Okafor can’t spread the floor then the paint will be very congested. Of course, the Nets development team has already gotten Brook Lopez, Jarrett Allen and Tyler Zeller to love the three point line.

Prior to the Mexico City trip, Steve Lichtenstein dug up some numbers on Hollis-Jefferson’s play with the bigs who struggle from deep.

Hollis-Jefferson/Mozgov: minus-23.8 (144 minutes)

Hollis-Jefferson/Booker: minus-6.8 (93 minutes)

Hollis-Jefferson/Zeller: minus minus-5.6 (77 minutes)

Lichtenstein adds that Brooklyn had a positive net rating last season of nearly 1 point per 100 possessions in the 1,155-minutes Hollis-Jefferson played with Lopez. Lopez shot the three ball at a 35 percent clip last season, hitting 134 of them.

This shouldn’t be an issue if Okafor plays with the small ball lineup, including Quincy Acy and DeMarre Carroll, both of whom can stretch the floor. This isn’t on RHJ to adjust his game. It’s on Okafor.

Then, you take a look at the other promising big in Jarrett Allen. He’s only 19-years-old and will probably need to expand his range with time. He and Jahlil Okafor make for a very intriguing frontcourt duo.

While the two might not be able to spread the floor right now, they’ve both shown the ability to work well in the pick-and-roll, more so Okafor. Atkinson is very high on long players. As we always say, you simply cannot teach length and both of them have it. Allen, at 6’11”, has a 7’6” wingspan. Okafor, also 6’11”, has a 7’5” wingspan. Allen of course is more of a leaper.

They can dominate the paint on the offensive side, but again, things will get congested if neither can expand their range. Teams will sit in the paint as the Nets try to operate on the perimeter with only three shooters in an offense that requires four shooters on the floor at all times.

In another article, written after the trade, Lichtenstein, the WFAN writer, proposes a model for what Okafor could become, one Atkinson is all too familiar with: Al Horford.

Horford, once a high/low-post traditional center, has evolved to the point where he often handles, passes, and shoots the ball effectively from behind the 3-point arc.

I’m just guessing here, but the Nets may be taking a bet that Atkinson and his staff can develop Okafor into a similar all-court threat.

Guess away. It makes a lot of sense.

Defensively, Allen and Okafor have a ways to go. Allen is quicker than Okafor – especially covering the pick-and-roll, but both are a work in progress in that area, despite Allen’s dramatic blocks and Okafor’s 1.4 intercepts per 36 in his rookie year.

This is a duo to keep an eye on. Allen is 19-years-old and Okafor is 21 going on 22 next week, a 30-month difference... not much. The Nets have some time to work with them to make their length a problem for teams. But if they want to see time together, then at least one of the two will need to expand their game.

THE BACKCOURT

If there are any positives worth taking out of an injury, it’s that somebody else has a chance to prove themselves. We know D’Angelo Russell is lethal at either guard positions, particularly in the pick-and-roll where he and Okafor should thrive together once they reunite for the first time since All-Star Weekend three years ago.

That being said, Brooklyn has a problem on it’s hands. A good problem.

When first Lin, then Russell went down, the Nets were left with one true point guard in Spencer Dinwiddie, and a combo-guard in Caris LeVert. Surprising a lot of fans, both Dinwiddie and LeVert have shown that they can both run this offense – and run it well.

In the 13 games Dinwiddie has started at point, he’s averaging 15 points, seven assists and just one turnover. He’s top-3 in the league for assist-to-turnover ratio and continues to impress. The question lingers: What will happen to his role when Russell returns? When the Nets know what to expect from Lin? It’s likely the Nets use Dinwiddie and Russell the same way they were going to use Lin and Russell. They’re interchangeable.

Still, with Lin and Russell hurt, the Nets looked thin at the point guard position. Something had to give or somebody had to step up. That somebody was Caris LeVert, who has played extremely well as backup point guard.

It started in a win against the Atlanta Hawks. The Nets went on a 12-0 run behind four dunks from Jarrett Allen. Three of the four dunks were off LeVert pick-and-rolls, as their combined length became a serious issue for Atlanta. LeVert is a 6’6” combo guard with a 7’0” wingspan. Allen is 6’11” without the ‘fro, and something approaching Kareem with it. His wingspan checks it at 7’5”+.

Against Oklahoma City, LeVert had his breakout game on both sides of the ball. Dinwiddie was on the bench due to foul trouble right from the start. Russell, Lin and Isaiah Whitehead were all hurt, and Sean Kilpatrick had been waived after the Philly trade earlier that day.

LeVert shone in his role as the primary ball handler. He finished with his first career double-double and posted a career-high 10 assists. The box score looked nice, but what looked even nicer was LeVert’s defense against Russell Westbrook. His length enabled him to disrupt Westbrook’s jumpers, and his long strides made it easier for him to stick with reigning MVP when he drove to the hole. He held Westbrook to five points in the fourth quarter – a sign of something special happening with Caris LeVert.

It’s almost as if he’s found himself since taking over backup point guard duties, averaging 13 points, five assists and nearly two steals in the last 10 games.

So, who’s Brooklyn’s best point guard for the future? They’re all interchangeable at either of the guard positions, right? Russell is 21, LeVert is 23 and Dinwiddie is 24. Also 24 is Nik Stauskas, the 6’6” combo guard the Nets acquired from Philly. One reason he was taken at No. 8 in the 2014 NBA Draft is that he was thought to have skills as a secondary playmaker. The backcourt may be crowded but Stauskas, should he care to play defense, might get some minutes at the point too. Atkinson loves big guards.

***

Kenny Atkinson is hungry. He’s good at matching a 1 from column A with a 2 from column B. For a variety of reasons, injuries, trades, he will deal with the latest (pleasant) surprises, the cherry on top. The choices he’s been given haven’t always been as satisfying as he’d like, but things are starting to get better. So is the main course.