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Prospect Watch III - The auditions continue

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Cliff Alexander Brooklyn Nets

It’s part of the Nets strategy, focus not so much on those lost draft picks, but on how they can recover by finding young prospects and develop them.

“Every guy we’ve signed for whatever reason, we’ve got to turn into a really good first-round pick. That’s the way we look at it,” Atkinson told Fred Kerber last month. “That [trade] is part of the past and it never really enters my mind.”

“The way I look at it is that Joe Harris is our draft pick, Justin Hamilton is our draft pick, Caris [LeVert] is our draft pick. That’s part of the past. Every guy we sign, we’ve got to help them turn into a first-round pick,” he added in an interview with Greg Logan.

Of course, the prospect list got reduced (and diminished) when Yogi Ferrell got called up by the Mavericks and went on a shooting tear that at once caused regrets in some quarters ... and accolades in others. After all, he didn’t become a lockdown threat from deep at Indiana.

So we’re taking an occasional look at the long list of players, drafted with picks acquired in trades, young players other teams have given up on them and others, from D-Leaguers to those who the Nets hold rights to, both NBA and D-League. We break them down from best bets to long, long shots overseas.

Best Bets

Again, the Nets have no “sure things,” so far. No guaranteed All-Stars. So, we’re starting, as we’ve done twice before, with “best bets.”

—We were a bit concerned when Caris LeVert missed his fourth game in nine tries Tuesday vs. Charlotte. He’s a player who missed something like 35 games to injury at Michigan. Official comments are that he needed “rest” in two of the four games and experienced some “knee soreness” in two others.

Still, he has progressed in the last month as Atkinson has added minutes (and one start) to his resume’. In the month of January, the 6’7” LeVert averaged 9.3 points a game playing an average of 22.9 minutes. He shot 50 percent overall and 32 percent from three for the month, both improvements from December.

He a couple of very promising games, 19 points, four rebounds and five assists vs. Cleveland, not backing down from “The King,” and 17, 5 and 6 vs. New Orleans, not missing a shot, not in the paint, beyond the arc or at the line. He IS the new fan favorite. As Ian Eagle told The Glue Guys, his potential is “through the roof” and as Sergey Kushchenko told Russian TV, he’s a ““core player.”

—We coined the term “Swing Brothers” to describe LeVert and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and we hear they have embraced it. Like LeVert, RHJ had a good month of January,

He did not average what his SwingBro did, but as things progressed, he gained greater confidence, particularly when Atkinson put him at the 4 in small ball lineups. His best game actually came as January turned to February. On the first day of the month, he had one of his best games, with 16 points, eight rebounds and three assists while shooting 6-of-11, only one of them a three. Mike Fratello says the Nets seemed to have told him, lay off the three’s. The Nets may be a three point shooting team, but you’re not (yet).

One area of improvement not much noticed: the shimmy at the line apparently works. Over the last 20 games or so, Hollis-Jefferson is hitting 85 percent of his free throws. For someone who throws his body around so willingly, that’s a big deal.

—Last month, we put Isaiah Whitehead in our second category, “High Hopes,” but none of the kids has had as big an improvement in their game as Whitehead did this past month.

Part of it is confidence but part of it is development. He’s been willing to try some neat passes, whether long range or of the pocket variety, in recent games as he continues to play the point in lieu of Jeremy Lin. But his biggest area of improvement has been in his three-point shooting. Whitehead made 38.7 percent of his three’s in January. He still might be wary of taking them. He’s never tried more than four in game and then only twice this season.

There’s still a debate over whether the 6’4” Seton Hall product is a 1 or a 2 or a combo guard, but as Mike Fratello said last week there’s no doubt he’s an NBA player.

High Hopes

Just one.

—Chris McCullough continues his yo-yoing between Brooklyn and Long Island but as we’ve noted before, the cycle means nothing more than switching lockers at HSS Training Center. The Nets are taking it slow with the 6’10” stretch 4 and he’s made progress. He just turned 22 last week and he doesn’t seem to have any complaints about his situation. After all, he’s still being paid NBA money —more than a million dollars a year— and playing big minutes. In fact, he and Trahson Burrell will be the only Nets to make the trip to New Orleans for the All-Star Break. McCullough will play for the Eastern Conference team in the D-League All-Star Game, Burrell will compete in the dunk contest.

For the D-League season, McCullough is putting up some nice numbers: 18.1 points a game; 7.6 rebounds, nearly two assists. He’s shooting 34.4 percent from three and 45.1 overall. He’ll need to up that last number.

In the last month, he had his best game since being taken No. 29 by the Nets in the 2015 Draft, scoring 37 points vs. Greensboro on January 12. He had five rebounds, three assists, three three pointers and two blocks. However, his opposite number on Greensboro, Christian Wood, finished with 45. A work in progress, but there is progress.

Hopes

Unfortunately, this section could also be called the stretch. In virtually every case, the players have slid.

—Sean Kilpatrick seemed to regress in January. After averaging 16.5 points in December and 14.9 in January, the 6’4” shooting guard dropped to 10.9 in January and is now at 9.7 in February. That said, his shooting has improved in recent games. Over the last six games, he’s shooting 42.3 percent from deep and 40.9 percent overall, both improvements over January.

Problem is that the 27-year-old isn’t getting the minutes he was earlier in the season. It’s been nearly a month since he’s put together a stretch of big minutes. In November and December, he was averaging 28 minutes a game. That dropped to 24 in January and now only 21.5 in February. In fact, in the last three games, he’s played only 17.

Why the drop? A lot of reasons. Caris LeVert got healthy and the Nets haven’t needed to press Kilpatrick into the point guard role. Spencer Dinwiddie got those minutes. Also, Kilpatrick’s defense hurts him. Long way down from his 38-point, 14-rebound effort in the Nets biggest win of the year, the overtime victory vs. the Clippers on November 29. Long time ago.

—Things were looking up for Joe Harris during a 10-game stretch in late November/early December. He averaged 12 points and had games of 19, 16 and 17. He had at least one three pointer in nine of the 10 games and five in one of them. Then he went into a shooting slump and got hurt (ankle), missing six games at the end of January which became a lost month for the 25-year-old.

It’s gotten a bit better in February. His shot has returned and he’s hitting 50 percent of his three’s in six games. But like Kilpatrick, he’s seen reduced minutes and for some of the same reasons. Wouldn’t be surprised to see a breakout game soon. At least we can hope.

—That story about Justin Hamilton replacing an old prescription for contacts gave us hope that after a miserable December, the 26-year-old seven-footer would rebound. Hasn’t really happened. After looking like a smart pick-up in November, Hamilton has been very inconsistent. There have been some good games here and there, but for him to be part of the Nets future, even short-term, he’s got to get better.

In fact, no player in the rotation seems more of an afterthought than Hamilton.

—NO prospect has had a tougher time with Nets fans than Spencer Dinwiddie. It’s sort of unfair. Dinwiddie is a third-string point guard pressed into service after the Nets lost Jeremy Lin (hamstring) and Greivis Vasquez (ankle) to injury and didn’t have enough confidence in Yogi Ferrell to keep him. And it would appear that the Nets are wondering if Isaiah Whitehead might be better suited as a combo guard.

Of course, the comparisons to Ferrell really hurt. The Nets waived Ferrell to call up Dinwiddie from the Windy City Bulls. After a short stint in Long Island, Ferrell got called up by the Mavericks and rest is Yogi-Mania.

Dinwiddie had himself a nice stretch at the end of January, five straight games in double figures shooting 52.8 percent overall and 44.4 percent from three. He had only three turnovers in that five game set. But he hasn’t been able to sustain that level and he’s not wowing anyone with his distribution skills. Again, he’s 23 and normally would be a third-stringer. He’s got until the fall to prove himself under his deal.

—Quincy Acy took the place of another hopeful, Anthony Bennett, in January. He’s three years older than Bennett at 26, but he is everything Bennett is not. He is an energy player who has made the most of his skills, adding some along the way. No one is ever going to accuse Acy of playing at less than 100 or 110 percent.

He also surprised the Nets with his three-point shooting during his two 10-day deals, hitting a remarkable 64.7 percent. He’s tailed off a bit in that area, but he’s also gotten hurt, another player with an ankle issue.

The 6’7” power forward has a one-year guarantee and if the Nets like what they see, he could be back next season. He can’t be traded until the summer.

Dreams

While the above group has been a bit disappointing, the D-League roster has changed dramatically in the last month and provided some added hope. The Nets waived three 30-somethings in Gary Forbes, Donnie McGrath and Lazar Hayward during January and February, adding three promising kids. There’s NO guarantee any of them will ever play in Brooklyn but R.J. Hunter, 23, Cliff Alexander, 21, and Prince Ibeh, 22, will get a chance.

R.J. Hunter is the most interesting of the trio and the best known. He shocked the NCAA’s two years ago when his Georgia State club upset Baylor on his dramatic buzzer beater. The slight but springy coach’s son got picked at No. 28 by the Celtics in 2015 but never developed the way Danny Ainge thought he could and on his 23rd birthday this October, he got cut. The Bulls decided to take a chance on him and gave him a whopping $425,000 guarantee which they ate when they too waived him.

In a fascinating conversation with our Bryan Fonseca, Hunter admitted “I've actually been struggling shooting for like a year and a half now," but that he thinks he’s found his groove in Long Island. Since that conversation, Hunter has shot 24-of-52 (seven games) for 46 percent. He’s also averaging 19.6 points in that stretch, with games of 30, 27 and 25. He’s also averaged 3.1 assists.

Cliff Alexander is someone that Nets liked enough to sign for a summer league stint two years ago after he went undrafted despite a ton of hype. The Nets liked what they saw — he averaged 6.7 rebounds, 0.3 assists, and 1.5 blocks in 22 minutes per game in the Summer League — but the Trail Blazers liked him more and gave Alexander a $100,000 guarantee and off to Portland he went. He scored 10 points in eight games all season and Portland let him go at the end of the season. The Blazers don’t have a D-League team.

Orlando picked him up in the summer but they too dropped him, shipping him to their Erie D-League club. Long Island acquired him in the team’s first trade, Alexader for a third rounder in next year’s D-League Draft.

He’s played well in his first four games for Long Island, averaging 13.5 points on 55 percent shooting while grabbing six boards a game, all in 24 minutes per. He’s a project, but he is a big guy, 6’8” and a listed 240 pounds, with a 7’3.5” wingspan and a max vertical of around 34”.

Prince Ibeh is even more of a project. Long Island signed the 6’11” Texas center last week. An athletic freak with a 7’5.5” wingspan, he was the Big 12 Defensive player of the year but his offense is limited to dunks and put-backs. He’s 22 and apparently hasn’t played organized ball since last March. This could take some time to figure out. His name is pronounced “E-bay.” We love that and we can only hope that Ian Eagle gets to call a game he plays in.

Then there’s Trahson Burrell, a 6’7” swingman with out-of-this-world athleticism and a fine BBIQ. He was hurt for a while but has come back and become just as consistent as he was before the injury. Of late, he’s been compared to Will Barton of the Nuggets. Coach Ronald Nored uses Burrell as a workhorse, almost always leading the Nets in minutes. And why not? He has an all-around game: 12.5 points, 7.4 rebounds, 3.9 assists, shooting 50 percent overall and 33.3 percent from deep. He’s also a character guy.

Right now, R.J. Hunter would seem to be the next player to get called up to the NBA, but don’t dismiss the idea of Burrell beating him there.

Long shots (from far away)

The Nets hold their rights, but don’t look for them in black-and-white...

Juan Pablo Vaulet joined the Nets for a week in January, getting an annual check-up on his surgically repaired ankles (plural) from Dr. Martin O’Malley, working out with the Nets coaching staff and even traveling with the team to two games. Still only 20, Vaulet then returned to Argentina. Initially, it looked like the experience was a big help. In his first two games back in the Liga Nacional, he scored 40 points, then in the next four games, he scored 12. Not averaged 12, scored 12. In recent games, he’s gotten better, putting up 18 Friday night in a FIBA tournament win in Ponce, Puerto Rico.

Apparently, the Nets spent time trying to improve his shot —they won’t even confirm the visit. It seems to have helped. He has been shooting better since his return, particularly at the foul line. He’s been a horrid foul shooter, but since getting some help in Brooklyn, he’s gone from shooting at a 54 percent clip at the line to 75 percent. He’s shooting 33.3 percent from the arc since his return, up from 25.8 percent before his trip.

That’s progress. Where will he play next year? Neither the Nets nor Vaulet will say. His team’s owner in Argentina, the former NBA guard Pepe Sanchez, thinks his “super athletic” style is best suited to the D-League ... and the NBA.

—As we said last time and the time for that, Jamaal Franklin is on this list mainly for fun. The 6’5” San Diego State product was taken by Long Island in the D-League expansion draft back in September. The Nets knew he was bound for China, where he makes $1.4 million a year but wanted his rights just in case he decided to play in the D-League once the CBA season was over. He had averaged 33.9 points a game for Shanxi Zhongyu in China a year ago.

This year, the 25-year-old started out on fire, averaging 40 points a game and leading the Chinese league in scoring, assists and steals. He’s cooled off a bit in recent weeks, now averaging a mere 34.6 points a game. He’s shooting 59.1 percent from two; 35.3 percent from three and 83.6 percent at the stripe. He’s fourth in CBA scoring but still leads in both assists (8.6) and steals (3.4). He’s also averaging 10 rebounds a game at 6’5”.

It doesn’t look like his team will make the CBA playoffs meaning he will be returning to the U.S. soon. Will he do a stint in the D-League? We’ll let you know.

What was lost?

Yogi Ferrell, Yogi Ferrell, Yogi Ferrell. Yogi Mania has tailed off a bit from his 32-point, nine three-pointer game, but he’s still playing well in Dallas and has a two-year, minimum deal, the only thing the capped-out Mavericks could offer.

Will he turn out to be a big mistake for Sean Marks? Maybe, but as we’ve written, his success, like those of Caris LeVert and Isaiah Whitehead, is a good reflection on the Nets scouting and development process. After he was waived the second time and sent to Long Island, Ronald Nored played him at the off-guard and encouraged him to let it fly. It worked.

Also, Anthony Bennett is gone from the team and our list. That experiment did NOT work and he is in Europe after being dumped by, in order, the Cavaliers, Timberwolves, Raptors and Nets. Was it worth it? Sure. Will there be other “fallen angels” like him on the roster? No doubt. When you don’t have picks, you look for hope in a lot of different places.