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LeVert, Whitehead made us forget how bad last year’s draft could’ve been

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Brooklyn Nets

Sean Marks recalled Monday what he said after the Nets brain trust interviewed Caris LeVert at last year’s pre-Draft Combine. LeVert couldn’t participate in anything but interviews. He was recovering from third broken foot in three years.

“I’ve got to go back to the draft interview when Kenny (Atkinson) and I sat with Caris. We left the interview and said; ‘that’s a Brooklyn Net, right there.’ Honestly it was that simple,” Marks told the media gathered at HSS Training Center.

There’s a lot to be said for this year’s draft, but if the Nets can get a result similar to last year’s, they’ll take it.

Of course, it didn’t look that good going into Draft Night. Until the morning of the draft, the Nets had the 55th overall pick, period. Their first rounder was headed to Boston, part of the Garnett-Pierce deal, their second rounder lost in a long forgotten draft swap for Reggie Evans.

And that was it. In fact, the outlook was so desolate that I penned this, which by the way was my first piece at ND.

Then a Woj Bomb. Thaddeus Young was sent to the Pacers and the Nets got the 20th overall, which later became LeVert, and No. 55 became No. 42, where Brooklyn’s own Isaiah Whitehead entered the Nets fold. Mikhail Prokhorov’s cash —$3 million worth— made that happen.

We forget the level of creativity displayed 10 months ago, especially when you add that the day after the draft, the Nets also inked Yogi Ferrell to a partially guaranteed contract. Say what you want about Ferrell, but he had a very good rookie season, far better than most first and second rounders.

LeVert of course was a surprise, a big risk with all those injuries. Marks understood the risk, but was willing to gamble.

“We watched him in college a lot – he epitomized everything that we wanted; great work-ethic, heck of a player, and probably a little bit undervalued,” Marks said. “He certainly had the injuries that we are well aware of – we could afford to take that risk.

“We’re banking on our performance team here, we brought him along slowly – have patience with him, not only him but all our guys. The guys we’ve brought in have been high character, competitive individuals.”

Whitehead, the Seton Hall product, wasn’t seen as a top flight prospect despite being the most outstanding player in the Big East Tournament. Most mocks had him deep in the second round. The Nets saw someone who as he matured would thrive at home.

"I'm really happy with Isaiah’s progress,” coach Atkinson said at the presser. “In the beginning there were struggles, but he adapted very quickly. We love his toughness - his grit.

“He showed us that he can play three positions in this league. We put him on Jimmy Butler there at the end of the season because of his size. I think that was huge progress defensively, and that's something we talked to him a lot about. “

Fast forward to this year the Nets have about the same situation in the second round with number 57, but they also have two first-round picks; 22 and 27.

What will it look like come the night of June 22? Marks said there’s a process. He made it clear it’s integrated with what they think they’ll get in free agency. And no, they’re not going for broke just yet.

“I think we’ve got to really evaluate the roster,” Marks told the media. “If you go after one of the top tier guys, you obviously hope to get them, you hope to get all your targets that you go for, but does that make you better? Does it get you to 30 wins, 35 wins? The objective here is for us to be in the playoffs, when that comes we’ll have to wait and see.”

“You don’t want to go and sign free agents, and next thing you know, your payroll is capped out, and you’re a 25-win team,” he continued. “We’re going to have to build this strategically, have patience with it, but we’ll see. We’ll look at everything that suits the current roster and rosters for 2018, 2019 and so forth. We’ve got to have a big picture view on this.”

Pertaining to the draft itself, Marks indicated that the situation this time around is indeed favorable, but the Nets don’t quite know quite yet what moves they’ll make.

“I like having two picks, that’s for sure…I think it just gives us another swing at it,” said the former San Antonio Spurs assistant GM who’s had some experience in draft war rooms.

“I can’t tell you if we’ll draft two guys in the first round, I can’t tell you if we won’t, I can’t tell you if one’s going to be a stash, who knows we’ll just have to wait and see. But it gives us some more opportunities here. We’ve got a couple of months now to really dig in to it with the coaches.

“The front office has already been doing this, but now it’s time to evaluate these players and get the coaches mindset on them. We’ll stay creative and as strategic as we can.”

They could trade up for one, they could play one and stash another, etc. An abundance of options as Marks alluded to. BUT If the Nets could come away with a haul identical to last season, where they selected two potential All-Rookie honorees, they’d consider it a win.

Take LeVert, whose rookie numbers are per 36 minutes better than second overall pick Brandon Ingram ... and about the same as the No. 3 pick, Jaylen Brown, who the Nets had to give up. They’re even comparable to Paul George’s first-year per 36 in 2010-11,

Marks is pleased. Were his expectations exceeded, though? “I think in some ways, possibly,” he offered.

For Whitehead, who saw more time than anticipated due to Jeremy Lin’s injuries, finished 13th among rookie scorers (LeVert was 10th), but that list includes players like Joel Embiid, Dario Saric and Willy Hernangomez, all taken in previous drafts. That is an elaborate way of saying the Nets had two top-10 scorers from the 2016 Draft class.

No doubt, there’s room for improvement. The Nets want LeVert to get stronger, work on his three point shooting a bit. But with the help of the development and performance teams, they’ve already seen change.

“Offensively, he improved his passing, his catch and shoot game got better, I think he's got strides to make, especially finishing at the rim,” Atkinson said of Whitehead’s assessment. “He's an attacking player who gets to the rim a ton, but I think he knows going into this off-season that that's something he needs to work on. Shooting is still an area where he needs to improve although his catch and shoot numbers were pretty good, off the dribble he could do a little better.

“For a young player at this stage, just out of college, I think he made tremendous strides, and at the end of the day he was in our top six or seven guys, which is quite an accomplishment."

It’s still more than two months until the 2017 Draft but fans have a high level of anticipation, looking forward to another night of creativity and surprise. They wanted out of Barclays Center last season not knowing how well their team did. This year, they’ll have more confidence.