Last week, I looked at the Nets’ March improvement. The team’s defense improved vastly, and their offensive numbers saw an uptick as well. That improvement has carried over to the first week of April, with the Nets capping off a three-game winning streak with a victory against the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday night. As for the Orlando matchup...well, it happened.
This season is a stark contrast to previous years. The 2016-2017 season is about progress over playoffs, and foundation over quick fixes. This is Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson’s first full seasons as the top guys. Everyone knew that rehabilitating the Nets would be an arduous process. Even in the preseason, the Nets knew that this season was about incremental progress, rather than a playoff berth. In a preseason press conference, General Manager Sean Marks said the following…
“The season won’t be measured entirely by wins and losses. It’ll be measured by the progress that’s made throughout the season. Our goals aren’t necessarily six months down the road goals. It’s this next block of five games and asking did we improve from the last block of five games”
After a brutal 1-27 stretch in mid-season, the Nets have shown the progress both Atkinson and Marks envisioned. The progress is a positive heading into the off-season for the entire organization. Here’s the progress shown by a few Nets players this season…
Brook Lopez – Attacking off the dribble
Brook Lopez’s excursion (or intergalactic voyage for a Star Wars fan) to the three-point line has been well documented throughout the season. Lopez has been shooting from deep all season, by design. But Lopez has complemented his perimeter game with new wrinkles as well.
Lopez shoots at a decent clip from three, 35.5%, per NBA.com. This forces defenders to respect his range. Lopez can pump fake and drive against defenders that are closing out, or simply drive past them if they’re too close. Here, Lopez receives the pass at the top of the key and takes the ball right past Thon Maker, drawing the foul and converting the bucket.
Lopez even shows solid vision when putting the ball on the floor. Previously, most of Lopez’s assists came out of the post, where he would shovel passes to cutters that threw the entry pass, namely Bojan Bogdanovic and Sean Kilpatrick. Lopez’s newfound ability to drive and kick adds another unexpected dimension from a 7-foot, relatively unathletic center. Lopez finds fan-favorite Jeremy Lin here after drawing in the defense with a drive.
Brook Lopez isn’t just a standstill shooter and low post force. His game developed in unexpected, but welcome ways throughout the season. Lopez’s newly dynamic offense is a welcome development for the growing Nets.
For a detailed analysis of Lopez’s offensive improvement, check out my latest article for 16 Wins a Ring.
Sean Kilpatrick – Defense
Sean Kilpatrick’s microwave offensive ability is well known. His ability to create offense carried the Nets in several games. But his defense caused some concern. Post All-Star Break, Kilpatrick is simply playing with more effort on the defensive end.
Above, Kilpatrick fights through a cross screen set by Kyle O’Quinn on the sideline out of bounds play. Kilpatrick scurries across and contests his opponent’s shot at the free throw line, leading to a miss. Not bad!
Here, Kilpatrick is matched up against C.J. McCollum. McCollum runs a quick give-and-go play with Meyers Leonard, with Leonard acting as a pseudo-screen. Kilpatrick maneuvers around Leonard and closes out on McCollum. Kilpatrick prevents McCollum from driving to the rim, forcing him towards the corner. McCollum rises for a jumper but Kilpatrick contests the shot beautifully, raising a hand right in C.J.’s grill. McCollum’s shot hits back rim.
Kilpatrick’s defensive metrics have improved as a whole. Prior to the All-Star Break, Kilpatrick’s defensive rating was 109.9, one of the worst marks on the team, per NBA.com. Past February 23, his defensive rating jumped to 103.3, tied for fourth best on the squad. His net rating improved from -8.5 to +3.2 as well.
Prior to the All-Star Break, opponents shot 50.6% against Kilpatrick, the worst mark for Nets that played over 10 games. Since then, opponents have shot 43.4%, per NBA.com/stats. Kilpatrick has shown his value as an offensive creator all season. Now he’s proving that he can defend consistently as well.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson – Confidence
I know. Confidence can’t be measured quantitatively. But for NBA players, it could be the difference between superstar and twelfth man. Just look at the career of former Net Anthony Bennett. At UNLV, Bennett was confident, challenging defenders at the rim and playing with attitude. The former number one pick also looked great in International competition, prompting Kenny Atkinson to take a flyer on him. But as a pro, Bennett looked tentative and unfocused. The Nets tried to rebuild Bennett’s deflated confidence before ultimately releasing him in January.
Now, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson may not be Anthony Bennett, but building his confidence has been a point of emphasis for the Nets’ coaching staff through the season. Kenny Atkinson said the following of his young power forward to the New York Post’s Brian Lewis a few weeks ago…
“He’s starting to get some confidence in his game. He’s doing a better job of being a little bit more even-keel, more resilient. Young players, when things don’t go their way, they tend to get down on themselves. That’s one of Rondae’s areas of improvement that he’s got to keep steady.”
YES Network’s Ian Eagle and Donny Marshall also spoke of Hollis-Jefferson’s confidence, alluding to RHJ’s emotional nature and perfectionist mentality. Of course, winning helps in building confidence. But even through losses, positivity and encouragement can do the same for young players, from both coaches and veterans. That’s a cultural aspect that differs from previous regimes. Players should be responsible for slip-ups, but also need encouragement. It’s a tight balance, but Atkinson and his staff seemingly have the right formula.
Although RHJ may still make questionable decisions, he’s looked more comfortable lately. The awkwardness of his game is slowly being refined, and his frenzied energy, focused.
Here’s one example...
Post All-Star Break, RHJ’s numbers have jumped in every area, going from 7.8 to 10.1 points per game, 5.1 to 6.8 rebounds, and improved offensive and defensive ratings. Like in many aspects of life, confidence is key. RHJ is carving his niche.
Are those the only player improvements?
Those are just three wide-ranging examples of the Nets’ individual improvements. Several other players also have shown marked growth this season. Joe Harris grew confidence with the ball in his hands. Spencer Dinwiddie and Isaiah Whitehead are now competent floor generals. Trevor Booker has found a niche as an energy player. ANd Caris LeVert just had his career high Thursday night. Seemingly, everyone on the team has grown throughout the year.
As Keith Smith reported, the Nets have been optimistic through adversity, and are proud of how far they’ve come as a team. Progress is slow, but evident. Heading into the off-season, the Nets seemingly have established the foundation for success. We’re getting there. It’s just a slow elevator ride to the top.