Who’s that denizen of the freeways emerging from the subway? Where’d he come from? Is he a superhero?
D’Angelo Russell is the focus of this week’s Off-Season Report. We have suspended disbelief. We are all in. He may not be perfect, but he’s ours.
D’Angelo and the Draft
This could turn out to be what one Nets insider called a “transformative” week, with the trade of Brook Lopez and the 27th pick in the Draft (Kyle Kuzma of Utah) for D’Angelo Russell plus Timofey Mozgov.
The Nets, under Sean Marks, have been trying to get out from under the burden of so many lost picks and other mistakes. The key strategy seems obvious now that it’s in place for a year: trade established veteran players for young players, either draft choices or in this case, a rising star.
A year ago. Marks traded Thaddeus Young to Indiana for the 20th pick (and a future second rounder). At the deadline, he traded Bojan Bogdanovic and Chris McCullough for the 22nd pick and Andrew Nicholson. And on Tuesday, Marks made his biggest deal, trading the face of the franchise for a player who is a potential star, but with tarnish.
He’s also tried, so far unsuccessfully, to use intricacies of the CBA, like offering big, maybe even overblown, offer sheets to young players, starting with Tyler Johnson, Allen Crabbe and Donatas Motiejunas. This year, it could be Otto Porter or Kentavious Caldwell.
At the same time, Marks has been trying to build a culture that is player- and family- friendly, enhanced by top-of-the-line facilities and staff, specifically a performance team and a world-class medical team.
Kenny Atkinson has the job of recreating a Nets basketball brand that’s unbound by the tyranny of 1 through 5. The motion offense, in particular, is partly about bringing the most modern basketball to Brooklyn, but also bringing free agents to the borough. The free-wheeling, everyone-touches-the-ball offense has an appeal.
But without a tangible sign of progress, like a star, it’s a tough slog.
Enter D’Angelo Russell
Russell is a 6’5” (nominal) point guard who has put up good numbers in his first two years in the league, but been trailed by controversy tied to his immaturity. The Nick Young - Iggy Azalea incident was the most notable, but both Byron Scott and Luke Walton, two very different coaches and personalities, criticized the youngster’s maturity.
Then Friday, Magic Johnson went one step further, slamming Russell, who the Lakers had taken at No. 2 only two years prior, as someone other players didn’t want to play with, who wasn’t a leader.
"D'Angelo is an excellent player. He has the talent to be an All-Star. We want to thank him for what he did for us. But what I needed was a leader. I needed somebody also who can make the other players better and also [somebody] that players want to play with.”
Putting aside the crassness of blaming a 21-year-old for a great franchise’s decline —and that Russell’s agent is also Paul George’s and was sitting in the room, all of it signified the risk that Marks has to take. Trading the beloved Brook Lopez added to the risk.
But the original character maven Marks isn’t fazed, telling reporters...
“I’ve known him for quite some time. I’ve followed him through his college career prior to being drafted. When you’re able to get a talent like that in your gym, we’re excited. I’m not concerned about the maturity. … What I’m concerned about is what he brings and our culture and how we can develop him not only as a basketball player, but as a young man.”
Nor is Jeremy Lin.
“I think at the end of the day, he’s a really good kid,” Lin said of Russell. “He has a good heart, and he’s a tremendous basketball player. Once he meets our team and gets in our locker room, I’m pretty sure it will be a seamless transition. I’m sure I’ll learn a lot from him as well, and hopefully he learns from me. What we want to do is create that family atmosphere where we’re kind of pushing each other, keeping each other accountable, helping each other.”
The Nets have historically taken risks on guards before, on Stephon Marbury, on Jason Kidd, on Vince Carter, on Deron Williams. Each carried baggage on arrival. Marbury had feuded with his front office about not getting the same treatment as KG; Kidd had been arrested for domestic abuse. Carter was accused of malingering in Toronto. D-Will had a halftime shouting match with a Hall of Fame coach. In short, nothing that new here. GM’s, even Nets GM’s take risks on hyper-talented players. Russell wasn’t taken at the No. 2 overall for nothing. He wasn’t handed the keys to Lakers kingdom for nothing.
Take a look at this highlight package put together by a Lakers fan.
It’s not just about the deep shooting, the rim-running. It’s about the court vision, the passing. And he’s only 21.
On Monday, fans will get a look at Russell for the first time when the Nets introduce him to the media at a 10:30 press conference (which will be streamed on BrooklynNets.com). Expect tough questions, smart answers.
This is the biggest trade Marks has made, the biggest trade since the ill-fated ... aw, you know. If it works out, it could be the signature trade, the move that turned things around. He’s on a rookie contract for another two years. Plenty of time to judge him.
The final hours
We’ve paid our tributes to Brook Lopez, in words and pictures. He deserved as many as he can get. He went from a goofy kid in 2008 to team leader in 2017.
He is the Nets all-time leader in points and minutes. He played with 108 teammates, from Vince Carter to Archie Goodwin. He watched 32 separate transactions go down, many of them rumored to include him! He went through 0-18 and 1-27 and didn’t complain. More importantly, Brook Lopez was a gentleman, a pro’s pro, a fan’s dream.
But Marks et al foresaw something that couldn’t be ignored. Despite all his great scoring and his underrated defense, his professionalism, he didn’t hold a lot of value in today’s NBA. His game, even with the three-point explosion last season, is not where the league is headed. Moreover, and this was underrated by fans, his foot remained an issue to many. So many surgeries it became hard to keep track of them all. Kenny Atkinson monitored his minutes last season not just to keep him fresh, but healthy.
By next July, Marks knew the Nets would face a decision on whether to re-sign Lopez, the team’s most popular player, its only all-star, to a long-term contract that could carry a price tag of $25 million a year ... or just pass. If Marks wanted to get something for him, he’d have to move now. If not, he’d have to wait till the deadline in February 2018, hope Lopez remained healthy and make a deal then. The likelihood is that he would have less leverage and get less in return in February than he had now.
Fortuitously, there was an out, an opportunity. As Woj reported after the trade, the Nets had been “tracking” the Russell situation “for some time.” They and everyone else in the NBA knew of the Lakers’ predicament. Paul George wanted out of Indiana and preferred a return home to L.A., but the Magic Johnson-Rob Pelinka braintrust was hamstrung by the horrid contracts their predecessors had given Luol Deng and Mozgov, the west coast analogue to giving up picks to Boston.
Things came to a head early in the week as rumors intensified that there were other suitors for George. The Lakers had to move.
On Sunday, Woj hinted about it in a podcast, asking “hypothetically,” would the Nets demand Russell to take on the remaining $48 million of Mozgov’s contract. Here’s how he worded it.
“So, hypothetically, Brooklyn says, ‘we’ll take on (Timofey) Mozgov or we’ll take on (Luol) Deng but you’re sending us D’Angelo Russell or you’re sending us your first round pick.’
“There is no other way the Lakers are getting Deng or Mozgov off the cap.”
Chances that Woj didn’t know about the Nets-Lakers talks? To borrow the title of our favorite L.A.-based novel, Less than Zero.
On Monday, the Lakers turned down a Nets offer of Lopez for Russell and Mozgov straight up, but left things open for renewed discussion. The Nets moved on to talks with Atlanta about a Dwight Howard salary dump, Woj later reported. No details have emerged.
The Lakers went in a different direction as well, but it was futile. Strongly believing they would wind up with Lonzo Ball at No. 2 in Thursday’s Draft, they looked around for ways to get value for Russell, either in a salary dump or a trade for a draft pick.
Ramona Shelburne tweeted that Johnson and Pelinka were frantic.
Lakers had called multiple teams in lottery about acquiring Russell this week. No takers. He becomes the guy who helps them get off Moz $— Ramona Shelburne (@ramonashelburne) June 20, 2017
Ultimately, though, they played themselves.
Lakers were hoping to get another lottery pick for DLo, but teams weren't inclined because of widespread belief Lakers grabbing Lonzo @ 2— Ramona Shelburne (@ramonashelburne) June 20, 2017
As Zach Lowe reported, the Lakers tried another tack, too, not unrelated.
They dangled an unprotected first-round pick in front of every team with cap room to dump one of the toxic Timofey Mozgov/Luol Deng deals, sources say, and finding no takers, finally flipped Russell and Mozgov to Brooklyn. (Good job, Nets!)
One of the teams approached was the Mavericks at No. 9.
The talks between the two teams gained traction and the deal got done, at least unofficially, at around 5 p.m., followed by a Woj Bomb. At some point, the 27th pick was added to the mix. Who cares? This deal was about Russell, Lopez and Mozgov’s contract.
Marks’ patience paid off. This isn’t your old Brooklyn Nets.
On to the Draft
Sean Marks likes to keep things closehold. On arrival in February 2016, he removed the Basketball Operations section from the Team Directory. Comings and goings can’t be tracked. Those who are tempted to leak know they will be thrown into the darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (and no paycheck either).
The Nets don’t reveal who’s coming in for a draft workout or a free agent mini-camp. If you want to know, you troll the internet.
Who do they like in the Draft?!? Are you kidding? Maybe a peek at the internal draft?!? Foggetaboutit! There are CIA secrets less well protected. All of it very Spurs-like.
Now, after the fact, we know (or we have been told) that Jarrett Allen was in fact “the man” for the Nets for a while. Every GM says that he was shocked, shocked that Player X was still there when he picked, and that goes for every sport. But the emotion with which Nets officials publicly and privately discussed their luck adds credibility. One insider called getting Allen a “miracle.” Kenny Atkinson was more poetic.
“It’s rare when you get your guy, and that’s what makes me so excited, we got our guy,” Atkinson explained at Friday’s press conference. “Credit to Sean and his group, obviously they’re doing the work all year long. When I was watching games, I mean, you just know, it’s like seeing a beautiful girl.”
A beauty who’s 6’11”, with a 7’5 1/2” wingspan and a 35.5” vertical leap, not to mention the highest touch point of any player at the combine, higher than 12 feet, and the biggest hands as well. Another advantage: his birth certificate. On draft night, he was 19 years, two months and one day old. That makes him the second youngest player in Nets history (after Derrick Favors) and the sixth youngest player out of 60 selected in the Draft this year.
And unlike some other bigs in the draft, like Harry Giles, Ike Anibogu, O.G. Anunoby and Anzejs Pasecniks, he had no injury issues, no red flags.
At some points during the off-season, Allen had been as high as No. 8 on the Draft Express mock. When the Nets met with him the first time at the Draft Combine in early May, he was No. 12. In the final mock draft, Draft Express had him at No. 16, one tick up from the next to last, where he was 17, his worst position.
Allen did not work out for the Nets, being unable to set a date with his agent. The agent no doubt didn’t think it was worthwhile for a prospect on the cusp of the lottery to be seen in the gym of a team eight picks out of it.
On Wednesday, team executives met with Allen who was in town early, one of the 20 Green Room invitees. The meeting with the intelligent, articulate Allen strengthened their conviction to get him, but didn’t help them find the means. The Nets said after the draft that they had been willing to move up if needed to get Allen, as high as the 13-to-16 range, we were told.
Atkinson may have been more optimistic than most. He told Brian Lewis on Wednesday that he hoped the Nets would come out of the draft with “rim protection and defense.” Done!
On Thursday night, there were a lot of bare knuckles in the Nets war room as picks were announced, trades were called in. At No. 19, Allen began to hear that the Nets were going to take him. Would the Nets have taken a shot at Giles, taken at No. 20, had Allen been taken higher and the Duke center was available? Maybe, but it would have been a tough call. Despite rumors that his medical report wasn’t as bad as anticipated, Giles kept dropping.
So why did Allen drop? After all, he was the next-to-last Green Room invite to get drafted, which he called “humbling.” Bottom line: He’s a big project and there are concerns how long it will take and whether he’s got the motivation to get there. Here’s what Draft Express wrote after the Draft.
Allen has impressive mobility and length and a frame that should fill out nicely. He has a 7-5 wingspan, excellent hands and a soft touch around the basket. He has shown flashes facing the basket and with his back to the hoop, but is not consistent yet. He hasn’t shown he can impact games and appears to be several years away from contributing at the NBA level. He also lacks toughness, intensity and basketball IQ.
Tough room that Draft Express.
There was also some discussion on The Vertical draft show.
Both Mike Schmitz, of Draft Express, and former Indiana coach, Tom Crean, liked the pick – the latter being effusive in his praise of both the pick and Allen’s talent. Schmitz described Allen as a "Lottery level talent" and Crean added that Brooklyn got an "absolute steal".
However, Schmitz said the biggest question about Allen is "How much does he love basketball?" Crean dismissed that notion.
Crean replied that he was involved in the recruiting process for Allen and that "This was a guy (Allen) that was getting up at six in the morning to go to gyms and work out about thirty minutes from his house in the summertime and the school year" and added that "he plays like a guy that’s really developed some hunger".
As for his need to bulk up, refine his game, that’s what the Long Island Nets are for, that and Nets staffers like Adam Harrington, the unsung player development director, and Zach Weatherford, the performance team director.
So where was Allen in the Nets internal draft? No one is saying but piecing things together, we’d bet it was towards the end of lottery, but not that far down.
As for the second round pick, it was as expected, a stash, Aleksandar Vezenkov, a 6’8”, 21-year-old shooter extraordinaire. He reportedly doesn’t have many other attributes, but again, Marks personally scouted him back in March.
So, what’s the bottom line on the week? It may very well turn out to be a turning point in the rebuild.. Russell is a special talent with a magnetic if eccentric personality. He is also a risk. The situation the Nets find themselves in, they have to take as many risks as they can afford. Allen is a little bit of a risk, too, but only a little. We can live with both.
Why no purchased picks?
One thing we thought would happen didn’t. The Nets did not purchase a second round pick with the $3.43 million they had ... and still have through June 30, Friday. In the Prokhorov Era, the Nets have paid out $9.8 million to buy seven picks in seven years.
Only one player on the current roster, Isaiah Whitehead, was taken with a purchased pick, the 42nd in 2016. Bojan Bogdanovic also came to the Nets via a purchased pick. But mosts have been busts.
Michael Kay of ESPN asked Marks on Friday about whether he considered buying a pick.
"Yeah, we did. we did. We looked into all different scenarios and so forth. My assistant GM, Trajan Langdon who sort of oversees the scouting department I think they were on top of things with who they wanted for summer league and two-way players and so forth. So there’s a few things down the pike that we’ve got. It’s a matter of do you spend that money correctly in the right form or fashion."
Hard to read between the lines here but it sounds like they may have something else going on that will require a cash outlay. Under the CBA, the NBA permits teams to spend a certain amount each year to “sweeten” deals. This year, the amount is $3.5 million. Nets used $75,000 to buy K.J. McDaniels rights in mid-season. Once the league’s fiscal year ends, on June 30, that’s it. Money can’t used. Of course, on Friday, July 1, there’s a new limit. This year, it jumps to $5 million. One expires, one begins.
So if they are going to use the $3.4 million on a deal, and don’t want to cut into next season’s allotment, they have to do it by Thursday.
Summer League Roster
Nothing is official, but here’s what we know about who will be wearing black-and-white at the Las Vegas Summer League.
Caris LeVert, Nets, 6’7” SG
Isaiah Whitehead, Nets, 6’5” PG
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Nets, 6’7” F
Archie Goodwin, Nets, 6’5” SG
Spencer Dinwiddie, Nets, 6’6” PG
Jarrett Allen, Nets, 6’11” C
Prince Ibeh, Long Island Nets, 6'11" C
J.J. Moore, Long Island Nets, 6'6" SF
Vincent Poirier, Paris Levallois, 6'11" C
Jake Wiley, Eastern Washington, 6'7" PF
Jeremy Senglin, Weber State, 6'3" SG
Milton Doyle, Loyola Chicago,6'3" PG,
Karami Murphy, Miami (FL) PF 6'8" PF,
Tahjere McCall, Tennessee State, 6'5" SG
Rodney Pryor, Georgetown, 6'5" SG
Nathan Boothe, Flexx Pistola (Italy), 6’10” PF
We did mini-profiles of some of the undrafted players the other day and will do a longer piece when the roster is made official. They should start practicing this week and will fly to Las Vegas on July 6. Their opening game is July 7 vs. the Hawks.
—Wiley and Senglin reportedly have small guarantees. Others may as well. Last year, the Nets paid out partials to three players. Senglin led the NCAA last season in three pointers with 132.
—Poirier has a contract with Baskonia in Spain. As he did last year with the Magic, he’s here to show off his improvement to NBA scouts. In response to a French reporter, Poirier said he chose the Nets “because they were the ones who offered me the most guarantees in terms of playing time.” Of course, that was before the Nets drafted Allen.
—Kamari Murphy is a Brooklyn kid and not only that, he played for Lincoln High in Coney Island. Among the other Railsplitters in the NBA are Whitehead and Lance Stephenson. Stephon Marbury and Sebastian Telfair also went to Lincoln.
—Goodwin is a fifth year NBA player despite being only 22. It’s extraordinary for a fifth year player to play in the summer league, but Kenny Atkinson and Sean Marks asked him to and he agreed.
—Boothe, who played at Toledo before going overseas, was one of Europe’s top three point shooters, hitting 47.5 percent last year. He got his invite after working out for the Nets in an early June free agent mini-camp.
—J.J. Moore, a Brentwood, Long Island native, finished up in Europe only 10 days ago, making it to the Final Four of the Israeli League championships. He’s a Rutgers grad.
Woj and Whitehead
The day of the Draft, the Nets ran a first person account of what it was like for Isaiah Whitehead at last year’s big event at Barclays. Whitehead talked about the anxiety of the Draft, the constant checking mock drafts, etc. and how he found out about who took him.
I was projected to go somewhere between 30-45, but I had no idea where. Brooklyn wasn’t even a thought because they weren’t picking there. It was wide open to me.
My uncle was the one who broke the news to me about being drafted by the Nets. He looked up from his phone and said I was being taken by the Nets at 42.
I’m like “How do you know?”
“Woj posted it.”
I didn’t really know who Woj was at the time, so I told my uncle not to believe it, especially since it was only pick 38. He told me Woj was credible and was picking everybody right, but still, I couldn’t totally believe it.
Didn’t know who Woj was? Didn’t believe him? This qualifies as a rookie mistake.
The story is a terrific read.
All this and free agency, too. This marks the 11th week since the end of the season, back in April. Eleven weeks from now is the start of preseason on October 1. So hang in there. We’re halfway home.