After a season where the Brooklyn Nets were using players 6’7” and 6’8” at the 4 and 5 they’ve added plenty of new frontcourt players, specifically guys who are simply, well, bigger and better.
The addition of these new players means more frontcourt depth for the Nets and more options for Kenny Atkinson and his staff.
Heading into the season, the main question for Atkinson was whether to stick with a small ball offense or does he go bigger. Well, so far this season, it has been a nice mixture of both.
It’s nice to have options (and the players to carry them out.)
But for the coaching staff, finding minutes for everyone is going to be a problem. Yes and no.!
“It’s a good problem to have,” Atkinson said Thursday talking about his newfound depth. “It’s going to be tough. We’ve got Shabazz [Napier], we’ve got a lot of good perimeter players. Think about when DeMarre comes back, he can play both. And Treveon Graham, imagine when he comes back. Man, you’ve got a lot of choices. That’s going to be interesting how we handle that. ”
No one is yet saying when the roster will be fully healthy, just that when it is, the Nets will be a better team.
So far, the big surprise has been that Jared Dudley has started all four games for Brooklyn this season. When the Dudley deal was announced, many thought the 12-year veteran would come off the bench and be used as instant offense from behind the arc and a big body on the defensive end.
But with, no surprise, injuries, the 6’7” Dudley has been pressed into service.
When on the court, Dudley plays the role of knowledgeable veteran and is one of Brooklyn’s few stretch 4 options.
Atkinson likes a lot of his game, not just his shooting.
“He gives us veteran experience, and he really keeps the ball moving,” Atkinson said before the Cleveland game. “He’s not a ball-holder. He makes other guys better. He facilitates for Caris [LeVert], he facilitates for D’Angelo [Russell]. It doesn’t stick in his hands, and he gives us some spacing out there.
“That defensive experience, I’ve always felt like he’s been an underrated defender. He’s been a plus for us.”
Indeed, on the offensive end, Dudley is a classic role player late in his career . He fits well with the Nets small ball offense and does a good job spreading the floor. His offensive game can be a difficult guard for defenders. Dudley is a career .395 three-point shooter and has shot 42.9 percent in four games for Brooklyn, finally finding his range against Cleveland with four three pointers and 12 points.
To go along with his strong three-point shooting, Dudley can play under the basket. He is a physical driver to the basket and is very good at making that extra pass to an outside shooter, cut pass, or an inside pass under the basket.
On the defensive end, he gives Brooklyn size down low. At 6’7”, Dudley has shown, as Atkinson noted, an ability to defend on post-up plays and has enough physicality to avoid getting bullied down low.
His best area on the defensive end may be leadership. Dudley is vocal and does a good job calling out the opposing teams plays. He is also a good help defender on the wing and helps close lanes for drivers.
“I like Jared with that unit,” Asia Atkinson. “Most of all, Jared Dudley, he moved it, he gets the ball cooking and we need that with that first group. He’s important for that group right now, so we’ll probably keep it like that for now.”
It is hard to tell whether Atkinson will leave Dudley as the starter when and if the rest of his squad is healthy but he will likely still get minutes no matter what. (Also, at 33, Dudley is likely to see his minutes rationed over an 82 game season.
Brooklyn’s biggest acquisition literally and figuratively this off-season was Ed Davis. The Nets signed the Blazers big man only a couple hours into free agency on giving him a one-year $4.4 million deal, the bi-annual exception.
Davis is a traditional big who many in Portland thought was the best backup 5 in the NBA. He is neither a deep shooter nor even a consistent mid-range shooter so more than a few wondered how he would fit in with Brooklyn’s system.
Easy. He rebounds and can finish, things last year’s backups — Quincy Acy and Dante Cunningham — were ill-equipped at.
Atkinson has done a great job integrating Davis on both ends of the floor. Heading into the 2018 offseason, it was clear rebounding on both ends was a huge issue for Brooklyn. Davis helps minimize that hole.
In his first three games with the Nets, Davis is averaging 2.8 offensive boards and 6.0 defensive boards. His offensive boards allow Brooklyn to get second chance opportunities. Davis is also a patient offensive player who embraces his role; getting those offensive boards and scoring down low.
His impact is felt more on the defensive end. Davis brings size and frontcourt defense to the Brooklyn Nets. Opposing teams like to target the paint. When Davis is on the court, he limits those strategies and plays tough defense.
Many wonder why Atkinson does not play Davis next to Jarrett Allen more often. There is one clear answer to that question; spacing the floor. Allen is becoming more confident shooting the ball but Davis is nowhere near that margin. If you put them on the floor together in a 4-5 combo, yes the defense will be productive but that will limit the spacing for outside shooters on the offense end. Still, the two have combined for 19.8 points, 16.8 rebounds and 3.0 blocks.
“An anchor,” is how Atkinson described Davis. “To have that stable guy behind Jarrett, it’s a really nice comfort zone.”
Allen also sees Davis as a rebounding mentor.
“It’s almost like a game for me with the rebounding now,” said Allen talking about how he watches when he’s out of the game. “I’m always looking for little ways that I can get more rebounds and he’s a perfect guy to watch.”
So far, Atkinson has admitted, Davis has exceeded his expectations.
“I’m just trying to come out every night and bring energy,” said Davis. “Just help the team. When that bench unit gets out there, there’s no drop off from the starters, and that’s the only thing I’m focused on.”
When Davis was told Atkinson said he’s been better than expected, Davis response was, “I didn’t hear him say that. Hopefully it’ll mean more minutes.”
One of Atkinson’s secret weapons —on both ends of the floor— has been Treveon Graham. Until he got hurt, he’d been impressive during the two games he played in.
Graham’s skill set and size gives Atkinson options on both ends of the floor. He can be used as a 3-and-D wing or as a stretch 4.
Graham was quiet in those two games scoring wise but his off-the-ball play has been overlooked. Despite being quiet offensively in the two games he did play, Graham has proven he can be dangerous.
Atkinson liked the job he did spreading the floor on the offensive end giving other outside shooters more room.
On the defensive end, Graham is a solid defender. He used his size and length to poke balls out of players hands and does a good job standing his ground down low.
One area that has been overlooked in his short NBA career has been rebounding. Graham is a good rebounder on both ends of the floor. His rebounding game and his versatile skill set on both ends fits very well with Atkinson’s system.
“It seems like we play well when he’s in there. He’s efficient on offense and he defends the basketball and he’s tough as nails. That’s a nice combination,” Atkinson said of Graham.
Problem is Graham’s currently dealing with a left hamstring injury which has become a bit of a news circus, with Shams Charania reporting the hamstring is torn and Atkinson saying it’s torn. In any event, he’ll be “out for a while,” the coach admits.
(Yes, the Nets are known for disclosed timetables on injuries.)
Kenneth Faried, who was acquired this past offseason via trade with the Denver Nuggets, has been the Nets mystery player so far.
Faried has not received much playing time only taking the court once for seven minutes. He checked into the game during garbage time minutes in the Pacers blowout.
He ended his Nets debut scoring eight points, two rebounds, and a steal in those seven minutes. Despite playing when the game didn’t matter, Faried played aggressively down low on the offensive end while playing good defense.
In his first Nets media session, Faried stated he wants to bring back “Manimal” —high intensity slams, highlight reel blocks, and dominate overall play.
The one problem with Faried, like Davis, is that he is a traditional 4 . Faried does not shoot the mid-range ball quite well enough and doesn’t shoot the three at all, although he’s been seen practicing it in recent days. Without that range, his role in the Nets offensive system is limited.
Yes, he can play good defense (to an extent) down low alongside Allen but Atkinson needs his outside shooters to space things out.
“We could keep him doing the same things he’s always done, or we can seek out some stuff that maybe had been hidden there,” Atkinson said in preseason. “Do we want him taking seven 3s a game? Probably not.”
Yes, there are still 79 games left in the season and Faried has plenty of time to prove himself and establish his goal of bringing back the manimal.
Finally, there’s been Brooklyn’s biggest surprise so far; Rodions Kurucs. Kurucs has been impressive for the Nets in the first three games and in fact, has become a fan favorite in Brooklyn.
Atkinson has given Kurucs some good court time so far this season, likes what he’s seen, within limits.
“There’s some good and some bad. He does everything full-out and we love his energy. I like that he’s shooting the catch-and-shoot. We want him to be open. He took a couple contested ones [Saturday]. But he’s a young guy, learning. He had a couple of turnovers where you’re like ‘man, can we get that one back?’… But that’s youth.”
On the offensive end, Kurucs has been “fearless,” in Atkinson’s words, driving the ball despite his physical size and strength. In fact, he’s quite a nifty driver.
Kurucs, like Graham, uses his height and length to create space and finish drives. And his shooting has been sharp. Kurucs has hit 40 percent from behind the arc averaging 3.3 attempts per game.
On the defensive end, he does struggle a bit but he is slowly adjusting and has active hands. While playing the 4, he is commonly matched up against bigger guys leading to fouls or blow-by points.
Kurucs can be Brooklyn’s secret weapon this season. He is not likely to start at the 4 this season unless injuries really hit the position hard but Kurucs has established himself as an offensive weapon off the bench. The question is how many minutes he’ll get when (if) everyone gets healthy. Still, it looks like he’ll spend more time at Barclays Center than Nassau Coliseum.
In Brooklyn’s recent loss to the Indiana Pacers, Kurucs rolled his ankle and has been ruled out for Friday’s game vs. New Orleans.
As mentioned before, injuries have taken an early toll for the Nets this season. DeMarre Carroll and Allan Williams, two players who will see action at the 4 this season for Brooklyn, are both dealing with ankle injuries.
Carroll underwent an ankle arthroscopy on Oct. 16 and has been wearing a walking boot. Williams, on the other hand, sprained his ankle during the preseason and has yet to take the court.
So count on Atkinson having more of a good problem.