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Nets see G League as laboratory for basketball experiments

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Something interesting happened, with little fanfare, this week in Long Island. On Tuesday, the Long Island Nets started 6’9” Dzanan Musa at point guard. The 29th pick in the NBA Draft originally was seen as a wingman, a shooting guard, maybe a small forward, in the traditional designations of NBA players.

Then, as if to reward the Nets for their creativity, this happened in the second half...

That’s a 6’9” point guard throwing a lefty bounce pass half the length of the court to Jordan McLaughlin, running at full speed. That’s not what 19-year-olds do. Tim Capstraw, doing color for the YES Network broadcast, called a “glimpse of brilliance.” The Nets called it “an experiment.” We called it, in our irrational exuberance, “Kidd-like.”

Musa admitted it was all new to him, but he liked it.

“That’s the first time I played point guard, ever. I didn’t play point guard at all. As you can see it was productive,” Musa told Brian Lewis. “Even at home I just played point guard in youth selections. So I like that about it. The coaches are in charge, so what they say to me to do, I will do.”

One of those “youth selections” Musa talked about was the 2015 European U16 championships when he scored 33 points to lead Bosnia to its first sports title ever. But still, Musa has always been more of a scorer. His scorers’ mentality, in fact, had caused some scouts to shy away from him. He says he’s happy to do what the team needs and yes, he believes he can play some point guard.

“I’m trying to prove to everyone that I can do multiple things on the court, that I’m not just some scorer, that I can pass, I can play defense,” Musa said. “I’m trying to prove to my coaches that I can do a little of everything. [I’m working on] ball-handling, a lot of shooting, and passing obviously. I’m trying to just help my guys in Long Island to be better players every day. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

Sounds like a point guard to us. And he is not alone. Theo Pinson told his hometown paper in Greensboro that the Nets have him moving around as well.

“You have to be ready at all times. For example, the other night I had to play point guard. There’s a lot of little stuff you have to know. But things are going well for me,” said the 6’7” Pinson, who’s averaging nearly six assists a game for Long Island.

“I feel I am coming into the league at the right time. I’ve always been a versatile player and the way the game is now you have to be versatile. You really have to be able to play (positions) one through four.”

The Nets also have had Pinson work on his three point shooting which went from 22.6 percent in his final year at North Carolina to 42.9 percent in the summer league to 35.9 percent in the G League. He told NetsDaily back in September that it wasn’t so much the Nets tweaking his shooting mechanics as much as it was simply giving him the green light ... show us what you can do!

And indeed, the Nets like using the G League as a way to diversify their players’ skills and experiences.

“That’s what the G-League is for,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson told Lewis. “That’s what Long Island is for, to experiment with stuff and I love that Will is doing it. It’s a great idea.

Specifically, regarding Musa, the Nets coach said the idea is “Give him opportunities.”

“It’s more that than thinking ‘OK he’s going to be our point guard of the future. You know how [good] it is with multiple ballhandlers. It’s great for him to get that opportunity to do that. Can he be like a [Danilo] Gallinari, 6’9,” 6’10,” can play pick-and-roll. If you have a big guy that’s able to do that — and he definitely has the ability — Now all-out point guard? That’s probably going to be a long shot. But I like that we’re [seeing].”

Rodions Kurucs, who’s shuffled between Brooklyn and Uniondale more than the other two, has seeing time at the 3 and 4. Kurucs has played well in Brooklyn when given the opportunity but coaches have said he has to learn some subtleties like not going at the same speed everything he hits the floor. That will come with minutes, most of them in Long Island.

“He didn’t play a ton in Barcelona last year, that was one of the things. So we’re like, man, we’ve got to make sure this guy gets minutes,” said Atkinson earlier in the week.” So it’s balancing what we need with the Brooklyn Nets with his development. So we’re just trying to get the right balance there. There’s no easy answer for that.”

Not every player is learning a new position. Alan WIlliams, who like Pinson has a two-way deal with the Nets, is doing what he has always done: rebound, rebound, rebound. But he’s also been more aggressive offensively. He may not be a three-point shooter in the Brooklyn mold, but he has good hands and with his strength, he has become a reliable 20-15 for Long Island. He had 20 and 17 Friday night vs. Greensboro (and hit his only attempt from three.)

Atkinson and the Nets front office think Long Island’s new coach, Will Weaver, is an ideal mentor for players conducting such experiments. He hbrutas a bit of an intellectual streak and relies a great deal on analytics. In Musa’s case, he’s also been working with a Brooklyn assistant who knows from point guards: Pablo Prigioni.

Musa is back with the big club vs. Washington as is Kurucs. The 6’10” Latvian may actually get minutes Saturday since so many of the Brooklyn regulars played so many minutes in the brutal double overtime loss to Memphis. If not, it will be back to the lab out on the island.

And there’s plenty of time. At 19, Musa is not only the second youngest player to wear a Nets uniform, he’s the second youngest in the G League and seventh youngest in the NBA. Kurucs isn’t much older. Sometimes, long term experiments are the best.