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NETS WORKOUT: Prospects not named Zion or RJ steal MSG spotlight

In between Net games, our Bryan Fonseca was at Madison Square Garden covering the big ESPN-aired Duke vs Texas Tech battle this past Thursday. While we all know about RJ Barrett and Zion Williamson, two others with ‘Net-friendly’ styles stole the show at MSG.

NCAA Basketball: Yale at Duke Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

With Brooklyn’s win over the Phoenix Suns, the Nets now sit at 16-19, much closer to the eighth seed than the eighth overall pick in the draft.

You never know how the remaining 47 games will unfold … or the months following when draft day-related trades suddenly explode on Twitter, but at this point, the safe and sane assumption is that Brooklyn will be out of the running for Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and possibly even Cam Reddish unless the lottery balls take an unexpected bounce.

But for a number of reasons, you can never say never.

  • The season could implode for a multitude of reasons;
  • The Nets could swing some sort of unforeseeable deal; of
  • They could actually luck into a top-3 lottery spot, now that the percentages are more balanced

You get the point. So, we’ll look at all NBA Prospects who played at the Ameritas Insurance Classic, where Duke defeated Texas Tech at Madison Square Garden, 69-58, on Thursday.

G/F, RJ Barrett, Duke

Barrett had his worst game under the brightest of bright lights against the number-12 team in the country at MSG. Jared Dudley, Jimmy Butler, Trae Young, Emmanuel Mudiay and Kevin Knox were among the NBA notables in attendance along with tons of scouts

Barrett shot 7-of-22 – though, he finished 4-of-7 after a 3-of-15 first half – ending a rough night with 16 points and six turnovers. Things got much better when he decided to (mostly) abandon settling for perimeter jumpshots and attack the basket to finish at the rim.

Legendary Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski discussed Barrett’s performance post-game in the presser, professing his admiration for the 6’7” Canadian swingman, but also sharing a critique.

“I love RJ. RJ’s big time,” offered Coach K of Barrett, who is averaging 23.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game for the second-ranked team in the country. “There are just times where you’re not going to be able to score. He was missing some shots that he’d normally make and they were making him take some shots that were a lot more pressured.”

Coach K later elaborated on why that is, and what he told his 18-year-old prodigy at halftime.

“It’s a combination, but he had some open looks, but once he was missing, he was … I call it a ‘gunny sack’ or taking the misses with you where you know put pressure on yourself to score because you haven’t,” he said. “You can’t do that. And that’s what I talked to him about at halftime. We just said ‘everybody is 0-for-0. Just start off fresh. You’re not allowed to try and make up for missed shots.’ Because he’s so conscientious and knows what he needs to do. Then he made the adjustment with his pull-ups and made some big time plays. And that’s after it’s not going well. RJ’s big time.”

Despite his struggles versus Texas Tech’s solid defense, Barrett is still shooting nearly 47% from the floor, but his three-point percentage has dropped to 32%.

He still has time to redeem himself in conference play, which for Duke begins on January 5 against Clemson.

The game also marked Barrett’s seventh in New York City since 2017 – this was the first. As part of Montverde Academy, the same Florida-based prep school that produced former teammates D’Angelo Russell and Ben Simmons, Barrett has played at GEICO Nationals, formally Dick’s Nationals, in Christ the King High School in Middle Village, Queens.

Barrett dominated in 2017, averaging 25 points and nearly 10 rebounds, and powered his team to the championship as a senior this past spring, earning MVP honors and a national title.

F/C Zion Williamson

And then you have this man, who, also around 6’7”, but is built like a Suburban – apparently hits like one, too – with the athleticism of a 1999 Vince Carter.

At 280 pounds, Williamson’s ability to do pretty much anything is doth befuddling and breathtaking. Officials are still figuring out how to call his games, as he’ll always do a handful things never before seen for someone his size, especially at his age.

Like Barrett, he will be 19 next summer.

“I think it’s a combination … you still don’t see kids like him. He’s unique. So sometimes he can do something that would appear that would appear to be negative but it’s positive. In his case, he has to adjust. He’s learning, too. He drove too much. In the post, they come over (to trap) … Just part of learning,” said Coach K of Williamson, who fouled out after a second controversial charging call with minutes to go against Texas Tech.

Williamson is averaging 19.8 points, 9.4 rebounds and 2.3 assists while shooting 65.2 percent from the floor and 70.8 percent on free throws, where he attempts six per game.

“When you’re a freshman, you haven’t really been coached against … they’re learning, he and R.J. especially, what really good teams will try to do to take away your strengths. And what that should do is make you better once you learn how to do that,” said Coach K.

“He’s a natural, and I’m glad he’s with us,” he added, with a smile.

While Barrett’s questions lie predominately on whether or not he could achieve consistency and efficiency at the next level, Williamson’s are from the perimeter, where Barrett has the edge.

Williamson isn’t a shooter … at all. He’s only 3-of-18 for the season from deep, though that could be developed over time, but it takes time.

”I’m working on every part. If I can become a huge threat everywhere, I feel like there will be no stopping me,” said Williamson on Thursday, asked of developing as a threat from deep.

G/F Cam Reddish

Reddish is the odd one out of the top-three, and as a result of being a teammate of Barrett and Williamson, he’s that other dude on many occasions, like Thursday night.

The 6-foot-8 forward is averaging 13.5 points and shooting 37 percent from the floor, 35.6 percent from deep and 78.4 percent on free throws. His down numbers are largely a part of trying to fit in with two other stars. Reddish still projects as one of the first players to be taken on draft night in June.

Coach K spoke on the early struggles, which include a 1-for-7, eight-point outing against Texas Tech, though, Reddish did help get Duke out of MSG victorious by hitting late free throws, where he went 5-for-6.

“Every kid’s in a different growth process,” said Coach K. “He has not been shooting the ball well and it’s gotten him down, and it’s affected other things on how he plays, and tonight it did, too. His first shot (of the game), boom, it’s right there and we want him to shoot it, but it didn’t go in. And then he’s sitting for a while because Jack (White is) playing well. And now he comes in the game, it was a moment for him. That was probably better for him than going for 20 tonight, when he did what he did after what he didn’t do. In this game, it means more … I was so happy for him.”

PG Tre Jones

Jones, an expected one-and-done like the other three, is not as highly regarded relative to his trio of teammates as it relates to the NBA draft. However, no one perhaps did more for their stock on Thursday, and no one received more praise from Coach K following the game than the ACC Freshman of the Week, whom he referred to as, “the key to the game.”

“He just turned it around for us with six steals,” said Coach K of the 6’2” Jones, who also had 13 points and five assists. “Usually he’s not looking for his shot, he willed balls in and all of our guys just fed off of that. It was magnificent to see … He’s magical with how he finishes on the break.”

Coach K added that Jones is as good of an on-the-ball-defender as Duke’s ever had, mentioning Tommy Amaker, Bob Hurley, Steve Wojciechowski and Chris Duhon.

He also cited Jones’ ability to run an offense, and compared his abilities to do so with even LeBron James and Chris Paul, whom Coach K worked with during his Team USA tenure.

“One of the best things, whether I’m coaching the USA Team or a Duke team is having the ability to have real-time leadership while the game is going on and the ability to improvise or make reads that you would make reads after a timeout. Tre gives me the opportunity to do that. He’s a godsend for me. I’m so excited about coaching him,” he remarked.

“It’s like coaching on the U.S. team, you have LeBron, Chris Paul, they make real-time [adjustments]. There aren’t many who can get their teams to do that. Tre can do that. He’s got it. What he did tonight was one of the best performances. It was a big, big time performance by that kid.”

Coach K joked that Jones is so bowlegged that if you’d move his legs together, he’d grow to 6-foot-4. Jones also discussed his defensive effort, and how the demand was high to provide it with great intensity, even before committing to Duke.

“For sure, the effort. He (Coach K) talks all the time about pressuring the ball. He’s been on me about that since he’s been recruiting me. About my ball pressure and how I can defend,” Jones said.

G Jarrett Culver, Texas Tech

And if it wasn’t Jones who made the most lasting impression, it was Culver, the sophomore at Texas Tech, who nearly led the underdogs to their biggest win of the season.

The 6’5” guard is up from 11 to 19.6 points per game in his second college season, while also posting 5.7 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game. The jarring stats are his efficiency: He’s shooting 56 percent from the field and 45 percent from three on 3.6 attempts per outing. (He’s only a 66.3 percent career free throw shooter, but is getting there six times per game, doubling his freshman tally.)

Culver torched Duke for 25 points, six rebounds and four assists, while shooting 9-of-21 from the field and 4-of-9 from three. He’s also one that I can personally see fitting perfectly with the Nets’ style of play because of his size, versatility, ability to shoot from the perimeter, poise and apparent high character, according to his head coach Chris Beard.

“He’s one of the best guys in college basketball. The secret is out,” said Beard. “Jarrett Culver is a great player. And, what makes him really special is the kind of person he is, his character. He’s the real deal. The guy is like an old school student of the game. He’s in the film room more than anybody I’ve ever coached. He always wants to get better. He’s that fine balance between confident and killer, but he’s also the nicest guy in the world. He’s going to kill you in one-on-one at 10:30am on Sunday then he’s going to help you go to church at 11:15. He’s special.”

Coach K – who isn’t easy to impress – agreed.

“Culver’s the real deal,” he later added, with a head nod of approval. “We played our butts off to try to stop him. We went up and he scored about five straight points. That was the key moment like, ‘Could we come back?’ Because this kid just put them on his back. Really good player, smooth, really smooth. It’d be interesting what he’d do with a true point guard. He’s gonna be a pro.”

Coach K added that he doesn’t know Culver, but says he, ‘seems like a great kid and would be a great kid to coach.’