The Nets two draft stashes, Juan Pablo Vaulet and Aleksandar Vezenkov, have had their up’s and down’s this season. Vaulet is showing some improvement at Bahia Blanca in Argentina after his latest ankle surgery but Vezenkov has been stuck on the bench at F.C. Barcelona ... until now.
The 6’7” Vaulet was a prize acquisition of Billy King and and his assistant, Frank Zanin. On the night of the 2015 Draft, the Nets sent Charlotte two second rounders and $880,000 so they could take the then 19-year-old at No. 39. (The Heat’s Josh Richardson was taken one spot later.) Angular and athletic, Nets officials internally —and optimistically— referred to him as “the next Manu,” a reference to fellow Argentine Manu Ginobili. His coach at Bahia Blanca is Sebastian Ginobili, Manu’s brother.
But JPV, as he’s known in Argentina, had injury issues even before the Nets drafted him. He had missed 17 months to left ankle surgery, returning a few months before the draft. Then, literally days after the Nets took him, he went down again at a FIBA U19 competition in Greece. Vaulet suffered a stress fracture just above his right ankle and had to undergo surgery again, missing much of the next season and thwarting Nets plans to play him in summer league, then bring him to Brooklyn. Last June, he had an additional, less serious surgery to the right ankle. Although he’s been playing, he admits he’s not yet fully recovered.
“As the games go by, I feel better and better, eager to play and contribute my bit to the team,” said Vaulet in an interview with his team’s website last week. “The injuries taught me several things, like taking care of myself, working on my weaknesses and personal attention. Until one is injured, it detracts from care, rest and training conscientiously. I really enjoy being on the court.”
He hasn’t been playing many minutes, but his numbers are up. His shooting has improved this year, perhaps a credit to the week he spent with the Nets development and performance teams last January. In 15 games, he’s averaging 9.3 points in 23 minutes, shooting 52 percent on his 2-point shots, 31% on his 3-pointers and nearly 75 percent on his free throws. The biggest improvement has been in his foul shooting, which had always been around 50 percent. He’s also improved his rebounding.
Francisco Pedernera, an Argentine blogger and basketball scout, says Vaulet’s biggest asset, his athleticism, isn’t yet what it was before his last surgery, but he’s hopeful.
“He’s not at the maximum of his physical condition yet,” Pedernera said. “But he will be I soon. I see him coming back to his best physical form and that’s critical for him him.”
Do the Nets see him as an NBA prospect? Hard to tell. They did bring him up last year and had him spend a week with the team ... even went on two road trips. We’ll probably find out at the end of this season. The Bahia Blanca owner, former NBA point guard Pepe Sanchez, has lobbied the Nets to give him a G-League deal. The Nets have never publicly reacted (and wouldn’t even confirm his visit!)
Meanwhile in Barcelona, there’s big news for Vezenkov. His coach, Sito Alonso, was fired Monday and that can only be good news for the 6’9” forward. Alonso has played with Vezenkov’s emotions all season, giving the elite shooter minutes early, then without much explanation, benching him for 51 days. He didn’t play, wasn’t active despite his deep shooting skills. Indeed, Sean Marks has called him an elite shooter.
Then, Alonso brought him back, gave him big minutes for a few games and Vezenkov produced. His minutes declined, then dropped to zero again as Alonso experimented with different lineups.
Last week, Nets assistant GM Trajan Langdon came to Barcelona, apparently to check up on Vezenkov and scout draft prospect Rodions Kurucs, another 6’9” forward who the Nets have been interested in. Alonso decided not to play Vezenkov and Langdon had to move on.
To make matters worse, despite his lack of minutes, Barca refused to let Vezenkov play for Bulgaria in the FIBA European World Cup qualifiers later this month. Without their best player, Bulgaria is unlikely to qualify.
Now, he has a new coach, Alfred Julbe, who’s familiar with Vezenkov’s talents, having coached Barcelona’s junior team. It’s not known if the Nets stash will now get minutes. He hasn’t publicly complained about his situation or his now former coach.
Could the Nets rescue Vezenkov? He is in the second year of a three-year deal with Barca. The Nets had intended to keep him in Europe for a year or two. He’s only 22. Brooklyn could buy him out. His buyout package reportedly is one million euro’s or about $1.25 million. Of that total, the Nets can pay $700,000 without it affecting their salary cap. They could pay the remainder to him as a signing bonus, but it would go against the cap. Or Vezenkov could pay it himself.
It’s hard to measure Vezenkov’s lost season. In his 12 Spanish league games, he’s shot 65.9 percent from 2-point range, 36.8 percent from beyond the arc, and 80 percent at the line. Expect a decision on him, too, at season’s end. You can never have too many shooters.