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Survive and adapt, a marksman’s metamorphosis

Philadelphia 76ers v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

After four years with the Portland Trail Blazers — and nearly a Brooklyn Net a season earlier— Crabbe wound up calling Barclays Center his home this past July.

From the moment Sean Marks offered (and Crabbe signed) a four-year, $75 million offer sheet in July 2016, to 65 hours later when the Blazers matched it to the this past July that the Nets traded for him, the Nets believed in Crabbe, believed he would assume a much larger role than he did in Oregon.

The key was getting Crabbe to accept what most players want, the green light. No more deferring to Damian Lillard or C.J. McCollum. The light clicked on when he joined Brooklyn, and everything, for him at least, changed. But it took some time, and some adjustment.

“That mindset changes you. You’re just more aggressive, more assertive. Sometimes within that (Portland) offense you’re looking for certain guys to throw them the ball, but now it’s like ‘now, I can step into that role and I can take those shots now,’” he said last week. “That’s one of the biggest reasons I wanted to come over here as well, just to have that opportunity to start. I just feel like nobody should be complacent with just a sixth man role. My dreams are bigger than that; to be a starter and prove that I could be a starter.”

Initially, even strangely, Crabbe didn’t take as much advantage of the situation as you’d expect. From day one, Kenny Atkinson has been adamant that Crabbe shoot more. Lately, he has, and the Nets’ trust had been rewarded, but even still, he continues to adjust. He hasn’t had this much offensive freedom since college, and the team knows that to get out of the NBA’s basement, not only Crabbe’s shooting, his aggressiveness, plays a critical role.

“Yeah that’s huge for us,” said teammate Caris LeVert, regarding Crabbe’s contributions. “He spaces the floor for us so well. People can’t help off of him, and when they do he’s knocking them down, and then defensively he’s been really good as well. He was guarding (Nicholas) Batum the other day and he (Batum) was pretty much a non-factor the whole game.”

Crabbe’s game has elevated. He’s averaging nightly career-highs off the board including in points (12.6), rebounds (4.0), field goal attempts (11.1) and three-point attempts (7.0), the last one nearly doubling his previous best of 3.8. But his three-point percentage, while still very respectable at 36.2 percent, has greatly dropped off from 44.4 percent last season, when it was second-best in the NBA.

But Atkinson and the organization hasn’t wavered in their demand for a bombs-away attitude from Crabbe. He attempted 16 shots per game in 11 contests between February 7 and March 8, before only jacking up four against the Philadelphia 76ers and five vs. the Toronto Raptors. An indication he’ still adjusting?

“I think that’s the growth for him. He’s really become much more aggressive as the season has gone on,” said Kenny Atkinson. “He had really good stretches, but that’s what separates the good from the great in this league – can you do it consistently? That’s a growth area for him. I think it’s mental. I think as the games come in and different coverages, different guys covering you, for him, I think now he’s playing – in Portland he was playing against backups – but now you’re playing against starters all of the time and elite defenders. Physically, he’s got to make strides there too to be consistent. Just get stronger. He’s making strides, but he’s got a ways to go.”

So for Crabbe, it’s still transitional. He simplified his situation, stripping it down by saying, forget about the shooting percentages, attempts and things of that nature. He sees himself as fortunate to be an NBA starter.

“I think it’s just opportunity. I found myself doing somethings that I wouldn’t have done in the past,” he said this past Saturday. “For them (the Nets) to challenge me night in and night out as a starter, I sat down and I told them my goals that I want to achieve while I’m here in the NBA and we have a great coaching staff in front of us to help me get to that level and they believe in me, so I’m just not taking this opportunity for granted.

“Just coming in each and every day trying to prove my worth and prove what they invested into me. I feel like that’s what I owe them back, but just this opportunity that I have now is once in a lifetime. Not many guys get to have that opportunity to go from a sixth man to come into a starting role. Each and every day, each and every game, I just want to take advantage of this opportunity and show that I’m ready.”

But for now, Crabbe’s aim is beyond nylon, it’s living up to the Nets challenges and exceeding expectations. Throughout the process, Atkinson’s found different ways to keep one of ‘his guys’ motivated.

“Yeah, I think I’ve thrown a few articles his way – just encouraging him [like] ‘shot volume has to go up,’” said coach Atkinson. “If that means a few bad ones, he’s the one, Joe’s the same way, the exceptions. Because they are elite shooters, 40 percent shooters, they have freedom to be more aggressive.”

Crabbe does have one immediate goal. Eight more 3-pointers and he supplants Deron Williams as the franchise’s record holder for made three’s (169) in a single-season.

“I don’t really pay much attention to it,” Crabbe said after Saturday’s practice at HSS Training Center. “Friends and family, they’re the ones who like to read the articles and look up all these stats on me and stuff. I just come in and play basketball; keep trying to develop myself as a basketball player, do what I can to help the team win.”