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The Development Game: It HAS to work

HSS Training Center - Kat Przybala

Jarrett Allen turns 20 Saturday. He’s no longer a teenager, and no longer a rookie either. He now has a year under his belt as an NBA player. He likes how things have worked out.

“I remember when I first walked in to meet Kenny and Sean it was me and my family, and Kenny had a meeting with all of us and they just told me how invested they were in me. The vision they had for me.

“They even talked to my family and told them all of that, so you feel a sense of being wanted, being a part of what they’re building here. It seems like a big part of the culture here,” said Allen in an interview with NetsDaily.

Some might call that culture, and that would please Atkinson and Marks, but it’s part of the team’s development strategy as well. Development, at least with the Nets, isn’t just about improving free throw shooting (although Allen had a huge jump from his time at Texas) or shot blocking technique (although he did lead all rookies in that category) or any other aspect of his game. It’s about the whole player... and for the most part, it’s worked. It has to.

The Nets employ a performance team led by Zach Weatherford, an analytics team lead by Glenn DuPaul; and a player development team led by Adam Harrington (who’s also the team’s shooting specialist). The Nets are also lucky to be working with a medical staff headed by Dr. Riley J. Williams III. He and Dr. Martin O’Malley are among the best orthopedic surgeons not just in New York, but the world of sports. There are also professionals on the outside who can be called upon when needed, like Paul Groenewal, the team’s sports psychologist.

Not to mention the G-League with its own development regimens and goals. It is a big investment in personnel and resources.

Each of those teams play a role in the development process, as does tender loving care from the coaching staff. Caris LeVert, for example, has a close relationship with Jacque Vaughn, the lead assistant and defensive specialist when he was in the League (including a stint as Jason Kidd’s back-up)

“That’s pretty cool honestly,” D’Angelo Russell told Tom Dowd of the Nets, talking about players and coaches. “Not the fact of having that many coaches, but as far as knowing there’s some type of security and there’s going to be repetitive guidance from a coach that you know you’re going to be around, I think it’s great.”

Russell, who’s played for five different coaches in the last five years, has also noted that he likes that Atkinson gets down and dirty with the players, participating in practices.

The players also note that the different aspects of the development process are integrated.

Said Harris, “A lot of that is the emphasis that Sean and Kenny have put on skill development and individual development. I’m a byproduct of that, as is Caris, Rondae, Spencer. We’re all here and got a lot better. We improved from a skills standpoint, but then physically our performance staff did a good job as well making improvements athletically and from a health standpoint.”

“The program’s great,” said Hollis-Jefferson. “Just the structure, the organization, everything that they have in place is phenomenal and we believe in it. I think that’s the biggest part, believing and trusting in a process, which makes things a lot easier for their side and ours. Because when you’re aligned, I feel like that’s when you get the best out of everything.”

RHJ, in fact, benefited from one of the underrated and understated aspects of the development regimen, the sports psychologist.

“People can tell you a million things about how to react when they’re stable, when they’re calm, when their heart rate is low,” Hollis-Jefferson said back in October. “But when their adrenaline is rushing and when the game’s on the line, how many people can tell you how to react to that?

“So pretty much getting some people that went through it and understand it, talking to them and then talking to therapist has helped.”

Players are also bombarded with a steady stream of data, pointing out subtle issues for them to improve. On “baggie day” last Thursday, each player met not just with Atkinson and Marks, but with the analytics team who gave them a personalized look at where they improved in the past year, what they need to work on.

As Marks has said, “We use analytics on a daily basis, on an hourly basis.”

This year also saw the G-League take more prominence in development with the addition of the two-way players. The Nets got a look at Milton Doyle, who went from a non-entity at the NBA Draft to one of the top players in the G-League, getting better numbers in Long Island than in college at Loyola Chicago.

The organization also had Isaiah Whitehead on an extended assignment with the G-League Nets to get minutes, confidence and an opportunity to stretch his game. He spent a lot of time at the 3 and developed a scorer’s mentality. No more yo-yoing. The Nets kept him there and by season’s end, he was arguably the best player in the G-League, averaging 32 points during the team’s stretch run.

For the Nets, with their lack of draft picks, turning “fallen angels” or “diamonds in the rough” into NBA rotation players is critical. They have to do it.

“If you want to call some of them diamonds in the rough or so forth, but I don’t think we can argue with what Kenny and the staff have done in terms of developing talent,” Marks said earlier this week.

The real development lab, of course, is the off-season training and skills development at HSS Training Center. NBA teams can’t require players to spend time working out, but they can “encourage” it, and the Nets do.

Said Atkinson at the same press conference: “Whether it’s D’Angelo or Jarrett or Allen, they’re going to say ‘Man, I’m going to buy into this.’ The proof will be in the pudding when we start next year’s preseason and we talk about the commitment and buy-in, but I expect full commitment.

“That’s the feedback we got in exit interviews, that’s the type of guy we collectively brought in here that buy into the whole program. So I expect full participation, enthusiasm for what we’re trying to do here in the off-season from all those guys.”

LeVert probably spent the most time last year at HSS. Key players like Allen Crabbe, D’Angelo Russell and Jarrett Allen didn’t join in until July following injury rehab, trades and the draft. LeVert likes the way things worked out.

“Obviously we’re really big with player development here,” LeVert told Dowd. “And you can see that with the guys on the team. You know how everybody’s developed. And they do it in a really positive way, a really fun way. And obviously Kenny’s a really good coach. So going forward we can’t wait to continue to get better and continue to get better with that theme and see where it takes us.”