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While trying to contend ... and survive, Nets see young players’ development as crucial

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Franca v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

The Nets built this year’s roster to (eventually) contend, signing three players off the 2016 Olympic basketball team while filling out the roster with respected veterans like Garrett Temple, Wilson Chandler and now Iman Shumpert.

But they haven’t given up on development, which is a big reason Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving decided to sign the Nets in the first place. Now with so many injuries, that development is getting sped up.

So, Brooklyn has five players 22 or under. From youngest to oldest, that’s Dzanan Musa, Nicolas Claxton, Jarrett Allen, Rodions Kurucs and Henry Ellenson, one of their two-ways. Developing them, helping them make the next step, is critical to both this year’s and next year’s team.

And to a certain degree, Kenny Atkinson is playing the development game because he has to. With Kevin Durant expected to miss the entire season, Caris LeVert out a month and now Kyrie Irving day-to-day, everyone is getting minutes.

Tom Dowd of the Nets focused on two players who’ve stepped up, the team’s two youngest players, 20-year-olds Musa and Claxton. Both are skilled players with heady BBIQ’s and are starting to get minutes, replacing the Nets wounded stars.

“I’ve got to keep reminding myself, let’s trust these guys, trust your development program, trust your young guys,” Atkinson said the other day. “I’m not sure I’ve done a great job of that so far. I have to trust them because they’ve done the work, they know the program, they know what we’re doing. Trust them.”

Musa and Claxton have a big of a chip on their shoulders. Musa hardly played last season —39 minutes to be exact — while starring in the Long Island Nets run to the G League title game. At 6’9,” he can more than one position, something the Nets need desperately right now.

“To be honest, I knew that time would come soon for me to be in the rotation,” Musa told Dowd. “I was ready because I went to the practices. Every game day I was working hard in the extra work group. I was just ready. You’ve got to have that mentality. I have that mentality which I just want to play and I want to do anything that’s in my power to do that.”

“We need his scoring on that second unit now, with no Caris,” Atkinson explained. “You can’t just have Spencer out there taking every possession.” We’re going to need Musa to play well.”

Claxton, on the other hand, is more a work-in-progress. He has the skills, athleticism and height, a quarter inch short of 7-foot, Like Musa, he’s needed with all the injuries, but as Atkinson says, he’s too skilled to leave on the bench or in the G League, no matter what. His chip has to do with having to wait till the second round to get drafted.

“Well, we’re playing him at the 4, the power forward position,” Atkinson told Dowd. “Maybe stylistically it’s not exactly what we want system-wise. It doesn’t matter. We need his talent. He can affect the game in other ways. Another guy that’s not afraid to shoot it. At Georgia, he shot a ton of threes. I think he’s capable. He does everything we ask him, we need his rebounding, we need his ability to run the floor. His rebounding is huge, offensive rebounding, he’s defensively hard to finish on.

“So, take all those positives and the talent and with our absences, he needs to play and he will play.”

While the Nets two youngest players, Musa and Claxton, are currently getting big(ger) minutes, there may be other young players on the roster who’ll get more playing time till the team gets healthier. That includes Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, one of the Nets two-ways who can play at the 2 or 3 and is a scorer.

“You have injuries. You have to be able to overcome them. That’s why you have to have a deep roster,” Atkinson said prior to the Pacers game. “Your development of your end of the roster is so important. That’s why those guys are so important. Your G League is huge. We’ll have (Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot) active tonight. We need more depth and more players to be able to supplant some of our absences.”

TLC is 24, a few months older than Theo Pinson who’s also getting minutes now as a back-up point guard, coming off the bench behind Spencer Dinwiddie.

“My teammates give me the confidence to go out and play aggressive,” the second year player told Dowd. “They just told me to be myself. They saw what I did in training camp. Even carrying over from last year on Long Island, they wanted me to carry that over to here, just being aggressive, and I tried to do that tonight.”

Not every young player has shown growth. Pinson has been up-and-down. Rodions Kurucs, the Nets fourth youngest player at 21, has regressed and it’s hard to tell at this point what Ellenson can provide.

Still, the Nets will need virtually of their young players to step up if they’re going to win with their three best players out. “Every night, this is a tough league,” Atkinson said.