The Long Island Nets, the G League’s reigning Eastern Conference champions, are set to tip off the 2019-20 season Saturday night, playing the Indiana Pacers affiliate, Fort Wayne Mad Ants, at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum in the Indiana city.
As is often the case with the G League, Long Island has a new look. There’s no one back from the G League finalists. Long Island has a total of 12 new players that include Brooklyn’s two two-ways, Henry Ellenson and Timothe Luawau-Cabarrot and a cast drawn from players cut by the Nets, local tryout successes and draft picks from both the G League and NBA Drafts.
In addition to their mostly new roster, the team has a new head coach in Shaun Fein, who will be entering his fourth season with the Nets organization. Fein replaced Will Weaver, who is now the head coach of the Sydney Kings in Australia’s NBL. The Nets also elevated Matt Riccardi to general manager over the summer. He replaced Trajan Langdon who is now GM in New Orleans.
The Long Island roster reflects a bit of a change from previous years. Their two-way players aren’t fresh-faced rookies just out of college but instead players with a lot of NBA experience. And for the first time, the Nets have signed one of their draft picks directly to a G League contract.
In fact, no G League roster will have more NBA games under their collective belt than the young Nets. When Henry Ellenson plays, the roster will include players who’ve taken the NBA court more than 300 times, almost certainly a G League record.
Luwawu-Cabarrott has the ability and skill set to play multiple positions and be an asset in pick-and-rolls. In addition, TLC shot the three-ball at 33 percent with the Chicago Bulls last season. TLC gives Long Island the ability to spread the floor and can play everywhere from shooting guard to stretch 4.
“He is a skilled wing that can play multiple positions,” Fein noted. “He’s got good ball handling skills as well. Play him in the pick-and-roll and make some good reads out of that. I think the biggest thing for him is defensively. I think he has the size, strength, and the quickness to guard multiple positions. I think if he focuses on that, he could get the results he wants.”
Fein would know. The French forward is a former Fein teammate. Back in 2013 Luwawu-Cabarrot was a teenage prospect with Antibes in France while Fein served in a veteran role. (Isaia Cordinier, the Nets stash, was an even younger prospect at Antibes.)
Jaylen Hands, the 56th pick in the 2019 Draft, is likely the starting point guard. The 20-year-old UCLA product is getting chance to redeem himself. Two years ago, he was one of the top-rated high school players in the country, his mixtape getting more than a million page views. After an up-and-down two years in Westwood and being taken so late, Hands just wants to play.
“I am just playing,” Hands said. “Whatever minutes I have and whatever minutes the rest of my teammates have, we want to go out there and play the best of our ability, play, and not worry about all the extras.”
In fact, though, Hands is more than “just playing.” The 56th pick in the 2019 Draft is a top development priority for Fein and his staff.
Fein believes Hands has the talent but needs to learn the point guard position.
“We need to develop him this year in Long Island,” Fein said. “He is an explosive player, an explosive athlete, and he is still learning the point guard position. How to organize a team and what kind of sets we need to get into and where guys should be.
“So, there’s been a little learning curve for him at the point guard position. He is a great kid, wants to get better, wants to learn, and wants to dive into film. So, he is all about our development piece too and I think we will get him there.”
Devin Cannady is projected to be Long Island’s 3-point marksman. The former Princeton Tiger shot the three-ball at 40.3 percent during his three and a half collegiate seasons and plans on bringing that sharpshooting to Long Island.
“I like to have fun on the court,” Cannady said. “I am competitive, I like to win so I have a winning mentality. Mainly, I knock down three’s. I shoot at a high percentage in my high school and college career, looked the same coming in. Whatever my role is, I want to help this team win.”
He finished his senior season playing in a total of 16 games, starting in 15, posting his best college averages of 18.2 points, 5.8 rebounds, 1.7 assists, and 1.6 steals per game while shooting 50.6 percent from the field and 36 percent from three in 36.8 minutes per game. He has NBA range ... and is a guy you want on the line late. He finished his college career shooting 89.6 percent from three, 10th highest in NBA history.
John Egbunu is a player to watch during Saturday’s season opener. Egbunu is the only center listed on the opening night roster, with Ellenson, a 4/5 in Phoenix. At 6’11”, athletic and large, Egbunu is also looking for a new chance after an injury-plagued career at Florida. He is a native of Nigeria.
“I’m the spin-and-roll guy for the team,” Egbunu said. “For me, whatever the coaches need me to do, I am always up for the task. That’s how I like to describe my game. On a different night, coach might want me to do different stuff like rebounding, guarding the pick-and-roll at a high level, and stuff like that.”
Angel Nunez, the 6’8 forward who made the team after participating in a local player tryout, is a New York City baller —Washington Heights to be specific—who played at Louisville, Gonzaga and University of South Florida during his college career. Fein spoke highly of Nunez Wednesday, highlighting he is their small-ball five, if needed.
“Angel is a versatile player,” Fein said. “He can play the four position for us. He can spread the floor with his shooting, very long and athletic, he can guard multiple positions, and I can envision him being our small ball 5 if we need it.”
Then there are the two other players with NBA experience, C.J. Williams and Deng Adel, both of whom were in Nets camp.
Williams, a 6’5”, 230 pound wing, has split 63 NBA games with two teams —the Clippers and Timberwolves— as well as playing for three NBA G League teams. He knows his role will be the veteran presence on the roster. He turns 30 in February.
“One thing I have talked to everyone in this organization about is that I am the guy who has veteran experience,” Williams said. “So just mentor these guys and kind of help them walk through while getting better at basketball myself and getting the opportunity to play is big stuff.”
Deng Adel, 22, has been working consistently on shooting the three-ball. Adel, an athletic 6’7” wing, played 19 games in the NBA for the Cavaliers last season, but only averaged 0.3 3-point attempts per game. Adel knows he needs to add a consistent three-point shot to his in-game arsenal if he’s going to going to get back in the NBA.
“I want to be more consistent on the three and worked on that all summer long,” Adel said. “I think that making a lot of three’s, I’ve worked a lot of my playmaking, getting in the lane to make layups or being able to throw the lob or find guys on the perimeter. I just want to be more consistent in my play.”
Fein and the coaching staff with likely have him play at small forward or stretch 4 if he can master the three-ball. Adel, a native of South Sudan, is one of three African born players on the Nets roster along with Egbunu and Jonathan Kasababu who was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Winning vs. Development
When it comes to winning vs. development, the G League conundrum, Fein has repeatedly stated that Long Island is primarily focused on developing its young guys. Winning, he believes, will follow. But he added, while there will be no pressure to win ... but he expects to.
“So, I’m not putting any pressure on our guys on how many wins we are going to get,” Fein said. “Continually, day-by-day, we are going to get them better and then that will translate into success.”
“I’ve gotten to know the guys,” Fein told the Nets official website. “Some we had in Summer League. Some I’ve known before. Even over these last three or four days, we’ve gotten to talk a little bit.
“They understand our philosophy, how as an organization we want to do things. I think they’ve picked it up pretty quickly for the most part. Early on we could struggle a little bit just based on that we don’t have that continuity that we had on Long Island last year, lot of returners last year. They’ve picked up everything pretty quickly and they’ve seemed to jell and like each other and talk off the court, so we’ll be all right.”
Where to Follow Tonight’s Game
On Monday, the Nets will play their home opener at Nassau Coliseum vs. the College Park Skyhawks, also a 7 p.m. start. Among the players expected to start for the Hawks affiliate, former Net Allen Crabbe who’s on a rehab tour. Crabbe underwent knee surgery at the end of last season, then was traded to the Hawks in a salary dump. The Nets gave up two firsts and got Taurean Prince and a second rounder in return.
One player you’re not likely to see anytime soon is Nicolas Claxton, the Nets early second round pick. A lot of people thought he’d be playing a lot of minutes for Long Island, but heis at least for the moment part of Brooklyn’s rotation, scoring eight points and grabbing six rebounds in his 12-minute NBA debut Friday night.