Sean Marks, despite having all those draft picks zapped away from him by various GM’s over what felt like a decade, has done a pretty, pretty good job at digging out young talent when he’s had the opportunity.
Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen were first round picks who became starters on a playoff team this season. Very cool! You know who else was a Nets draft pick and started in the playoffs? Rodions Kurucs, who was taken in the second round! Yes, you read that correctly, three of the Nets five starters were picks Marks acquired to make up for all that history ... and ironically, this is also the first season when they control their own first rounder since, oh, maybe 1987 (Okay, it’s really 2013, but man it felt way longer).
Kurucs was one of three rookies who saw time in Brooklyn where he was occasionally joined by Dzanan Musa and Theo Pinson, who spent most of their time out on the Island. Each of the three had their own unique first-year experiences.
Let’s get into it.
When Dzanan Musa was selected with the 29th pick of the first round, plenty of us had no idea what to expect. His name had popped up on draft boards and after some YouTube scouting it seemed as if he was a raw but potentially electric talent with a great natural feel for the game who also had a lot of weight to gain and a lot of NBA basketball to learn. All of that remains true.
The young Bosnian played almost his entire season in the G-League and put up some impressive numbers. Musa who at 19 was the seventh youngest player in the NBA this season and second youngest in the G League averaged 19.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 2.3 threes, while shooting 43.9 percent overall from the floor, 35.5 percent from three, and 79.3 from the line. That is a well rounded stat sheet and speaks a ton of potential. Dzanan is something in-between a point guard, a shooting guard, and a wing. He’s 6’9 and lanky, but his ball handling skills and court vision make him very much an on-ball facilitator. In fact, his coach, Will Weaver, said he was the best passer in the G League.
It isn’t hard to envision Dzanan, who just turned 20 on May 8th (Happy Birthday!), easing himself into a bench role in the NBA next season. Playing in the NBA at 19 is hard and let’s not forget he had two injuries that cost him nearly two months, a sprained ankle before the season and separated shoulder in December.
Still, anytime anyone does it with success we all freak out and go “holy crap he’s only nineteen?!” So, it shouldn’t be too big a knock against Musa that he spent a year getting used to both American basketball and America in general. He first came to the U.S. three before the Draft!
It is, however, worth considering whether he might be on the Nets next season or not. Heading into a crucial offseason, it seems as if basically every Net could wind up playing in a different uniform next year. The untouchable locks are who? Caris LeVert? Maybe Jarrett Allen? And still it might make sense to trade those guys for someone like Anthony Davis if Marks is feeling frisky. What I’m saying is that the Nets are about to embark on a franchise- defining summer and Musa, with his lack of experience and abundance of potential, makes for an interesting trade asset, particularly when you’re trying to dump a contract like Allen Crabbe’s.
All that said, here’s his G League highlights...
With the 40th pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, the Brooklyn Nets selected Rodions Kurucs, from Cesis, Latvia and FC Barcelona. It worked. After being even more of an unknown than Musa Kurucs had virtually no resume outside some grainy FIBA clips. Barcelona didn’t like that he had NBA ambitions so exiled him to the Spanish equivalent of the G League. He played a grand total of 43 minutes for Barca. Kenny Atkinson has credited Gianluca Pascucci, the Nets director of global scouting, for finding him ... and pushing him hard.
Kurucs, who’s 6’9 3/4” in sneakers ... so 6’10”, played in 63 games his rookie season, starting 46 of them and cementing himself as an important long-term piece both on and off the court for the scrappy Brooklyn Nets. Enter Kurucs, who is also a delight of a player, but will piss off just about anyone and everyone who he deems to be in his way, whether it’s established players like Brook Lopez and Vince Carter or fellow rookie, Jonah Bolden in the playoffs. The Bolden confrontation was our favorite.
Elbows will be thrown, box outs will be a little harder than they need be, screens will hurt. Glares will be exchanged. We love it. In addition to being the Nets best option for a starting stretch -4, scoring 8.5 points per game— with respectable 45/31/79 shooting splits, Kurucs can rough it up. Every good team needs a little bit of an edge, and that was possibly Rodi’s most important contribution to the team in his first year in the league.
On December 5th, right at the tail-end of the infamous Losing Streak, Rodions sat against the Thunder. I wrote this in my next Game Preview:
Let’s talk about what I’m sure plenty of us are here to talk about, which is the fact that Rodions Kurucs didn’t play a moment against the Thunder. Not a lick. He was once again glued — infuriatingly glued — to the bench by Kenny Atkinson and while I don’t think he should’ve all of a sudden been thrown out there in crunch time to try and save the game, I feel like that when the Nets had solid leads in the second and third quarters, it could’ve been a good time for the kid to get some run.
Rodions was inserted back into the rotation the very next game, and from that point on the Nets went 35-28, made the playoffs as the six seed in the Eastern Conference and generally proved to the league, and more importantly all of us, that the team Markinson has been building might actually work. Coincidence? Partially, probably. But Rodions has always allowed Kenny’s offense and defense to work in the way it’s supposed to, rather than retrofitting it to someone slower like Jared Dudley.
Kurucs can run, he gets out on breaks and gets back on defense, he can get to his spots on the court which are often the corners, and although he can initiate basically zero offense on-ball, he’s a smart cutter with very few reservations about taking someone head-on and getting to the basket.
Of course, he made rookie mistakes, or he’d just sort of clank a really makeable shot, or he’d force a bad pass on a break where he got a little too excited. That’s the kind of stuff that happens when a 20-year-old plays basketball in the NBA for the first time. His game, as he gets older and more mature and more comfortable, will become more refined and evolved. Those passes will find their targets and those shots will go in, and he’ll draw that foul instead of that charge.
Kurucs and Musa both have four-year rookie deals, Musa with team options in years 3 and 4 and Kurucs with one in year 4. So they’re both enormously cheap talent going forward. If one of your playoff starters can make $1.6 million a year, there’s a lot more money to go around to pay the other four guys.
We couldn’t find a good highlight reel for Kurucs, but we liked his debut as a Nets rookie in a preseason match-up with the Knicks. If you were in the stands that right, you knew the Nets had something. And yes, there is someone lying on the floor.
UPDATE: On Monday, the Nets posted video of his best five games.
Theo Pinson danced his way into our hearts this season, cementing himself as one of the best chemistry guys in the entire league. He’s emotive, he’s energetic, and he’s a blast to watch on the sidelines. He is, also, a basketball player! And a pretty promising one too!
The Nets signed Pinson after he went undrafted. How much did they like him? The week before the Draft, the Nets called his agent and told him that they were interested in signing him if he survived the Draft. Then, on Draft night, before the second round was even over, they called again!
The Nets were hoping that his four-year experience at UNC and raw athletic tools could be crafted into a useful player. So far, the project is on the right track. Pinson shot 25 percent from three during his time at UNC, including 22.7 percent his senior year. And in one season in the G-League he bumped that number all the way up to 38.5 percent on 8.1 attempts per game. He finished second in the G League Rookie of The Year and made second team All-G League. Not bad!
Theo also hit a game-winning three with three-tenths of a second left to send Long Island to the G-League championship, and he scored 19 points and hit three three-pointers against the Knicks one night in January when the Nets were criminally understaffed. He shows up when he needs to.
So how do the Nets see Theo (or is now Three-O)? One might think ... 6’7”, 215-ish ... sounds like a traditionally sized shooting guard and now with his improved jumper he can actually fulfill that destiny. He’s essentially the same size as Joe Harris, maybe a little longer with a worse center of gravity, but he also has some impressive athleticism.
Not so fast. The Nets like him as more of a 1. They appreciated his background as a facilitator (and defender) at North Carolina. They love his energy.
We’ve seen the Nets turn cast-offs into rotation players before, and Pinson seems to be on that track. Granted, the leap from the G-League to the NBA is significant, and if Pinson doesn’t make it soon he might just get stuck down there in perpetuity. He’s already 23 and a half, which is older than Jarrett Allen, D’Angelo Russell, Musa, and Kurucs.
Theo was on a two-way deal last season, getting a standard NBA contract on the last day of the regular season. Preserving as much flexibility as they can, the Nets didn’t extend him beyond June 30, but he is a restricted free agent and so they can retain him on what will probably be a vets minimum deal ... or let him walk if they can’t fit him into a newly drawn roster.
They do know what he can do from his 19-point, eight-assist game vs. the Knicks. As Kenny Atkinson said near the end of the season, without Pinson, the Nets don’t win the game and may not make the playoffs. Here are the highlights...
With all three of these guys, the money they make ends up being one of their most valuable assets as players right now.
If Brooklyn really wants to go out and spend money on big free agents, they aren’t going to have the cap space to build out a deep roster like the one they had this season. That means potentially no more Ed Davis or DeMarre Carroll, cheap talent is absolutely necessary for teams over the cap.
Kevon Looney just played crunch-time playoff minutes for the Warriors because their only bench option was Boogie Cousins, who is unsurprisingly but devastatingly injured. You need rookie-scale talent if you want to succeed as a high-salary playoff team in the NBA, and the Nets have gone out and found themselves one guy who is a clear lock to be a rotation player at the very least for the foreseeable future in Kurucs, and a couple more projects that could pan out in the same vein as Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris.
Sometimes it doesn’t matter where your draft pick is, as long as you make it count.