Once again, Dzanan Musa finds himself the youngest player on the Nets. He’s three weeks younger than rookie Nicolas Claxton, two months younger than Jaylen Hands. He’s “rookie” with experience so to speak.
Musa admits freely that last season, his first, was frustrating to him. He had injuries to his ankle in September and to his shoulder in December which slowed his development. He also carried only 195 pounds on his 6’9” frame and needed to bulk up. And so, the seventh youngest player in the NBA last year was sent to Long Island for development. He played in only nine games with Brooklyn, 39 minutes.
A bit of a come down for a player who thought (as did the Nets) that he had lottery-level talent, who had been a national hero in Bosnia before winning three straight Croatian League titles with Cedevita. He had been, until he arrived in Brooklyn, a player made for the big moment. Now, he had to accept something less, a step-by-step process.
“It was tough. Now that it’s over, it was tough,” Musa told beat writers, including Michael Scotto of The Athletic. “I didn’t expect that at the beginning, but at the end when I realized how good the guys were next to me and how good of teammates I have, they helped me a lot throughout the season.
“I think the G League helped me mature a lot as a player and as a person,” Musa added. “I think every young player and draft prospect who comes in the NBA needs to expect some time in the G League. I think that’s a great thing for them. For me personally, it made me stronger.”
Musa averaged nearly 20 points to go along with 6.3 rebounds and 3.8 assists for Long Island. He shot 35.5 percent from deep. He was the second youngest player in the G League. Moreover, he came within one game of his fifth title in five years, losing in the G League championship. His coach, Will Weaver, said he thought Musa was the best passer in the G League and believed he understood his player’s frustration.
“You’d expect a 19-year-old to have a big, fast curve ... and he has,” Weaver said, smiling, back in February. “I think the hardest thing for any young person —and we had this conversation openly a few days ago— is that there’s no home run. There’s just nothing out there to swing for the fences on. It’s just single, single, single, single and it just adds up.”
So, the Bosnian star was paired with Shaun Fein, the Nets player development coordinator who played more than a decade in France. The Athletic’s Mike Scotto reports that Fein traveled with Musa to the Long Island training facility in Nassau County daily. The relationship was a big part of Musa’s growth. In an interview with NetsDaily in mid-season, Musa praised Fein’s work with him.
“If I have words, I would say that guy is amazing.” Musa said back in February. “Amazing,”
”He always stays calm. When we are nervous, anxious, he gets us up. Hes’a guy you want to have around all the time. Most important thing from the player-coach relationship is trust. So every guy on the club trusts him. Me personally, I am very thankful that I have the guy (working with me).”
Now, after a successful Summer League, Musa says he’s primed for his next step: making the Nets rotation.
“I’m ready,” Musa said. “I’m ready. Believe me, I’m ready. This time, when I realized that I have a chance to play in the NBA, I think that I’ve waited for that for 20 years and that I’m ready.”
Indeed, the player closest to him on the team says you could see Musa’s new maturity in the way he handled himself in Las Vegas.
“He’s been great,” Kurucs said, telling The Athletic. “You can see it now. He’s been scoring. He’s been improving his leadership. He’s tried to talk to everyone and help the players. That’s what I like a lot. Before, he wasn’t doing that. Now, he’s doing great. I like that he comes to me and explains something.”
There were other signs of maturity and leadership in Las Vegas. After the Nets beat the Croatian National Team, Musa took the team out to dinner.
“Six of them two years ago were my teammates in Cedevita. We had enough to talk before the game and take them to dinner tonight to boast because we beat them , “Musa said after the game.
Musa has long had to deal with criticisms that he’s arrogant, a criticism he doesn’t fully dismiss.
“I think I have a chip on my shoulder for many reasons because some people think I’m arrogant and I’m cocky,” Musa said to The Athletic. “My owner in my last club said that I’m an egomaniac. I agree with that. Even though I’m an egomaniac, I’m a team maniac. I like for my team to be the best team possible. I like for my teammates to be the best teammates possible. I’m a maniac about basketball.”
The Nets put aside those criticisms —may have even saw them as a positive— when the drafted him at No. 29. He had been penciled in as a lottery pick on the Nets internal mock draft, based on potential.
Indeed, it’s been his emotion that’s propelled him, sometimes too far. At age 16, he was a national hero, single-handedly taking his Bosnian U16 team to the FIBA Europe championship. He scored 33 points in a close game before collapsing on the floor at the buzzer.
The next night, more than 50,000 fans greeted the team in the streets of Sarajevo. In the night’s most emotional moment, Musa was introduced last on a balcony above the crowd. He thrust himself forward, holding the championship trophy high as the crowd exploded.
His emotions can have a down side as well. The next year, he and his Croatian League coach at Cedevita had a blowout and Musa left the team.
“I felt that this might be it,” Musa said. “I went home after a month of not playing. I was curious about what was going to happen with me. I had my family at that point, and my family stood up [behind} me. They really helped me get through that.”
He and Cedevita reconciled and his career was back on, but not before he listened to offers from Duke, North Carolina and Kentucky, he recalled. Instead, he stuck to his plan. It’s just been delayed a bit. He still has areas where he needs improvement before he can join the rotation.
“We wanted him to compete defensively,” Nets summer league coach Adam Harrington said. “As we know in the NBA, every night you’re guarding someone at a high level. He needs to use his size, length and athleticism to compete defensively and not get caught up on screens, or be flat-footed on the weak side. I think he’s gotten better.”
He’s also put on weight... he says close to 20 pounds in the last year.
Through it all, Musa says he’s had special motivation. Just after he was drafted, he met with Bizerka Petrovic, Drazen’s mother.
“She grabbed me in the face and said, ‘It’s going to be hard, believe me, it’s going to be hard, but you have to stay humble,’” The former Net great’s mother told him. “Drazen was crying one month in a row every night. But you have to stay humble. You have to stay true to yourself and don’t let anyone speak to you about anything. Stay focused, stay in your lane, and you will succeed.”
This will be the year, he believes, he can start to fulfill her prediction.
- On a lonely basketball journey since he was 11, Dzanan Musa is ready for a consistent NBA home - Michael Scotto - The Athletic New York