The loudest, most common, and, truthfully, most justified complaint about the 2018-19 Brooklyn Nets roster was the glaring, sometimes downright offensive lack of a stretch 4. Kenny Atkinson’s offense is one set up to work best with pace, space, and versatile players.
Despite performing admirably, the team had a set ceiling when trotting out Rodions Kurucs, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Treveon Graham, Jared Dudley, and DeMarre Carroll to fit them into the stretch 4 mold.
What did the Nets do to address this issue? They went out and signed maybe the most stretchy 7-footer to ever play the game of basketball. Now, that’s a response!
The catch? He’s hurt. We’re not going to see him on the court for a hot minute, and in his absence, the Nets are going to have to figure out how to maximize the talent on their roster in order to get the team humming along at a high level of play. Who might Coach Atkinson turn to in a time like this? How about the guy who started 46 games on a playoff team as a 20-year old rookie and a 25-year old sharpshooter from Atlanta looking to make a splash in his new city?
Standing at 6’9” (6’10” in sneakers) and 6’8” respectively, Rodions Kurucs and Taurean Prince make for a solid pairing on the wings ... and in the front court. Kurucs, who is still just 21 years old, showed signs of potential last season during his rookie campaign.
The (undisputed) best Latvian basketball player in New York shot 45/31/78 for the year while playing a full season of high-level organized basketball for essentially the first time. Remember, he came from Europe where FC Barcelona buried him before he could get any meaningful time with the big club. Considering how young he is, younger than 2019 No. 4 overall pick De’Andre Hunter, Kurucs has a lot of professional growth ahead of him.
His shot is consistent and sound mechanically. Watching him shoot doesn’t produce grimaces or “oh no!”’s, and it’s clear that on some nights he has touch on his shots and others he’s forcing it. That will improve. He has a natural feel for the entire game of basketball in a way that a lot of European players tend to possess ... for whatever reason. He’s a deft passer, a devastating cutter, and gives solid effort on the defensive end. Moreover, as reporters who attended Summer League wrote, he’s put on weight, looks stronger.
A lineup looking something like, say, Kyrie Irving, Caris LeVert, Joe Harris, Rodions Kurucs, and Jarrett Allen would be not only familiar, but effective. The Nets two main centers, Allen and DeAndre Jordan, can’t shoot threes, although both say are practicing them.
Still, even without them heading to the corners, we’ll see a lot of four-out lineups not only because that’s the way the NBA goes nowadays, but also because it’s necessary considering the roster construction of the Brooklyn Nets.
If there’s something Kurucs needs to improve in order to become a legitimate stretch 4 other than his 3-point shot, it’s rebounding. Not that the Nets have any sort of a lack of rebounders considering that’s what DeAndre Jordan is essentially being paid to do and Jarrett Allen grabbed 11.5 boards per-36 last season.
But if the Nets are going forward with this crew at the 4, then Kurucs might need to step his game up a bit. He averaged only 6.3 rebounds per 36. We know he can he physical and he’s never afraid to rough it up a bit, gathering a reputation for simply being annoying. So translating some of that physicality to boxing out might be a smart idea.
Same with Taurean Prince. Prince stands about an inch shorter than his teammate, is an even less effective rebounder with an average of just 3.8 per game for his career, 4.6 per 36 last season. He is, however, a more polished offensive weapon. In the first three years of his career, “His Highness” improved his 3-point shooting from 32 to 38 percent, and finally up to 39 last season. Very good!! There isn’t a team in the league that wouldn’t benefit from a 39 percent 3-point shooter on the wing.
Prince is going to have a green light under Atkinson, so his 5.7 attempts per game stand to see an increase. If that’s the case, maintaining a high-30’s shooting percentage would be a very big deal. Imagine again a hypothetical lineup of Kyrie Irving, Caris LeVert, Joe Harris, Taurean Prince, and Rodions Kurucs. That group is super small and probably only effective in brief spurts, but that lineup can also be seen as 3-point shooting percentages of 40, 31 , 47, 39, and 31 from three. Deadly if deployed at the right time.
Last season, the trio of Carroll, Dudley, and Graham tried their best to fill in big gaps on both sides of the ball. Maybe it isn’t quite fair to lump Carroll into this category, but at times his age did show, and the three of those guys brought more heart and grit than talent and athleticism. Which is valuable, but the new-look Nets are sleeker, slimmer, faster, and better, all descriptors that should fit well in a pace-and-space offense headed by a wizard-like point guard and coached by a man who seems hellbent on having his team taking as many open three’s as humanly possible. From the corners, from the top of the key. Wherever!
Now, having two solid options at the 4 spot is nice, but with neither of them having proved very much at that position yet, Brooklyn might need to turn to some depth at some point. Start with Wilson Chandler, who’s played the 3 and 4. He may be 32 but like Carroll before him, Chandler played well for both Philly and the Clippers last year. He was a rotation player in Philly and his numbers there should make Nets fans feel more comfortable. He started 32 of the 36 games he played for the Sixers, shot 39 percent from deep and averaged 6.4 boards per 36 minutes. At the worst, Chandler looks like at least a solid replacement for Dudley.
Then, there’s Nic Claxton. The Nets have made their bones in the last few seasons by finding draft steals, and Claxton looks poised to take the belt from Kurucs. A slim 6’11, Claxton is a more traditionally sized big who moves fluidly and is both long and athletic enough to factor into any sort of rebounding or alley-oop situation.
He’s sort of reminiscent of Jarrett Allen in one way, different in others. He may be a quarter-inch shy of seven foot (and thus the tallest Net), athletic, skinny and a very serious athlete like Allen, but he’s also more accomplished as a shooter and can handle the ball, having been a point guard in high school. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Georgia coach Tom Crean used Claxton as his playmaker last year with some success. It’s why Sean Marks said that the kid “intrigued” him (and had him a lot higher than No. 31 where the Nets took him.)
Bottom line for now: Claxton wasn’t afraid of taking threes in college which means he’s been in the HSS Training Center getting up shots all summer. So, the state of his jump shot is most likely in flux. And so, if the Nets want to go big and throw him and Allen out there together, there shouldn’t be too much of a spacing issue. Of course, it might now happen. Claxton is likely to spend more time in Long Island this year (and of course, we thought that about Allen and Kurucs!)
All of these options are solid, but maybe not the flashiest picks for a starting big man, the stretch 4 savior. That’s fine because you must remember, the Nets just need someone to hold down the fort until Kevin Durant, career 49/38/88 shooter, and one of the best scorers the NBA has ever seen, comes back.
At that point, everyone else will be bumped down a spot, and all of a sudden Prince is going to become one of the better backup wings in the league rather than just a solid starter. Kurucs and Claxton will be getting valuable tips from a player both of them have said they idolize. Can’t hurt.
For the time being, however long that is, Brooklyn is going to have to work out a system using the tools they have at their disposal which, even without Durant, look to be an improvement over last year’s big man rotation.