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For Long Island, it’s all about development and this year’s project is Henry Ellenson

Chris Milholen spoke with Long Island Nets new head coach Shaun Fein and new GM Matt Riccardi about the upcoming season. For Fein and Riccardi, the focus is on developing their players and staff and with development comes winning. 

Washington Wizards v New York Knicks Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Coming off an NBA G League Finals appearance last season, the Long Island Nets are filled with new faces and hopefully new talent. The turnover, as it is throughout the G League, is always going to be high ... and not just on the rosters.

Will Weaver, the head coach who led the team to the Finals, is now the head coach of the Sydney Kings of the NBL in Australia while Trajan Langdon, the former general manager, is now the general manager of the New Orleans Pelicans working under David Griffin, the executive vice-president of basketball operations. They were the G League’s coach and executive of the year.

With Weaver and Langdon moving on, Sean Marks chose Shaun Fein and Matt Riccardi to fill those openings. Both Fein and Riccardi were part of the Nets organization —Riccardi for a decade— prior to assuming their new roles

At the final Long Island Nets local player tryout at LIU Post Saturday, Fein, Riccardi, and their coaching staffs were scouting out local talent, potential diamonds in the rough, guys who paid a small fee so they could vie for a training camp invitation. That’s how new Net David Nwaba got his start, $150 and a dream.

Fein and Riccardi also spoke about expectations for the upcoming 2019-20 season. Instead of setting their hopes on winning, Fein and Riccardi stressed development as their main focus, not just for their players but for their staffs. The Nets announced new staff assignments this week.

‘You know our expectations going into the year are the same every season, which is just making sure every one of our guys gets better,” Riccardi told NetsDaily. “Everybody on our roster, every staff member, every player, every coach, whoever it is, they are getting everything they can from us as a group. In totality, we get everyone to the next level of their profession.

“Yes, we went to the Finals last year. We have never judged ourselves on winning being the success mark or the mark of a successful season. Winning is a byproduct of doing everything else right so as long as we’re doing the right things and developing these guys and our new staff members, I think that is our expectation going into every year.”

“I got some big shoes to fill,” Fein told NetsDaily. “Will [Weaver] did a great job last year, got the guys to the Finals but the big thing for us is just development. I try not to worry about the wins and losses. I think at the end of the year and we look back and our guys got better, all the guys on our roster, and got the opportunity to get to where they want to be, I think we’ve done our job.

“My philosophy has always been development, development, development, and if your guys are getting better, the wins will come along with it.”

Long Island’s big success last year, other than making the Finals, was turning undrafted guard Theo Pinson into an NBA player and giving first round pick Dzanan Musa, at 19 the league’s seventh youngest player, the time and the tools to succeed at the NBA level.

The Nets organization made some development moves this summer in acquiring NBA experienced talent. Henry Ellenson, who was a Knicks free agent, signed a two-way deal with the Brooklyn Nets in July and Deng Adel, who played for the Cavs last year, was signed to an Exhibit 10 deal, meaning if and when he’s cut by Brooklyn, his G League rights automatically transfer to Long Island. The Nets still have another two-way and two more Exhibit 10’s to offer.

Riccardi also traded for Anthony Brown, a 6’7” small forward who’s appeared in 103 G League games (85 starts) and recording career averages of 17.3 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.1 assists in 35.2 minutes per game. The 26-year-old Stanford product also has spent time with the Lakers, Timberwolves, Magic and Pelicans.

For Riccardi, Ellenson is this year’s big project, saying the 22-year-old has “a ton of developmental potential.” He hopes the 6’11” big, the No. 18 pick of the Pistons in 2016, can do what Alan Williams did for Long Island last year. Williams, signed to a two-way last September, finished second in the G League MVP race and although he didn’t get much time with Brooklyn, he wound up signing a deal this summer with a Russian team. “Big Sauce,” said Riccardi, had used his NBA experience with the Suns to help his young teammates develop and win. He hopes Ellenson can do that same.

“I think there is definitely value,” Riccardi said of Ellenson. “He has NBA experience. Now, Henry is a little bit younger (at 22), which is good, and he has a ton of developmental potential which we are excited about and I think it is good for everyone to see this is where we want to go and this is how we get there.”

The Nets had some interest in Ellenson last season when the Pistons waived him to sign Wayne Ellington, but the Knicks scooped up the Marquette product. He had a couple of nice games early for New York, showing his range and solid handle for a big man. But with the Knicks in tanking mode and David Fizdale trying different lineups, Ellenson didn’t get consistent minutes. He finished his time with the Knicks averaging six points and 3.6 rebounds in 14 minutes while hitting 44 percent of his three’s.

With the Nets stretch 4 position unstable —Kevin Durant’s return is up in the air, Wilson Chandler will be suspended for a third of the season and Rodion Kurucs has his legal issues— Ellenson might be getting more minutes with the big club.

And he has shown in limited stretches that he can play. Back in February in his second game with the Knicks, he played 36 minutes and had 13 points, nine boards, five assists and hit the dagger in a win over Orlando.

For Fein, having players like Ellenson on his roster with NBA experience helps beyond their play on the hardwood. He hopes his NBA-experienced players can show the younger guys on his team how to be professionals and show them the ropes.

“I think it definitely helps,” Fein told NetsDaily. “Those guys have the experience, they have been through some things that the younger guys are going to go through. So those guys are going to be the leaders of the team and show the ropes for the younger guys on how to be a professional definitely helps in that regard.”

The roster, of course, is a long way from being complete. Riccardi wouldn’t comment on the roles that the Nets two second round picks could have with Long Island this year. Questions about Nicolas Claxton and Jaylen Harnds are questions for Sean Marks, he said.

Riccardi also was asked about Okaro White, the 6’8” NBA vet who was in line for a call-up last season before he badly injured his ankle. White has been rehabbing in Florida. His situation remains unclear.

“I do not want to speak for Okaro by any means,” Riccardi said. “I think there’s a lot of guys from us you’ve seen that we would love to have back, given the right opportunity and the right role.”

White, who is from Brooklyn, has played with seven teams —a total of 44 NBA games— splitting time with the Heat and the Wizards. He career averages of 13.4 minutes, 2.7 points, and 2.2 rebounds, He’s 27.

Despite its focus on development, the team has over its three-year history won more games than the season before. Fein sees the G League growing each year and with the growth, he sees the talent getting better. He is also hopeful that in the next couple of years, all 30 NBA teams will have an NBA G League affiliate. The number reached 28 this season.

“It’s interesting. I was here for the first year of the local player tryout at LIU Post and just to see the growth of the G League since then,” Fein told NetsDaily.” Up to 28 teams in the G League and hopefully within the next couple of years, you’re talking about all 30 NBA teams with a G League affiliate. Just the growth of it and the talent has gotten better and it’s definitely better basketball than it was three years ago.”