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For Nets ‘Class of 2018,’ an inflection point nears

Boston Celtics v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Matteo Marchi/Getty Images

Call it the class of 2018, the four Nets players who were draft eligible two years ago when Adam Silver starting reading the roll at Barclays Center. Dzanan Musa and Rodions Kurucs were drafted by the Nets at No. 29 and 40; Theo Pinson who got a summer league offer from Brooklyn during the second round that night, and Chris Chiozza who like Pinson went undrafted then had gigs with Houston and Washington before being picked up by the Nets this January.

The four are still young, obviously, with Musa the youngest, still only 20 (for another four days), and Pinson, the oldest at 24. Over the next few months, the Nets will likely have to make decisions on all their futures. The Nets have moved from a development team to a contender and while bettering players is a big part of their culture, the ring is now the thing.

Musa, of course, was a first round pick. It feels as if that tends to get buried due to the fact he has been looked at and regarded as a major project from the moment he shook Silver’s hand.

At 19, he spent most of his first season in the G-League, where he showed some promise as a young hybrid wing/guard with length. Will Weaver who coached him at Long Island a year ago, once called him the best passer in the league, but two year’s in, he’s still a prospect. Of course, projects can be nice. They might pay dividends, and they can help developing teams, like the Brooklyn Nets of, say, two years ago, could find talent that will be useful down the road.

Despite his Long Island tenures last year and this, Musa, so far, has not been particularly useful to the Brooklyn Nets. He has -0.1 career win shares in a career 44 NBA appearances, and most of that has occurred in some form or another of garbage time.

The G League is a different story, where in a career 48 games Musa has put up 19.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, and shot 45/36/78. Not bad considering a large chunk of his time in Long Island came as he was a 19-year old who had just begun to play basketball in the United States, not to mention New York City, for the first time. He also suffered injuries to his ankle and shoulder.

But G-League Stats do not translate to wins for the big club, and after Musa was taken with the 29th pick in the first round of the 2018 NBA Draft, a collection of interesting players were chosen, including: Omari Spellman, Jalen Brunson, Devonte Graham, Mitchell Robinson, Shake Milton, Bruce Brown, and of course, Rodions Kurucs.

Are there any All-Stars among this list? No, but this doesn’t mean that there weren’t other players the Nets might have taken a better chance on. The draft can be a crapshoot, but one of the most significant ways good teams separate themselves from bad teams is hitting on picks, especially later on in the draft when everything becomes significantly murkier.

The Spurs don’t have all those banners hanging up if they don’t take Tony Parker (28th) and Manu Ginobili (57th), and it’s doubtful Steph Curry and Klay Thompson would have reached their full potential without Draymond Green (35th with a Nets second in 2012). You draft a player in the hopes that he will outperform his draft slot, whether it’s the 1st pick or the 60th.

Musa has his supporters and detractors like any prospect and he’s hardly costing the Nets much as they wait for him. Fans may seem him more as second year prospect who may be tantalizing but has produced yet. But basketball types might think differently. He turns 21 at the end of this week and is under contract for a little more than $2 million. Of course, he also occupies a roster spot and the Nets could think (we don’t know) that it would be better to use that spot on a veteran.

It’s hard to get a good read from the always inscrutable Nets front office on individual players, but John Hollinger, who went from ESPN to The Grizziles to The Athletic, thinks the Nets may soon have to fish or cut bait on the young Bosnian.

“The Nets invested a first-round pick in him and probably would like to ride this out another year in ideal circumstances,” he told Alex Schiffer recently. “But at some point they have to admit that he’s probably not going to make it. His body remains a major concern, he still takes crazy shots, and he doesn’t shoot them accurately...”

Harsh? Maybe, but Hollinger spent eight years scrutinizing prospects in Memphis.

Musa has a number of things going for him other than his age. He’s high character guy, as witnessed by his gifts to his hometown —center of the pandemic in Bosnia and the Nets have invested in him. He also wins. He singlehandedly brought his young nation its first sports championship, the FIBA Europe U-16 championship, and then reeled off three straight titles in the Croatian league before being drafted.

Kurucs, on the other hand, represents a higher return on investment. Not only is he literally cheaper having been drafted 11 picks after Musa and signed to a very team-favorable four-year deal that has two years remaining. Moreover, he has produced more for the Nets in both of his seasons since being drafted. Let us not forget that he has started three playoff games already, not bad at all for the 40th overall pick!

Still, his progression as a player has been anything but linear. It is also important to mention his troubling off-court legal issues, which involved an arrest last fall for an alleged domestic violence occurrence. The charges are on hold because the city’s courts are shut down but an unfavorable outcome could jeopardize his NBA career ... and green card.

While Musa’s career is a pretty straightforward story of “he just isn’t good enough to be an NBA rotation player ... yet”, Kurucs has taken a more circuitous route to where we stand now in Spring 2020. It is worth mentioning for a second time in two paragraphs that Kurucs started in the playoffs for the Nets last season?

In 2018-19 he played 62 games, started 46 of them, and had moments where he looked well beyond his years in talent and experience. There were, of course, lapses. Bad passes, dumb shots, and missed defensive cue’s, everything you might expect from a kid who hadn’t played a lot of high-level basketball. But when you’re a growing team with huge flaws and young players who still need to learn, you live with those every once in a while. Rodi shot 45/31/78 for that season, showing significant promise as a versatile wing/forward who could shoot a bit and make some deft cuts to the rim ... and be very annoying on defense.

Fast forward to today, and we can look back on Rodi’s 2019-20 sophomore season as a fairly complete disappointment. Just about the only aspect of his game he truly improved upon was his 3-point shooting, which bumped up from 31 to 38 percent.

Kurucs either got worse or stayed about the same in every other meaningful category. He also rode the bench more than expected, racking up 18 DNP’s and five Inactives, making only 39 appearances in the Nets 64 games with just four starts. Not what you want to see out of your promising second-year prospect. With the additions of guys like Taurean Prince, Garrett Temple, Wilson Chandler, and even fellow youngsters Timothee Luwawu-Cabarrot and Nicolas Claxton, Kurucs found himself deeper on a bench than he had in his rookie season, where young and reckless players with high potential were given more of a shake.

It is hard to improve and learn and adapt as a 21-year-old when your playing time is being yanked around, and that is not to be overlooked when talking about Rodi’s 2019-20. What would his season have looked like had he secured a rotation spot and not had to worry about playing time every night? Probably a lot better. But in this universe, he stands where he stands. We are in the Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving Era, and the Nets no longer have time for long-term projects that will yield mediocre results.

Hollinger likes Kurucs’ chances ... a lot.

“Kurucs is the one guy I’d most expect to be here next year,” Hollinger old Schiffer. “He had a rough 2019-20 season, but his rookie year was promising and at his best he reminds you of Andre Kirilenko with his length and ranginess. He still has to improve his strength and skill level, but there could be a role for him as a backup forward on this team.

Their careers are still incredibly nascent, but we are heading towards an inflection point for the both of the Nets 2018 draft choices, who will always be linked to each other in the eyes of Nets fans as long as both of them are on the team. The question is, how much longer will that be?

Both Kurucs and Musa have essentially two years left on their contracts, with Rodi having $1.7 million due next season and a $1.8 million team option the year after that. Musa is on a first round contract, so he is owed that $2 million next season with a $3.6 million team option in 2021-22. The Nets will have to decide on that final year before next season begins, whenever that is.

These contracts are cheap, although a little less so for Musa, who has not shown as much on the court as Kurucs so far and is owed slightly more money. This is, however, what makes them valuable to Brooklyn in the upcoming team-building process of “improving around the edges of the roster for as little money as possible”, but it’s also what makes them potentially valuable to other teams.

Kurucs and Musa as individuals wouldn’t yield much in a trade. Maybe you could do a “swap our deep bench guy for your deep bench guy” deal, and on a really good day Sean Marks might be able to squeeze out a pair of future-future second rounders for Kurucs, but generally the Nets will not be dangling these pieces as juicy bait in front of other teams in their pursuit of a mythical “third star.”

More likely, they could be quite easily slotted into a larger trade involving some of the Nets better and more expensive pieces as sweetener in a deal, maybe even allowing the Nets to give up a smidge less draft capital in return.

Consider, for instance, the Nets try and improve marginally and put the third star pursuit on hiatus. A hypothetical offer of Taurean Prince, Musa, Kurucs, and a protected first round pick for Nets Twitter Favorite and Object of Near Obsession Aaron Gordon probably gets Sean Marks in the door at the very least. Whether or not Orlando would end up demanding or receiving more is outside of the realm of prediction, but adding Musa and Kurucs to a deal helps due to their value as cheap and young assets and could deter the Magic from demanding a slew of second rounders in return.

This is also most likely the way the Nets will squeeze the highest value out of these two young prospects as well, especially if they have had trouble developing in the Nets system so far.

The talent incubator that was once Barclays Center is no longer, and this may not be the low point of either player’s value, despite both of their seasons finishing with less than impressive results. There is a world in which next year bodes even worse for the duo, as Kurucs sees his playing time drop even more with the return of Durant bumping him one more spot down in the pecking order, and Musa being unable to crack even the third string rotation.

At that point, Sean Marks could be sitting at the trade deadline contemplating even picking up their options for the following season, at which point their value would have dropped even lower than it stands today. If anything, this may even be the likely scenario, especially if the Nets plan on bringing in more veteran talent with which to surround KD and Kyrie.

Musa’s resume is so thin as it is now that his value is still largely hypothetical, and the older he gets the less potential teams are going to see in him, even though he may still have a bit more latent potential lying around than Kurucs due to his dynamic skill set.

Just as the fans see the fates of Musa and Kurucs as intertwined, so are those of Chiozza and Pinson. Both are backcourt players and there’s only room for one of them

If and when the NBA returns to play, the Nets will have a decision to make. If the front office and coaching staff want to play Chris Chiozza in the post-season, they’’ll have to sign him to a standard NBA contract.

Chiozza averaged 10.5 points in five games —four of them wins— before the break. Problem is he’s still on his two-way deal and two-way players are prohibited from participating in the playoffs. That means someone else will have to be waived ... unless Sean Marks and Long Island GM Matt Riccardi can think of something else.

The most likely cut, IF there is one, is Theo Pinson the 6’7” second year guard who was himself a two-way last season. Although a fan favorite for his enthusiasm on the Nets bench, has had a tough year. That bench presence —and his Long Island Nets performance in 2019, hitting the shot that got them into the G League Finals. For a guy who couldn’t shoot at North Carolina, he was a revelation in Uniondale. It got him a two-year deal with a team option for next year.

But he was asked to do too much as a back up point guard. Pinson’s shooting (29 percent), 3-point percentage (18.8) and offensive rating (81) all took steps back from his rookie season, as Brian Lewis noted. His offensive rating was the worst in the NBA for players who topped 20 appearances, according to Basketball Reference. Ugh.

Hollinger was even more brutal: “Pinson will be in another country next year.”

Whenever the offseason begins in earnest, it may be about time we see Sean Marks restructure his portfolio of assets a bit, and Musa, Kurucs, Pinson and Chioza may find themselves wearing different jerseys once the NBA returns back to normal.