Can’t you see it. Sean Marks, his back pressed against the wall of his office. His palms coated in an ever-so-slight layer of sweat, attempting to get his breathing under control, slowly, in and out. In and out. Again.
His phone, sitting on the edge of his desk between two giant stacks of scouting reports, is buzzing without an end in sight, two mere text vibrations away from sailing overboard into the nearby waste basket. The bad news bear has had himself a busy year in Brooklyn, work stoppage and all, and this dreary June 29th morning was just another day in the office for our foreboding furry caniform.
The bear’s latest delivery? Spencer Dinwiddie (who now appears to be being doing well… just as snarky as ever!)... Brooklyn’s other All-Star caliber point guard on the roster (plural ‘round these parts), had been diagnosed with COVID-19. Yet again, another Nets player was ill with a virus that had killed so many. Shake my head.
And just as suddenly, the Nets biggest position of strength coming into the 2019-2020 season –– point-guard –– had become a glaring weakness.
Of course, the Nets did preserve some untested options tucked away deep in the wings. Chris Chiozza, the mid-January G-League call-up, had showcased signs of NBA prosperity toward the end of this once-halted NBA season, whipping the ball around the arc like a pinball machine with old-school pass-first flair. And yet, for as exciting as Chris Chiozza’s pre-shutdown taster was, the 24-year-old was just flat-out an untested entity, playing in just 126 total minutes in a Brooklyn jersey.
Six days prior to Dinwiddie’s unfortunate diagnosis, Marks had surveyed the stagnant landscape of the waiver wire, picking up the veteran combo guard Tyler Johnson off the scrap heap at the expense of culture guy Theo Pinson. Say it with me: Sean Marks always gets his guy.
Right away, it was apparent that the fit was a match made in heaven. Of course, it certainly helped that Sean Marks in large part played a significant role in making “TJ” $50 million richer and a couple of vomit-induced pounds lighter back in 2016.
“My mom still says Sean is one of her favorite people of all time. We’re very fortunate to be in this position. I signed that offer sheet four years ago, so I was ready at that time to become a Net.”
Fast-forward forty, maybe fifty-odd some days, and both Chiozza and Johnson have eagerly eaten up minutes as Brooklyn’s bubble ball-handlers. The “Cheeseman” grabbed the start during the opener against the Magic, while “TJ” handled those duties during Brooklyn’s next two contests against the Washington Wizards and Milwaukee Bucks.
To get re-acquainted with Brooklyn’s 5’11” buzzing backup, here’s what Chris told me back in March about his style of play.
“I always come in and try to play as hard as I can, keeping the energy and the pace high because I feel like that’s to my advantage being a smaller guy. I gotta be the hardest playing dude — the scrappiest — and it helps that I’m usually the fastest guy on the court. I use that to my advantage.”
A couple of things are certain in this life: death, taxes, and Chris Chiozza rapid-firing skip passes in NBA gyms, no matter the location of said arena. Here, he turns D.J. Wilson into a delicious Wisconsin raspberry custard kuchen, hitting the Cupid Shuffle (remember that?) on the full-tilt hesitation dribble before side-arming an absolute laser-beam of a crosscourt dime to Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot for his fourth made three-pointer on Wednesday afternoon. Cheese’s baseball roots are certainly apparent, eh?
Decades ago, playmaking guards reigned supreme in the association… Steve Nash, Jason Kidd, Chris Paul… these legends defined the point guard position with their evergreen commitment to involving all four players sharing the same team jersey. Chiozza harkens back to those glorious early 2000’s floor generals, hitting his Brooklyn teammates –– whoever they may be –– on the screws with each and every opportunity. Brooklyn’s offense just hums when he’s out there (to the tune of 119 points per 100 possessions in his last two games), and you can bet your life savings that this stems from the 24-year-old’s egalitarian passing approach.
Speaking of Steve Nash, does this baseline tight-roping feed to the weak-side corner look familiar?
Chiozza brings more than just pretty passing to the table. Though he hasn’t shot the ball particularly well in Orlando (just 4-for-16 from three), the Tennessee native has embodied the “heart over height” mentality, shooting a very respectable 70% in the painted-area. Given his stature, he’s worked dutifully to cultivate the ultimate foolproof bundle of finishing tricks, retrofitting his ball-handling package with leapfrogging euro-steps, dimension-altering crossovers, and a willingness to use his body as a barricade to create slivers of space. “Guten tag,” he says as he careens his 175-pound frame into Moritz Wagner in the third clip below.
In fairness, for as revolutionary as he’s been as Brooklyn’s snappy-passing, rim-pressuring offensive threat, his efforts on the defensive side of the ball haven’t exactly followed in stride. Sadly, at least a portion of his defensive inadequacy stems from stature –– a weakness well out of Cheese’s realm of control. Fight as hard as he might, it’s far too easy for opponents to knock Chiozza out of the play with a well-timed screen or even some basic physicality on a backdoor cut.
And if he loses track of his matchup for even a split-second, his 6’0.5 wingspan doesn’t exactly afford him much of a lifeline while closing out to opposing snipers. Here, he attempts to “stunt and recover” against Washington’s Ish Smith, doubling in the lane against the driving Jerian Grant before frantically (and unsuccessfully) closing out to the arc. Though he doesn’t knock it down this time, the shot is practically uncontested for Ish Smith, who connected on a decent 36.4 percent of his three-point looks this season.
Now, as mentioned before, he’ll need to discover some 3-point accuracy sooner than later. Of any attribute, distanced (in-)efficiency was by far his biggest weakness as a member of the Long Island Nets, shooting just 30% on 129 total G-League threes. That much needs to change, but he’s clearly made an impression on the right guys within the organization.
KD on Chris Chiozza: "He just look good, he looks like belongs out there... He really showed me he can play in this league."— Matt Brooks (@MattBrooksNBA) August 5, 2020
eyeball emoji indeed. https://t.co/Wx3LPi2g0Q
Here’s the full quote if you’re too lazy to listen...
“He’s surprised me a lot. We started pl”aying 3-on-3 once I started getting back into shape a little bit, before the pandemic hit. Then he started getting more minutes in the games and then [was] knocking down threes, just playing with pace. He’s just looked good. He looked like he belonged out there. … He really showed me that he can play in this league.”
We’ve had ourselves an appetizer of “Cheese” and crackers, let’s move on to the main course: Brooklyn’s two-game starter, Tyler Johnson. The beauty of Brooklyn’s backcourt rotation is that each of Brooklyn’s point guards brings a unique skillset to the table, culminating to a rather balanced whole.
While Chiozza is Brooklyn’s ball-movement catalyst, Tyler Johnson is of the delectable contemporary scoring-guard variety. After blasting out of the starting blocks with 11.5 points on 51.6 percent from the field in Brooklyn scrimmages, Johnson’s exhibition rhythm has yet to translate during the Nets’ meaningful game. (Do me a solid and refrain from looking up his shooting splits, okay?)
Though the results haven’t exactly been pretty, I’ve really enjoyed Johnson’s pace as a scorer. He handles and elevates into jumpers without the slightest bit of hurry, and he picks his spots with the even temperament of a nurse or therapist, occasionally busting out a cunning pump-fake to send his defender flying out of the screen like Mike Teavee from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Personally, I thought Jacque Vaughn nailed it on the head when describing Tyler Johnson to a sea of virtual reporters. (He’s been awesome as Brooklyn’s head coach, but that’s for a different column.)
“He gives you someone who’s pretty steady out there on the floor and has the ability to get to the rim, break down the defense, play with the basketball in his hands, and be a recipient of the basketball.”
Where Vaughn may have actually sold him short is Johnson’s ability to pressure the cup. Not only can Johnson wiggle and dive his way to the basket, he’s also been tremendous at drawing contact on his finishes, slowing the game down in Brooklyn’s favor.
Per CleaningTheGlass, TJ has been fouled on a tremendous 9.7 percent of his shooting possessions, a rate that would rank somewhere within the 71st to the 73rd percentile at his position over a larger sample. The dude is just fearless and poised; he doesn’t search for contact, he lets it come his way –– a skill that for most players takes years, hell, sometimes a full decade to learn.
Defensively, he’s been just as impressive in Vaughn’s eyes, with the new head coach praising Johnson for “being able to fight through screens, being able to guard multiple positions, to be able to come back and help rebound, just because of his toughness.”
In comparison with some of his other backcourt counterparts (*cough, cough, Caris LeVert*), Tyler Johnson is damn near Brooklyn’s Magellan of screen navigation. He senses incoming screens half a beat quicker than most players at his position, quickly altering his weight onto the balls of his feet to tip-toe around opposing bigs.
Here, in the face of the Orlando Magic’s high horns action, Johnson reads the movement of D.J. Augustin (who has the choice of two high ball-screens to pick from) fluidly, bending his 6’3 frame around Nikola Vucevic’s cinderblock-like screen to contest Augustin into a tricky runner.
Had it not been for another one of Brooklyn’s bubble guards (who we’ll be referring to momentarily), I’d argue that Tyler Johnson has a strong case as Brooklyn’s best overall defender. Show him the ball for even a mere millisecond? “TJ” will rip that thing from your hands without a shred of remorse (see: clip number one below). As an off-ball pest, he’s ready and willing to tip errant passes from the skies (see: clip two). If subtly is your thing, he’s also showcased instances of measured defensive acuity, and in the third clip from the video below, he matches Sterling Brown’s downhill chutzpah step-for-step before stunting (and recovering!) against Marvin Williams on the drive-and-kick.
I’d be remiss if I left out any mention of his top-notch rebounding. On Wednesday, Johnson’s persistence on the offensive glass gave Brooklyn the three-point lead with 53 seconds to spare. The dude has an unteachable, keen feel for how to sneak into the rebounding foray and an innate sense of where misses may bounce. Per the good folks at CleaningTheGlass, Johnson’s offensive rebounding rate of 4.8 percent in the bubble would rank within the 98th percentile at his position over the course of a full season.
So, we’ve feasted mightily on the Nets’ jack-of-all-trades entrée. How about we take a look at the menu for some dessert?
Because Jeremiah Martin, Brooklyn’s other two-way contract signee from January and other, other bubble point guard… man, he’s just absolutely sweet to feast your eyes on as a defender.
It’s so unbelievably rare to stumble upon a player with hands as fast as Martin’s. And yet, here we are. As Pat Connaughton drops the ball down low ever-so-slightly to tee-up a catch-and-shoot look, Martin deploys his Fruit Ninja-fast appendages to rip the ball away from Pat’s unsuspecting mitts. Watch this clip a few times. Rejoice in it. Bathe in it. Notice just how far out of the play Martin begins, only to glide in with the grace of an osprey, recover and shift his feet like music video Chris Brown, and miraculously slap Connaughton’s jump-shot away with the smugness of Anthony Davis in a Footlocker commercial… all without fouling throughout the entirety of the possession. Magnificent.
Still need to satisfy that sweet tooth with a tasty post-dinner snack? Fear not. I’ve saved the best for last. Toward the end of the third quarter of the Nets incredulous victory over the Bucks, Martin busted out the keystone highlight of his short Brooklyn tenure. Deployed as the point-of-attack defender in Vaughn’s 1-2-2 zone, Martin –– and the rest of Brooklyn’s defense –– prepared themselves for Milwaukee’s devastating Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton pick-and-roll. But then, it happened. Martin saw a brief opportunity to lurch forward and deploy those cat-like reflexes. As Khris Middleton –– currently tossing up a cool 20 points per game on (near-) 50/40/90 shooting –– positioned himself to turn the corner and (likely) toss up an alley-oop to the Greek Freak, Martin picked his pocket with a sense urgency that would have Oliver Twist asking for advice. Martin’s speedy hands prevailed, the Nets bench erupted in excitement. For lack of a better term, it was a holistically “dope” moment.
Yo... Jeremiah Martin straight up sprung into action like a bear trap on this steal against Khris Middleton. pic.twitter.com/WnGhmzAkTY— Matt Brooks (@MattBrooksNBA) August 5, 2020
(I swear, this dude must have been an absolute menace at “Red Hands” as a kid.)
Unlike Tyler Johnson, Nets Nation doesn’t have to wait for the offense to come from the 6’2 Memphis product. In the garbage time vs. the Celtics, in a game we’ve already forgotten or at least buried in the deep recesses of our game, right next to the team’s 2012 Draft scouting report, Martin scored 20 points on 8-of-12 shooting, including 2-of-4 from deep.
Before that, Martin had posted 30.4 percent shooting from the field and 20 percent from three in Brooklyn’s first three bubble games. Ultimately, should he want to stick in this league, he’ll need to become more of an outside threat off motion (a la Patrick Beverley) or dial in further as a deflection-magnet, pressing opposing guards full-court and just making their lives a living, walking hell with every dribble (Kris Dunn is a great model in this example).
Martin said it best to our own Chris Milholen.
“I bring a little bit of everything, mainly defense,” Martin said. “I bring energy and I know I can bring that every game. Most of the time you know your shot is not going to be there every night but your defensive energy has to be there. I feel like that’s one thing I can bring everyday. Just bringing that energy, bringing that defense, and let the offense follow.”
That you do, my friend. That you do.
Author’s note: All statistics current through August 8th, 2020, except where noted.