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Coming Soon: the Bigs the Nets need?

2020-21 Brooklyn Nets Content Day Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

In a matter of weeks, the Nets should have three young (or youngish) players who will be auditioning for the role of back-up big, the successor to Jarrett Allen. One, Reggie Perry, is already available and part of the rotation. Unless something goes wrong with NBA protocols, Norvel Pelle, will arrive in the next few days. Then sometime in February, the third, Nic Claxton, should be healthy enough to join the fray.

The Nets are right now relying primarily on DeAndre Jordan as their starter at the 5, although Steve Nash is willing to use Kevin Durant at center in some small-ball situations. Same with Jeff Green, but both are more comfortable playing the 4.

Right now, Perry, the 6’10” rookie, is the designated back-up at the 5, often getting early minutes. He’s played sparingly so far, making an appearance in 10 of the Nets’ 18 games, averaging 3.6 points and 3.2 rebounds with a shooting line of 40/13/63. He’s shown some flashes of why the Nets (and others) think they got a steal in the Draft at No. 57.

The 20-year-old Mississippi State product is physically strong and is not afraid to mix it up. He’s also got good hands and shown just enough of a touch to make people think he could wind up as a 4 down-the road. But he is a rookie and makes rookie mistakes. Still, he’s won fans in the Nets locker room including Kevin Durant, as this local TV report on his 11-point, 5-rebound effort vs. the Knicks showed. KD was particularly impressed with the rook’s defense on Julius Randle.

“Reggie is playing like a seasoned veteran,” said Durant. “He’s still learning every day but he has that toughness that allows him to make good plays and leave it all out there on the floor.”

He’s not going to offer rim protection, the single biggest loss in the trade that brought the Nets James Harden.

That could come with the arrival of Pelle. For those with a deep and nerdy memory, Pelle is a familiar if foggy face. When he played high school ball in California, the native of Antigua was the top rated center in the country. At 6’10” with springy legs, Pelle excited a number of college coaches, but after some academic issues, he didn’t play college ball, and after some physical issues, he dropped out of the 2013 Draft, thus beginning a basketball vagabond’s journey.

He played in Wilmington, Delaware (twice); Taipei, Taiwan; Beirut, Lebanon (twice), Varese and Torino, Italy, before being signed by the 76ers last season, going from a two-way to a standard deal in the “bubble.”

The Sixers decided not to re-sign him, but the Cavaliers liked him for the Canton, Ohio, affiliate. Before he could head back to Disney World, for the G League “bubble,” he and the Nets reportedly agreed to a deal dependent on him passing COVID-19 health and safety protocols.

He certainly had fans in Philly despite his low numbers ... 2.1 points, 3.0 boards and 1.2 blocks in nine minutes over 20 games.

“I told him if he got the minutes, he would probably lead the league in blocks,” Joel Embiid said last season (via NBC Sports). “He has a chance to become a fan favorite, so he should just keep doing whatever he’s doing.”

“He loves blocking shots, just risking his body for those blocks and protecting the rim,” Ben Simmons added. “I love having him as a part of this team.”

As Keith Schlosser wrote this weekend. a good test of Pelle’s potential might be found in his G League stats from 2018-19

—Pelle was a top 3 finisher in both Defensive Player of the Year and Most Improved Player award voting.

—He led the league with a 70.3% field goal percentage.

—He ranked fourth in both blocks per game (2.9) and total blocks (105).

—Pelle tallied thirteen double-doubles (seven of which came consecutively). Included in that stretch were three straight games with at least 20 points and 15 rebounds, two of which outings also featured seven blocks.

He might’ve added some shooting potential. Although he’s far from a stretch 5, Pelle has improved his free throw shooting, indicating increasing confidence in his shooting form. At Delaware, he shot 76.5 percent from the line,

Here’s some highlights of his short NBA tenure last season...

Pelle is not as young as Perry or Claxton. He turns 28 next month, making him only 11 months younger than Kyrie Irving. Whenever the Nets officially sign him, look out for the details of the contract. If he’s given a two year deal, even if not guaranteed, that would mean the Nets think he has some potential.

The Nets already know what Claxton’s potential looks like. Yes, he missed the “bubble” after shoulder surgery and has missed the whole season so far with tendinopathy in his right knee, but in 187 minutes in the NBA and 192 in the G League, Claxton looked like a potential rotation player.

Shaun Fein, coach of the Nets’ G League affiliate, could not help but sing his praises after his nine-game stint in Long Island, where he averaged 16.7 points and 7.3 rebounds.

“He does everything. Setting screens, rolls hard even if he is not getting it he is drawing people to give guys open shots.”

And former Nets’ head coach Kenny Atkinson believed he has serious upside as a versatile defender—calling him a “Swiss Army Knife” on that end of the court.

Here’s some highlights of his play just before the G League and NBA shut down

Spencer Dinwiddie had already given his verdict, calling Claxton the “second-most talented player on the team” last year. Perhaps it is wise to take such a quote with a grain of salt, but it’s clear that teammates and the organization, holistically, are high on the 21-year-old. Claxton may not have Allen’s ability to protect the rim, but he has stretch-5 or 4 potential.

Though he may have only gone 1-of-7 beyond the arc with Brooklyn last season, the stroke looks good and he shot 10-of-18 on Long Island where he was encouraged to show off his range.

When will he be back? His father, in an Instagram post this weekend, said “the young man has been working hard to get back on the court. Big guard coming soon.”

“Big guard?” Charles Claxton, who played three games for the Celtics a quarter century ago, even illustrated the post with an image of his son handling the ball. He certainly can be secondary playmaker but we’d think the Nets would want him to play upfront as well.

Claxton, per Nash, should be back sometime in February. He’s been in uniform at all the Nets home games, sporting his new blonde dreads. So we’d have to think it’s getting close.

The three players —Perry, Pelle and Claxton— only have 533 minutes in the NBA combined so it’s a really small sample. Perry and Claxton were second round picks and Pelle didn’t even get drafted. So it’s more a hope, but the Nets have a record of developing young (or young-ish) players —like Jarrett Allen— into solid NBA players or more.

On Friday, Sam Amico, who has long covered the Cavaliers tweeted that sources told him the Nets may “make a run” on Javale McGree, who is under contract with Cleveland at $4.2 million.

The question of course is why would the Nets have signed Pelle (who’s six years younger than McGee and was on the Cavs G League roster) if they intended to make a trade for the veteran McGee? However, if Amico is correct, McGee’s contract would fit neatly into the DPE the Nets were granted last week for Spencer Dinwiddie.