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PREVIEW: Long Island Nets set for big season back in front of fans

After 245 days, the Long Island Nets will be back on the court at 7 p.m. Saturday to face the Delaware Blue Coats in Wilmington. Alec Sturm, who will cover Long Island for NetsDaily, has a season preview.

After 245 days in COVID limbo, the Long Island Nets are finally opening their doors. The new NBA G League season has finally arrived with Long Island fielding an almost entirely new roster of players and a new head coach as they begin their G League journey on the Island.

The season begins for Long Island on Saturday night in Delaware when they take on the Blue Coats, then they return to Nassau Coliseum for their home opener on November 10 against the Capital City Go-Go.

In training camp and on Media Day last Thursday, there was optimism not just for development but for success as well. As new head coach Adam Caporn told NetsDaily, development will always be the top priority but winning can follow.

“I think that’s how it has to be in development. The main thing I’m concerned about is that we continue to get better, that we don’t just try and get more organized and system driven, but we’re really focused on the individual development, the team growth,” said Caporn.

“And they go hand-in-hand if we can improve the habits and understanding the game and continue playing hard and develop the skills and we should get better as a team and win more and watching that process over the course of the season is my real expectation, we’ll be on that passionately.”

Long Island’s roster boasts all five players Brooklyn selected in the NBA Draft back in July as well as a highly regarded undrafted prospect. First round picks Cam Thomas and Day’Ron Sharpe are expected to spend time at Nassau Coliseum during the 50-game season.

Second rounder Kessler Edwards and the undrafted David Duke Jr. will also shuttle between Brooklyn and Uniondale as two-way players, while late second rounders Marcus Zegarowski and RaiQuan Gray were signed directly to G League deals. The Long Island Nets are now filled with as much NBA talent as ever, and that description would also have to cover Caporn in his first gig as a head coach.

Caporn hails from Australia, a veteran development coach at the Basketball Australia Center of Excellence. There he mentored and developed players such as NBA lottery pick Josh Giddey of the Thunder and defensive stalwart Matisse Thybulle of the Sixers.

Despite that high talent level sporting Long Island’s red, white, and blue jerseys this year, Caporn remains centered on his expectations for the season. They remain “mostly process driven,” he explained. It’s Brooklyn’s core development principle.

“Coach put it right, it’s more process driven,” said Matt Riccardi, Long Island’s GM and Brooklyn’s Director of Scouting. “As long as we get the process right, the results happen. Sustainable success doesn’t happen overnight, and the goal would be to continue to lay that foundation to move forward with this program.”

Riccardi, who has been apart of the Nets organization since the days of Rod Thorn, emphasized the importance of prioritizing the development “process,” with success on the court as the inevitable next step.

After making the move from Australia, Caporn is prepared to bring his international skill-set to Long Island. The “nature of the game is slightly different” in The States, he admits, but is eager to apply his development expertise to the Nets’ roster. After all, not only did Caporn direct the Center of Excellence but he was also an assistant coach on Australia’s bronze medal winning Olympic team.

The main thing he learned from The Centre of Excellence, Caporn says, is how to simultaneously drive winning while focusing on developing players’ individual skillsets.

“Is that sometimes it seemed confusing, how can you have a team and be focused on individual development? Well, you can’t have one without the other, I don’t think. It just limits what you can learn.” He added: “Ultimately, you’re going to be hired to help an organization win basketball games. So we can do more together than we can alone.”

As for Caporn’s hailed “internal improvement,” second round picks Edwards, taken at No. 44, and Gray, the 59th pick, already have their sights set on the next level of their games. While Thomas and Sharpe are more finished products, Edwards and Gray are good examples of how the next level players can develop down on the Long Island farm.

In his three collegiate seasons at Pepperdine, Edwards shot north of 38 percent from behind the three-point arc, an inarguably valuable part of his all-around game. He did so, however, while sporting a rather unorthodox release. Refining his form will be the primary focus of his development in Long Island this year.

Edwards, like the other rookies, will find more playing time in the G League than with the other club.

“I think the main thing for me while I’m playing with Long Island is just the experience that I’m getting, [and] that I wouldn’t be getting in Brooklyn,” he said. “So, just the reps for me, trying different stuff, trying to expand my game a little more.”

Edwards, who other than Thomas and Sharpe is the youngest player on the roster, has a number of NBA-ready skills to his game, including as a wing defender. He’s also seen as mentally tough and seasoned.

Even more than Edwards, Gray represents the face of G League development. There’s potential there ... if he can get beyond one big obstacle. Gray, who like Edwards is 6’8” but with a much bigger frame, fell as far as he did because of a perception that he was out-of-shape. Take it from scouts and pundits. Here are some pre-draft assessments of the 22-year-old:

“In those first two years at Florida State, Gray looked pretty heavy when he was on the court.” “Unsurprisingly, given heavy frame, played football when he was young.” “The big [weakness] here is his frame.”

Gray’s weight remains the likely deciding factor on if he will pan out in the NBA. He’s aware of it, too. Gray’s goal for the season? “Just get in the best shape possible.”

He continued; “I think [weight] is one thing that can hurt my game and also hurt my game. I think the way I plan I need to be in the best shape possible and also just making the open jumper.

“At the next level in the NBA, you’re going to have superstars already on the team and you gotta come in and fill the role of making the open shot and make the right defensive reads and making the extra play for that next guy on the team. So just coming in trying to fill a role, just making open shots and also stay in the best shape as possible.”

Gray is a powerful and surprisingly athletic downhill force going towards to the basket, and can use his large frame to his advantage to displace defenders at the rim. That becomes a slippery slope, though, if he adds on a few too many pounds.

Brooklyn’s other two-way player, David Duke Jr., is poised to take on a bigger role with Long Island. After a strong stint in the Las Vegas NBA Summer League this August, he earned the two-way deal with the Nets and will bounce back and forth between the G League and the main roster. He’s Long Island’s likely starter at point guard and like Edwards and Gray, he believes the G League experience will help him develop crucial parts of his game.

“Now I can play through mistakes and learn from that,” said the 22-year-old. “I think this gives me a chance to work on my leadership, learning how to communicate with my teammates at the guard position and just making the right plays.”

Guard Jordan Bowden is the only returning player on the roster from last year’s “Gubble”, the G League bubble, at Disney World. Despite being only a second-year NBA player and only 24, Bowden is a player Riccardi believes will be needed as a leader for this Long Island squad. Bowden says he understands that message.

Many of the Nets who’ll share the court in Long Island have already played with each other, most notably during the Vegas Summer League. Thomas and Sharpe as well as Gray, Duke Jr. Bowden all represented Brooklyn in Vegas over the summer. Marcus Zegarowski, a shooting guard taken at No. 49, and Brandon Rachal, another undrafted player, were there as well.

Duke Jr. maintained that his Summer League experience was a turning point in his development. “I think it gave me confidence, and it gave them confidence in me, especially on the defensive side of the ball. You know, being able to guard, and bring that different type of energy that is something that you can control.”

For others, it was just a lot of fun. Edwards notes he’s already familiar with his G League teammates: “Summer League, I think it was kinda new to us, but just coming here with this team, it’s a lot of the same stuff, same dudes, I mean it’s just fun. I already know those guys rather than coming in with new guys.”

Same goes for Bowden: “Summer League was pretty fun … the atmosphere was crazy. A lot of guys competing, you know, to get their job.”

The Long Island Nets played their first unofficial game of the season against the Westchester Knicks last Tuesday. Though the scrimmage was closed to the public, Long Island was still able to come away with the victory against their rival.

On Thursday, Coach Caporn commented on the first inter-squad experience for the Nets:

“[I enjoyed seeing] that we made mistakes, but we stuck with them, we got better over the course of the game, especially in the things I touched on. I thought defensively, we really just progressed and kicked into a hierarchy, solve some problems stuck together,” he said.

Despite the positive showing, there’s still room to grow, a theme echoed by Caporn:

“I think at this stage of the season, every coach wants to see the team play more cohesively and slower offensively,” the Aussie said. “You know, [we were] turning it over a little bit too much. Everyone’s excited. We made plenty mistakes, lots of good things, [and] getting into a rhythm offensively is something we’re working towards.”

As reflected in the quarter-by-quarter score updates, Long Island fell behind early to Westchester before making up ground in the final period for the victory.

Long Island’s final roster is comprised of 10 players, including the two-ways, but not Thomas and Sharpe.

In addition to Sharpe, Long Island has two bigs in Chris Walker and Adam Woodbury, the former a high school All-American who’s become a basketball vagabond, the latter a G League journeyman. The team’s oldest player at 28, Josh Gray, has had stints with the Suns and Pelicans.

The 2021-22 NBA G League season will feature an all-new “Showcase Cup” mid-season tournament, a likely trial run for what Adam Silver plans for the NBA. G League teams will play 14 games to begin the season as part of the tournament format,

In the “Showcase Cup,” the 28 G League teams will be broken four regional pods for seeding purposes. The Nets are in the East pod, and will face off against the Raptors 905, College Park Bayhawks, Westchester Knicks, Maine Red Claws, Delaware Blue Coats and Capital City Go-Go for the first 14 games of the season.

After that, the NBA G League will hold its annual Winter Showcase from December 19 to 22. Then, it’s back to regular season, which will last for another 36 games, followed by a typical G League postseason format.

The G League has produced some of Brooklyn’s best players in recent seasons, such as Joe Harris ,who played for the Cavs affiliate in Canton, and Spencer Dinwiddie, who was with the Windy City Bulls when the Nets signed him in 2016. Bruce Brown also played a couple of games for the Pistons affiliate in Grand Rapids.

Game 1 is on the G League’s YouTube channel, starting at 7 p.m.