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Long Island Nets get ready for G League ‘bubble’ in Orlando

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2021 Long Island Nets Content Day
B.J. Johnson
Photo by Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images

The Long Island Nets have touched down at the G League’s Orlando “bubble” ready to take on a 15-game season in 25 days, starting nine days from now. Long Island’s roster is a mix of NBA veterans, G League standouts and three rookies. It’s a grueling schedule, but one they think they have the right pieces for.

“Matt Riccardi has done an incredible job of putting this together,” Bret Breilmaier, the head coach of Long Island said during a Zoom call Monday from Disney World. “It is very balanced in my opinion. We have some veteran leadership that has a good deal of NBA experience.

“That is such a value to helping the younger guys. We got a group of experienced G League guys as well so they can also help guide along some of the younger players but our young fellas were at high-level programs so the way they have been coached is already evident. Having this balanced roster will give us a great chance to compete.”

Riccardi, the GM of the Nets G League affiliate — and Brooklyn’s director of scouting operations, said he focused the roster-building around multiple factors.

“We definitely looked at this G League bubble as an opportunity to take a look at some guys that we have not had in our system before,” Riccardi said. “We have an incredible coaching staff and we obviously wanted to make sure that we had players that had a chance to develop, look at as call-up targets for the NBA, and that can put our program as competitive as possible. You will see the makeup of that. I think our oldest player is 28 but we do have a younger group but some veterans mixed in there with some G League experience and NBA experience as well.”

Ellie Okobo and B.J. Johnson are two names that pop off Long Island’s roster for big reasons.

Okobo, who has played in 108 NBA games with the Phoenix Suns and yet is still only 23, highlights NBA experience for the Nets. To Riccardi, Okobo is an “amazing” addition and one who they’ve had their eyes on for some time .

“Elie is an amazing player,” Riccardi said of the 6’3” French point guard. “We’ve seen him from his draft time to being on the Phoenix Suns to playing for the Northern Arizona Suns. Similar to B.J. and the other guys on our roster, we are really excited to get a chance to work with Ellie. Someone we have seen from afar. We liked all of his intangibles, skills, NBA size, and just looking forward to seeing how he mixes with our group, our coaching staff, and vice versa.”

In fact, Sean Marks personally scouted Okobo in France prior to the 2018 Draft where he was taken at No. 31.

As for Johnson, he’s been a familiar face to Long Island throughout the past couple of season in the G League ... on the other side of the court. When he was on the Lakeland Magic, the Orlando’s G League affiliate, he commonly put up high numbers against Long Island. Riccardi believes he is a high-quality player and has a chance to continue to develop. Johnson, who also holds NBA experience playing in 17 games as a Hawk and with Orlando, is a 6’7” small forward with quite the athleticism.

“We have seen BJ play a ton in the past,” Riccardi said. “We played against him in the playoffs two years ago when he was playing with Lakeland. We have seen him in the NBA. We think he is a really good player and a high-quality player that has a chance to continue to develop. Not just him but a lot of our guys, we feel the same way about it. They would not be here if we did not think highly of them and we didn’t think they can contribute to this group and make it as competitive as possible for us.”

Brielmaier explained what he has seen from both Okobo and Johnson so far with only two practices under the team's belt. He sees two players with high experience, in great physical shape, and capable of leading, showing a readiness to help the younger guys out.

“Both B.J. and Elie, you can tell they have had high-level experience through their careers so far,” Brielmaier said. “They have a way about them. They understand the game and their ability to help the younger guys, the less seasoned guys, has been really impressive. In both of them, you see great bodies, understand angles, great anticipation, and we are very fortunate to have those guys.

Paul Eboua is one of those “great bodies.” and another name Nets fans should get familiar with. Eboua, who was claimed by Brooklyn following being waived by the Heat in December —the first waiver claim in Sean Marks’ five-year tenure, is a 20-year-old international prospect built like a wall. He is viewed as raw and undeveloped by many pro scouts

Riccardi credits his international scouts for finding him. Long Island is thrilled to have him, he said.

“Incredible young prospect that our international scouts Simone Casali, Jeff Peterson, B.J. Johnson (the Nets player development coordinator, not the player), who have done an incredible job of identifying in the past,” Riccardi said. “Someone we have followed closely and someone our coaching staff targeted as someone being really excited to work with.”

Indeed, at various points prior to the 2020 NBA Draft, a number of draftniks linked Eboua to the Nets in the second round. After he went undrafted, the Heat signed him, but when they waived him in hopes of re-signing him to a G League deal, the Nets pounced.

Nate Sestina and Jordan Bowden are the two other rookies on the roster. Long Island scouted both players throughout their careers and Riccardi says the team is excited to see them develop, Sestina as a stretch-4 and Bowden as a 3-and-D wing.

“We got a few rookies here that are in the same boat. Nate Sestina and Jordan Bowden - these guys are fresh out of college that we had spent a ton of time watching over their careers and wanted to get here to Long Island to get an opportunity to work with them,” Riccardi said.

Sestina, who has been a journeyman throughout his time in the collegiate circuit, calls being a professional basketball player humbling and is excited about playing organized basketball again.

“It has been super humbling,” Sestina said. “I come from a really small town so just being able to call myself a professional basketball player now is very humbling after playing at two prestigious universities in Bucknell and Kentucky has been very humbling for me as well,” said Sestina who played four years at the Pennsylvania school before landing as a grad student under John Calipari at UK. “I am just really excited to get this thing going. It has almost been a year for me since I played organized basketball so I am just ready to go.”

In addition, Sestina provided an early look into his role with the Nets G League affiliate. The 6’9” forward explained how Brielmaier wants him to shoot the three-ball. While at Kentucky, Sestina shot 40.7 percent from behind the arc, which was the second-highest mark on the team.

“Coach Bret has messaged me and sent me clips. We have talked about it a lot,” Sestina said. “He said ‘you got a flamethrower. You got to let that thing go. If you leave the game with a full clip, that is on you’ so they are very confident in me, and having a front office and coaching staff that is confident in you should give you the ultimate confidence to go out and play as well as knowing your teammates are confident in you as well and your ability to do something.”

To mold the roster, the Nets are bringing back three returning players CJ Massinburg, Jeremiah Martin, and Shannon Scott. Riccardi said the Nets have been leaning on all three players to help navigate the ship.

“We have been leaning on both coach and our players a ton, especially the guys that have been in the bubble before and giving us some examples of what to expect and pointers on how we can navigate this thing to the best of our ability,” Riccardi said, referring in particular to Martin who averaged 10 points in the NBA “bubble”. “We are thankful we have such guidance in this group of people to lean on and have been there before.”

Massinburg, who played 24 games for Long Island last season, noted that he feels more comfortable this year knowing a lot and what to expect in terms of competition.

“I’m excited to be back again,” the 6’5” shooting guard said. “When you come back the second time, you have more experience under your belt, you know how the pace of the game is, and you basically know what to expect. I’m excited to be back again.”

Making things even more comfortable for Massinburg, he had some offseason workouts with Brooklyn, making him familiar with his new head coach in Brielmaier. He is excited to be able to pass down some knowledge to the younger guys and be a leader of the team.

“Even though when Bret was with Brooklyn, I had some summer workouts with Brooklyn and I was in training camp with Brooklyn so I was pretty familiar with Bret,” Massinburg said. “Built a relationship with him there so now that he has the head job, everything is just comfortable and nothing is really foreign. The sets that we run, concepts, and so it is just good to be back another year and I am able to pass down that knowledge to the younger guys and guys who aren’t so familiar.”

In addition, Massinburg was able to get some runs in and keep working on his game during the pandemic. He noted how three-point shooting is the area of his game he wants to improve the most, bringing back those solid college numbers from behind the arc.

“Working out during the pandemic, I am from Dallas, Texas. That state isn’t on lockdown like a lot of the other states,” Massinburg said. “Some states you couldn’t go into restaurants and stuff like that so with being in Dallas, we got a lot more freedom but also more cases. I was able to get into some spots and work on my game. I found a couple of spots that had an NBA three-point line so that is one thing I really wanted to work on this year was my three-point shooting and get back the percentages I had in college. I have put in a lot of work before I came.”

Shannon Scott at 28 is the oldest player on the roster. He’s also been around. He’s the son of Hall of Famer Charlie Scott, shared the Ohio State backcourt with DeAngelo Russell and was a member of the 2019 Nets G League team when they made it all the way to the G League Finals. Scott

knows a lot about the foundation of Long Island. He is ready to take on a leadership role.

“Just being able to talk about the foundation being built from previous years,” Scott said on veteran leadership. “A lot of similar schemes that we are going through to kind of help the younger guys out to let them know how things were in the past, how we were successful, and the things that didn’t work out for us.”

Long Island, like many other teams in the G League ‘bubble,’ are unlikely to have the services of either of their two-ways, Reggie Perry and Chris Chiozza As Riccardi noted, every NBA team is dealing with roster issues created by the pandemic and will want to keep as many players ready as they try to figure it all out.

“Every team is dealing with it,” Riccardi said on two-way players. “How many NBA games have we seen get postponed so far due to COVID or contact-tracing issues. Obviously, roster size and all those things come into play when dealing with these issues but we are navigating it the best we can.

“We are conscious about it and I think every team has a different kind of perspective on what their two-ways are used for and how they are needed on both teams. That is something that changes year to year, month by month, day by day, as we go through everything. COVID situation is no different. We are all still trying to figure it out ourselves.”

If the Nets were to send down either Perry or Chiozza, Riccardi says the G League “bubble” has a protocol process, which will require either player to quarantine upon entry. The length of the quarantine depends on their travel situation and other key factors based on a tier list.

“The G League itself has put together a process where guys would have to quarantine upon entry, depending on what their travel is like, where they are coming from, having been part of the NBA protocol, and those different types of tier lists,” Riccardi said. “More of a question for the G League office than for me specifically but yes there is definitely a protocol in place for that happening. As you have seen, some guys on some other teams start to be assigned and start to go through that process.”

Despite the likelihood of the Nets two-way players, or any assignment players, joining Long Island in the “bubble,” Brielmaier and his players see that as an advantage.

“Continuity is the word there and being able to have some synergy with these guys playing together on a regular basis. It is a real challenge having guys come in and out and having them get caught up to speed while understanding some guys’ minutes will be a little bit different,” Brielmaier said on less roster movement. “I think the continuity and the rhythm of this will definitely be a benefit.”

Scott said It keeps the players confident and focused knowing there will be little to no roster movement in the future.

“I think it definitely can play a part in just keeping guys confident,” Scott said about low roster movement. “I know in regular seasons, there is a lot of movement. Guys coming up each day so you never really know when their name is going to be called. You just got to be patient the whole time.

“Having a 10-man roster and knowing that these are the 10 guys we are going with, everybody is going to be ready each game. There is no excuse for anybody not to be ready because your name can be called at any moment. Everyone is going to be ready and prepared for that.”

Still, Long Island has a body-aching 15 games in 25 days, starting February 10. Brielmaier’s plan, to start off, is to acclimate his players back into the physicality of basketball at a gradual rate. He sees those 25 days as the biggest challenge.

“First, our plan was to keep our players as healthy as we possibly can and understand the time and layoff some of these individuals have had not been on the court,” Brielmaier said. “Not to have this load, high speed, running, all of that was taken into consideration. It is a gradual build-up. The last couple of days, we are easing these guys into it but really just creating a foundation of how we want to play on both sides of the ball. These guys haven’t really played together so getting them a little familiarity with each other has been important.”

“The biggest probable challenge for the season is just the density of games. We are going to play 15 games in 25 days. That’s a lot of playing and we don’t have a very deep roster. We have 10 guys so how we manage the attacks on these guys’ bodies will be important but the G League has done an incredible job of giving our guys the resources to help these guys as recovered, well-fed, hydrated, and ready to play as possible.”

Scott agreed. “You have to be mentally ready for that and mentally be ready to accept that challenge but also physically. You have to take care of your body and eat right. You don’t have that run to the store and get what you need to be able to play. You got to work with what is in front of you and go off that.”

When asked about what has surprised Brielmaier thus far with two practices and a lengthy quarantine accomplished, he said the lack of rust from his players and chemistry.

“The biggest surprise is that the guys aren’t as rusty as I thought they were going to be,” Brielmaier said. “I think it is a real compliment to them that these guys were working out when they could wherever their home was. They are focused on their game and their desire to continue to improve. I was definitely expecting them to be rustier and not quite as sharp as they have been in the little time we have been together.

“The chemistry is definitely ahead of what I anticipated and I think a lot of that is due to the types of players we have. Well-coached, guys that have high basketball IQ, and those attributes are what Brooklyn/Long Island Nets are all about. The opportunity for us to develop the guy's skills both on and off the court. We got a good group here and I am very excited and optimistic to see how this thing plays out.”

The Nets have some other interesting prospects: Tariq Owens, a shot-blocking 6’10” center who played for St. John’s and Texas Tech, and Kaiser Gates, a 6’7” wing the Celtics had on their Maine team last year.

Brielmaier and Riccardi already have a record of finding solid players in the NBA’s bargain bin. It was Brielmaier, the former Cleveland assistant, who recommended a Cavs castoff named Joe Harris to his new bosses in Brooklyn five years ago. A few months later, it was Riccardi who pushed hard for the front office to take a look at a G League point guard already cut by two NBA teams named Spencer Dinwiddie.

The Nets G League affiliate will tip-off their 15-game regular season when the team plays the Iowa Wolves. It and all the Nets games will be streamed on ESPN+, with the game against Team Ignite, the G League’s team of prospects, on ESPNU February 22.