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The kids are alright ... and now they’ll have to be more than that

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Brooklyn Nets Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

When the Nets entered Draft Night last July, they had four picks, a first at No. 27 and three seconds at 44, 49 and 59. Then, just before the Draft they added another first, the 29th, as part of a trade with the Clippers that sent Landry Shamet to Phoenix and brought Jevon Carter to Brooklyn.

Five picks! The draftniks and pundits thought the Nets would never use all five. A team with championship ambitions using five picks?!? Unheard of! If New York sports betting was legal that night, you would have gotten pretty good odds against it. But by the time the draft was over, the Nets had indeed all five picks ... and to top that off, signed an undrafted player as well! (Why? Maybe Marks looked out over his draft horizon and saw ... nothing after 2021.)

The Nets got pretty good grades that night, mostly B’s and B+’s and Sean Marks said the haul left him “ecstatic.” You could have dismissed it as typical post-draft talk, you know, where the GM says, “we couldn’t believe he was still there when we picked!” But if anything, Marks’ commentary now seems understated. At the mid-point of the season, there’s the eye test, of course, but there’s also the facts and stats and analytics to back up the ecstacy.

The rookies were needed in the Nets god-awful stretch of five games in seven days and they came through.

  • Cam Thomas, the 27th pick, averaged 15.0 points, 4.0 rebounds and 1.2 steals in 21 minutes while shooting 44/30/73. And in the last two games, he’s had games of 20 and 21. Thomas moved into the top 10 ( and top 5 (CBS) of NBA rookies this week.
  • Day’Ron Sharpe, the 29th pick, averaged 11.4 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in 20 minutes while shooting 57/00/75. Saturday night, he had the first double-double of his career, 12 and 10.
  • Kessler Edwards, the 44th pick, averaged 9.0 points, 3.4 rebounds and a steal in 24 mintes while shooting 47/47/100. His 16 points Saturday were one shy of his career high.
  • David Duke Jr., who went undrafted, averaged 5.4 points and 2.8 rebounds in 12 minutes while shooting 48/71/100. Duke who started out the season shooting less than 20 percent from three, is now hitting from downtown, going 3-of-3 vs. OKC.

There are some issues, of course, like they’ve only gone to the line a combined 18 times and 11 of those were by Thomas, but when you consider the four rooks put up 40.8 points a game at a time when their team was short-handed, the appropriate reaction is wow. They were a big part of the Nets 3-2 record in those five games that included two back-to-backs and 5,800 air miles.

Here’s some highlights to complement all those stats...

“They’ve been great,” Steve Nash said post-game. “That’s why they’ve gotten an opportunity. We liked them in the preseason, but we felt like there was a process to them getting, to earning and to developing into an opportunity and it came...

“It’s huge for us. They bring that energy and effort every single night and that’s contagious. That rubs off on each and every individual on the team.”

Even before their breakout Saturday, Nash had some kind words for Sharpe and Edwards. While Thomas has been getting minutes almost from the beginning of the season, the 6’10” Sharpe and 6’8 Edwards were unfamiliar to all but the most intense Nets fans.

“He’s got some natural gifts,” Nash said. “He has a nose for the ball around the basket and on the boards. He’s physical, he loves to throw his weight around underneath the basket, which is a positive for us. So that rebounding, physicality, he has great hands, he has a real knack for finishing around the basket, as well. For a young player, he’s an excellent passer for a center, so, a lot of skills we can use and a great piece for our team to develop.”

Nash likes Edwards for his touch ... and touch D. He spent a lot of his 37 minutes Saturday — second only to Harden’s 40 — guarding Brandon Ingram who shot only 8-of-21. He did a more that credible job on Wednesday vs. the Bulls.

“I think Kessler’s been great” on D, Nash said. “He has natural defensive instincts. He seems to understand the game plan and has the resolve to stay with it, to chase, to have the discipline. Largely stays down on pump fakes. Largely knows what route to take and uses his length and athleticism at both ends of the floor to add to our team. He really knows his role. He’s played his role for a young guy in the opportunity very, very well.”

For the kids themselves, the opportunity has a bit of a surprise. You don’t walk into a locker room with Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden and think, “I got this.”

“We’re just playing our role,” said Thomas post-game Saturday. “Whatever role we’re put in, we’re playing our role and we’re just doing our best in a role. So I feel like we’re just excelling in the role that we’re put in.”

“It’s really just my confidence,” added Edwards about his improvements as a shooter. “I mean, I’ve had a couple nights where I didn’t shoot how I wanted to, but just staying with it. I mean, I know I’m a shooter ever since college. So that’s really the main thing is getting shots up, staying confident.”

“I feel like I’m more poised than I was during the summer,” said Sharpe. “During the summer I felt I was just grabbing rebounds and I was rolling hard, but I wasn’t in shape during the summer. I didn’t feel like my body was good during the summer, but I feel like as I watch the other guys play I can learn more from them while I’m watching the things they do and they teach me as I’ve been going.”

The Nets success in drafting and developing the four wasn’t an accident. B.J. Johnson, the Director of Player Evaluation, and Matt Riccardi, Director of Scouting Operations (and Long Island GM), were critical in finding — and pushing for — the kids while Nets assistant coaches Ryan Forehan-Kelly and Royal Ivey are working with them daily ... just as the Long Island staff did before they joined Brooklyn.

As for the other two draft picks from July 29, Marcus Zegarowski, taken at 49, and RaiQuan Gray, are playing on G League contracts out at Nassau Coliseum. The Nets will retain their rights in perpetuity unless they call them up, then cut them. Unlikely.

Long-term, the kids are also bargains. Thomas and Sharpe are on four-year rookie deals that will pay them a total of around $10 million each. Kessler and Duke are both on two-way deals, making less than $500,000 this season. If the Nets want to play them in the post-season (and keep them long-term), they’ll have to find a way to move them on to standard NBA deals. But compared to what the Nets front office has already accomplished, that should be easy.