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How ‘Day-Day’ emergence led Nets to re-jigger their front court

Brooklyn Nets v Washington Wizards Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

It looks like Paul Millsap has played his last game for Brooklyn. The Nets are trying to help find him a new home after he reportedly requested a parting of ways. Blake Griffin’s minutes have been up-and-down although he showed Friday night that he still has enough gas in his tank to make a difference, scoring 10 points and grabbing five boards in only 11 minutes vs. the Spurs.

As Brian Lewis writes Saturday, the reason for the changing of the guard up front is simple: the kids are alright. Both Nic Claxton, 22, and Day’Ron (“Day-Day” to his teammates) Sharpe, 20, have made big and — particularly in the case of Sharpe — unexpected jumps. Millsap was the big loser in the new math up front.

“You add it all up, there are five centers. I think it makes it difficult and for different reasons and different parts of the season, we pressed different buttons and although he did get some opportunities, he didn’t get a ton of opportunities,” said Steve Nash. “

“I feel that was unfortunate for Paul, and I understand. Just a difficult situation we didn’t foresee but here we are. Day’Ron and Nic have emerged, LA has had a great year and we know Blake’s been available the whole season and whether he’s playing very well or he’s struggling, we know what he brings. You add it all up, there’s not enough space for everybody.”

The big surprise of course in Nash’s litany of big men developments has been Sharpe’s emergence. Brooklyn’s brain trust knew what they had in Claxton ... when he was on the court. Sharpe like all draft picks was an unknown quantity. The Nets interest in Sharpe before the Draft was an open secret, as Lewis notes. Most mock drafts had the Nets taking him with their own pick, at No. 27. Then after they acquired a second pick on Draft Night, the Nets took Cam Thomas at 27 and Sharpe with their new pick two places later.

After he spent some time in the G League, Sharpe moved into the starting line-up earlier this month and has stayed there. As Lewis notes, he’s done well, too, averaging 11.4 points, 7.4 boards and a block over the last seven games, including a 20-point effort vs. the Bulls and a double-double against the Pelicans, both wins. He’s also put up double figures in rebounds twice.

James Harden likes what he sees from the youngsters.

“I love it, man. Their energy, they listen, they go out there and play hard and they get it. They want to do the small things,” Harden said of Brooklyn’s promising crop of rookies. “As far as Day-Day, he’s rebounding the ball, screening, communicating defensively. So far, they’ve been doing a good job. They get 15, 20 games under them, they’ll be a lot better.”

Nash thinks he sees something special in Sharpe as well.

“His understanding of the NBA game,” Nash said. “He has more of a feel for the actions. It’s different than in college. It’s way more space, you’ve got to cover territory, you’ve got to cover people in space. You’ve got to be able to recover [against] athletic, talented people that have a slight advantage and try to close down that advantage. And that’s a lot different than college.

“He’s done a good job of finding some of those reads, using some of his physicality, but he also uses his intelligence. He has a good feel for that stuff. It’s coming along quickly for a young guy because he does have that natural feel for some of those things. We knew he has great hands, we knew he was athletic and energetic; but seeing him adapt to the technical aspects of the NBA game has been probably the biggest jump since we met him.”

And Sharpe has yet to show off one aspect of his game that attracted the Nets following a pre-Draft workout — his ability to make deep shots. Although Sharpe has only attempted three shots from beyond the arc so far, making one, Sean Marks specifically mentioned his potential in that area the morning after the Draft back in July.

Sharpe is satisfied with his progress so far and sees a lot more opportunity down the road.

“The staff and my teammates (are) telling me keep doing good, you’re doing the right thing,” Sharpe said. “While I’m playing they’re just telling me the things that I need to do while I’m [on the] court, and I’m just listening and taking everything so I make myself look better and can win games.”

There are issues, particularly that he’s foul-prone, aka raw. He said two days ago that it’s the big area where he needs improvement. LaMarcus Aldridge, while claiming he never had the foul problems Sharpe is experiencing, he’s been trying to help the rookie. He also thinks that the Nets do not have to choose between Sharpe and Claxton, that they bring complementary skills.

“They’re both good rollers, they’re both young and athletic,” Aldridge said. “Clax is more of a high-flyer, and he meshes well with James because James likes that downhill with the lob; but Day has given him that same option at times. Day-Day finishes with the spin moves and has the jump hooks; and I think Clax has it too, it’s just getting more time doing it. But I think they both have grown and been big for us.”

Sharpe admits he never thought he’d start this season but he’s very happy he is, foul calls or not.

“I thought I was going to come off the bench and provide a little spark. But I wasn’t expecting to start. It’s a dream to play in the NBA and start in the NBA in my first year on a championship-contending team.

“[And] just not be able to start, but actually be able to help the team win. I’m not just on the court, I’m actually trying to help the team win. I’m actually productive, so it’s a good feeling.”

What will Nash’s rotation look like when Claxton returns, hopefully Sunday vs. the T’Wolves, and when Kevin Durant returns, in a month? That’s to be determined, but in the end, it’s a good problem to have. The Nets run-ins with COVID and the typical piling up of injuries have indeed taken their toll, but with the young players stepping up, it’s all become a blessing in disguise.