I wish I had something more interesting to lead off my first article of the season with than this but, we’re back! We’re back! Fortunately, the preseason is over and real basketball is upon us. I am beyond excited to rejoin a great team at Nets Daily this season and cover the Brooklyn Nets, for whom there is no such thing as a slow news day. So, the only statement I can muster is…we’re back!
But boy can I muster some questions. It may be a new season but these are the Nets, currently the most enigmatic franchise in professional sports. Even if you just narrow it down to the on-court product, which has been nearly impossible to do, questions still abound. Here are the ones I have heading into the season for each player on the roster.
There are the BIGGER questions about the season, maybe even cosmic ones, but what about those that don’t reach that high? I have a few, directed at each individual Nets player, using video to illustrate a point. It’s a long but worthwhile list.
Ben Simmons: How much space will he eat up?
The above play, from Brooklyn’s preseason tilt with the Milwaukee Bucks, is a good play! No defender should be that close to Simmons 35 feet from the basket, but it’s a nice drive nonetheless, followed by a slick dime. But nitpicking this play encapsulates the Ben Simmons Experience. I’ve included two replays of the assist, pausing it at its crucial juncture the second time around, when Simmons picks the ball up. He does this before pushing the Bucks and Giannis Antetokoumnpo specifically to their breaking point, allowing Giannis to recover to a rolling Day’Ron Sharpe and contest his layup, albeit fouling him.
That is my question for Ben Simmons. Can he push defenses to their breaking point? Can one defender handle Simmons while the rest forget about him? The space between him and the basket are like extra yards for a running back. In the ideal Nets offense, he does not leave any of it on the table, forcing defenders like Giannis to commit to him before granting teammates like Sharpe a wide-open dunk.
I’m not asking about the shot attempts, I promise. Mostly because everyone else already has, but also because it’s not worth asking about. Simmons is who he is, an impactful player who makes all the right plays. So many of those right plays, though, can become great plays with just a little more aggression. That desired aggression is crucial on a team that plans to fastbreak as much as Brooklyn does, particularly considering Simmons’ immutable flaws in the halfcourt. Take a look at these three transition possessions from that same preseason game:
None of these are squarely bad passes or decisions. One eventually leads to a clean look from Kevin Durant. But all of these are missed opportunities in some form or fashion. Missed opportunities to create wide-open looks for teammates instead of giving them more work to do. Ben Simmons hears alarm bells when a teammate jolts open. That’s admirable. I just question if he can hold off those alarm bells long enough to really jumble a defense. By no means is it a definitive no. He looked as good as you could have hoped for in the preseason. This group, obviously, is still jelling. We will find out soon enough.
Kevin Durant: Will he make a skip pass?
I don’t have a lot of questions for the best player to ever wear a Nets uniform. Durant kept Brooklyn in control of the Eastern Conference’s first seed until his January injury last season. The effects of aging and injuries have indeed taken a minor toll on him (the immediate burst when driving is no longer what it was) but not a toll that greatly reduces his impact. So my sole question is very simple: Will he throw a skip pass this year?
That’s a fine pass, but that’s the only one he really makes in pick-and-roll action. For a 7-footer, he has an odd fixation on exclusively throwing low bounce-passes to his fellow 7-footers. Teams started to realize this last year and brought the low man (Bobby Portis here, who almost gets a steal) way over in help. I just want to see KD use that height, peer over the court, and hit the weak corner when necessary. Especially as the paint figures to be congested when Simmons and Nic Claxton share the floor. I’ve seen Kevin Durant do everything under the sun in a Nets uniform, so I can’t ask for much. Except this.
Kyrie Irving: How much will Brooklyn have to cover for him on defense?
I almost asked, “how many easy buckets will he create for himself off the ball?” but I already know the answer to that one: a lot. Irving is an excellent cutter and relocator without the ball, and the chemistry he developed with LeBron James in Cleveland and Al Horford in Boston was in no small part due to this skill (and, of course, their respective passing talents). I can’t wait to highlight that again this year, as a result of playing with Simmons.
But a more intriguing question pokes at his defensive ability, which, when the motor is going, is also underrated. The motor just, frankly, isn’t always on. Brooklyn is oozing with more defensive potential than they’ve had in recent memory; the roster is full of long, athletic guys who get after it. There is a ton of switchability here, but coach Steve Nash has already stated he doesn’t want to lean too far into that. Great. Mixing it up is good! My concern is that they’ll have to spend too much energy covering for Irving, limited by his 6’1” frame more than anything else.
The good news is that he was playing hard on that end in preseason. I don’t see why he’d tone it down for the games that actually count. If he continues to show this kind of effort throughout the season getting around screens and such, my question has a pretty positive answer:
Joe Harris/TJ Warren: Can they stay healthy?
I’m not only asking this question because it’s the obvious one, or because I don’t have real preseason film of them, save for a handful of minutes for Harris. I’m asking because there’s a real role for these players if they can handle proper minutes. Harris is Royce O’Neale’s counterpart: Does the coaching staff want more defensive oomph or shooting prowess on a given night? And it’s not as if Harris, a smart, 6’6” grinder, is some defensive liability. The same goes for Warren, who has the height and wingspan of Markieff Morris, with far more offensive juice. He could add some playmaking and athleticism to bench lineups, at the risk of losing some bulk and toughness. Warren would also be of value on Simmons or Durant rest days, either initiating some offense or pouring in much-needed buckets. We know Harris’ game in and out, by now. It’s a valuable one, for sure. But Warren, more of an unknown, has upside on this team that makes the mind wander.
Seth Curry/Patty Mills: Are they redundant?
The short answer to this question is “yes,” although it never hurts to have positional depth and insurance. When it comes down to it, I trust Curry more, although it’s clear the Nets view Mills as integral to the organization. They will both be excellent minutes-eaters in the regular season, particularly playing with Simmons in bench-heavy lineups. But for a team with high defensive hopes, how much can you play these undersized guards when Irving will also be on the floor for the important stretches of a game? If Joe Harris looks right, I don’t see a situation in which either of these guys should play ahead of him in big spots. But that’s a big if, and again, you can never have too much depth.
Yuta Watanabe: Is there a shooting leap there?
If there is, he deserves real minutes. But it’s not like this thought didn’t cross the minds of his previous two teams, neither of whom granted him extended playing time. In NetsDaily’s annual season roundtable, my hot take was that he would end the season as Brooklyn’s closing center. I said that in no way could I ever bet on that, but the roadmap is there. The first step is him not being an offensive liability; he wreaks havoc on defense, and plays with great effort. His shooting must keep him on the court. His career average of 35% on threes would be just fine, but that’s only if he’s seeking out opportunities to shoot, forcing the defense to respect him, like this:
I really want big things for Yuta Watanabe on this team. The defensive activity and athleticism is exciting. It all comes down to the shooting. He shot 5/10 from deep in the preseason. Excellent, but the willingness to fire was an even better sign. pic.twitter.com/EyosTMFJoH— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) October 18, 2022
Nic Claxton: How will he finish in tight spaces?
Also, of course, will he make his clutch free-throws? But that’s too easy, and I can’t write anything about it. Everybody involved better damn sure hope so. Much has been made about his clunky offensive fit with Simmons, but they complement each other so well on defense. Sticking Simmons on the other team’s best player allows Claxton to roam behind the play and plug any leaks. Those stops Claxton gets in isolation do stand out, as they should. He’ll get more of them this year. But what really turns my head are the plays when Claxton comes over from the weak-side and shoots those tree-branch arms out to contest a shot.
So, if he’s going to stay on the court with Ben Simmons, yes he has to hit free throws, but that’s part of a larger question of finishing imperfect plays with points. Here’s a prime example:
Claxton will often have to finish over Simmons’ man, as he attempts to do here with a strong move, just missing. For Simmons’ part, it’s nice to see him get on the glass and keep the play alive.
These aren’t the Nets of 2020-’21. You won’t see a ton of uncontested dunks and free runs to the rim. The passing can only be so good, it’s on Claxton to make the most of it.
Markieff Morris: How much does he have left in the tank?
It’s nice we only have to ask this question about one Net this year, as opposed to the 12 aging (and often angry) big men they had on the roster entering last season. The stretch-5 potential is nice, but it won’t matter if he’s too slow to make closeouts and recover on defense. If teams counter Morris-at-the-5 lineups by going small and mobile as well, Morris just can’t be the slowest guy on the court. He’s not ancient, just 33 years old, but this is still a question worth monitoring.
Kessler Edwards: Is there a leap coming?
The sell on Edwards coming out of Pepperdine is that he was about ready to provide 3-and-D impact immediately. And, for the most part, that was true. He competes like hell on defense with super live legs and long arms to boot. But on this roster, it won’t be enough to garner consistent playing time unless there’s a bit more comfort to his offense in Year 2. Yes, he has to make shots. Beyond that, though, he can’t have the deer-in-headlights look with the ball. Even though it’s hard to envision right now, history tells us he will get a chance at some point this season. When that happens, will he fade into the background?
Cam Thomas: Does he have a role on this team, this year?
And no, not when Irving and/or Durant miss games and there are shots available for him. In year one, he showed that he’s an NBA player. Some of the shotmaking is undeniable. But on this team, is there a reason to play him over Seth Curry and Patty Mills? He gets more comfortable reading the floor with every pick-and-roll rep, but is that development accelerated enough to matter in the near future, or is he trade bait this year?
Day’Ron Sharpe: How much does one year of NBA experience affect him?
If Day'Ron is this active and solid contesting shots all year...he'll get real burn. pic.twitter.com/h1gk94a7Ig— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) October 18, 2022
Take a look at those defensive plays from Sharpe. I’m not sure he makes either of those last year; certainly the contest against Giannis would have been a foul, swiping his arms down. In the preseason, he also followed the lead of Nic Claxton and ran the floor on the fastbreak just as hard, a positive sign. And that’s all he really needs to do. Be in the right spots, have some force protecting the rim, and run the floor. Sharpe should be much better equipped to do all that after a year in the league. Could he creep up to 15 minutes a game by February?
Royce O’Neale: …
Why is he last? Well, because I don’t have a question for him. Surprising, as one of the newest Nets, but it’s true. O’Neale showed us the player he is in Utah, and it’s one that is more than welcome in Brooklyn. He’ll defend hard, have an occasional drive and dish attacking a closeout that makes you go “whoa”, and shoot in the mid-to-upper 30’s on a bunch of stationary threes. And all of that will be more than useful. It’s nice to have some stability.
I’ll return to all of these questions at some point in the season, to use as measuring sticks for individual performances. But now that I’ve asked them all, and they’re out of my system, that one thought still remains: It’s good to be back.