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How Nets are prioritizing development while contending for a championship

Brooklyn Nets v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

Picture this: you’re a young NBA player that’s good enough to survive and hold your own when thrown out on the floor, yet you rarely get to do so as a member of a veteran-laden team. When those ultra-rare chances do come around, it’s essential you impress. They could very well be one of your last opportunities to carve out playing time on a team with championship aspirations.

That is the dilemma that Brooklyn’s sophomores—Day’Ron Sharpe, Cam Thomas, Kessler Edwards, and David Duke Jr.—all face. In large part, none of the Nets’ 2021 draft selections (or undrafted pickups in the case of Duke Jr.) have solidified themselves in Jacque Vaughn’s experienced rotation, and all of them have received a slew of DNPs at some point in the season—some more so than others.

That brings us to Saturday. Brooklyn entered the contest against the Indiana Pacers woefully undermanned with just 9 available players. For the sophomores, this meant the one thing they had all been craving: opportunity. Edwards and Sharpe got their first starts of the season. Duke Jr. and Thomas, meanwhile, each played more than 25 minutes off the bench. In large part, all four players popped to varying degrees.

Edwards looked every bit the part of the defensive-minded young stud that made waves last season as a rookie. His defense while guarding Indiana’s lead creators was particularly impressive, holding rising star Tyrese Haliburton to 1-of-4 shooting, and Kess also did a great job defending as the tip of the spear of Jacque Vaughn’s impromptu 1-2-2 zone. Duke Jr. was similarly impressive as a defender against the Pacers.

Sharpe recorded his third career double-double and cracked the 20-point mark for the second time in his career. His final stat line: 20 points and 12 rebounds, 9 of which came on the offensive end, to go with two blocks. Sharpe’s ability to rebound the basketball has always been his calling card, but it was nice to see him contribute other things to the basketball court.

“He had a great offseason,” said Vaughn about Sharpe before the start of Monday’s game against the Washington Wizards. “He played in Summer League. He spent a lot of time in the gym. He worked on his body. That doesn’t mean the next year it’s, ‘I’m playing 30 minutes a game.’ That part of it he’s grabbing onto and then being ready when he’s called up. So he was (ready) the other night and played tremendously for us in a lot of areas. I think that’s a learning curve for young guys. You don’t know how long it’s going to take to really be incorporated into a starting unit or rotation player, but you continue to put the work in. That’s always been the message for him: ‘We love you and you are doing the work and we see you and hope you feel it. Your time will come.’ And he took advantage of his time.”

Then, there was the star of the show in Indy, Cam Thomas posted a team-high 33 points off the bench, 21 of which came in the fourth quarter. His Saturday outing didn’t just tie a career-high in scoring, it was a reflection of his tantalizing upside that has many executives across the league fascinated by his development. His big outing also emulated why he, more than any other sophomore, has gotten numerous chances with the big league club this season. Vaughn was particularly complimentary of the LSU product for his mindset, both as a competitor and learner.

“I think that’s a direct reflection of who he is as a person and why he might not play the third quarter and still have his ignite button on for the fourth quarter like the other night. His ability to believe in himself is huge at this level,” said Vaughn. “So I do believe that there’s a confidence piece for every individual in that locker room and some of them even at the highest level doubt themselves at times.

“I’ve always had a relationship with Cam of being able to talk to him, whether that was encouraging him, whether that’s challenging him to be a better box out player, which he’s above average now. So the little things that we continue to want him to grow on, he has. Whether that is challenging him in summer league to be someone who initiates the offense and can score, to play a summer league back-to-back and lead it one year in scoring, and then try to facilitate the next year. But he is an individual that believes in his talent and I think that’s huge at this level.”

Vaughn also mentioned on a Wednesday Zoom call with a group of reporters that Cam’s mindset and diligence in working on his game have made a big impression on Brooklyn’s stars.

“Yeah, that’s I think been a huge development with our team is those guys embracing his talent and his want and desire to be the best basketball player that he can. I think that’s a trait that Kevin appreciates,” said Vaughn. “Kevin’s a worker and when he sees Cam at the same bucket with him working on his game and Cam working on his game at a different bucket, that means a lot when your peers see you work on your game, which Cam does. And so when you can get the leaders of your team to wrap your arms around a young guy, that’s huge.”

Of course, the big question with Thomas has always been his scalability. Particularly, can he make the same impact on a game in a reduced role? When Cam’s the star of the show, he’s never had an issue shining in the limelight. In the eight games that Thomas has played more than 20 minutes this season, he’s averaged 15.9 points on a nifty 43/37.5/84 shooting line. In fact, the only times he’s put up 10 points or more this season is when he’s played 20+ minutes.

Compare those numbers to when Cam plays under 20 minutes, and it’s a far cry away from that efficient, high-volume scorer: He’s averaging just 2.2 points per game on icky 21.9/7.1/61.7 splits in this setting. He basically goes from a promising three-level prospect to not even being NBA-caliber.

After dropping 33 points and oozing starry potential as Brooklyn’s de-facto first option against the Pacers, Thomas was once more placed in an ancillary role against the Washington Wizards with Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Ben Simmons, and the crew back in the fold. Thomas’ production, well, resembled more of the latter of the two player types provided above. In 19 minutes, Thomas put up just five points on 1-of-4 shooting on Monday. Vaughn spoke about the Cam Thomas dilemma on Wednesday on Zoom. In essence, can Thomas put up the same level of efficiency when taking seven shots as he does on, say, 20?

“Yes, it’s an interesting task for him and challenge for him just because if we thought about it before the game, everyone was like, ‘Cam’s gotta score 30 in this game for us to have a chance to win.’ And it happened,” said Vaughn about his performance against the Pacers. “But you go into Washington, like, everyone’s pretty much going to play tonight, Cam’s probably not going to have 30, and so now, what does that first and second possession look like for him?

“So that’s the challenge I’m gonna have for him, like, value that first and second possession just the way you value the possessions when you know you’re gonna have this 9th, 10th and 11th shot. So can he get better as a player that way? And if he does, man, that is a huge step for a young guy to be able to work towards this very first mid-range shot or penetration that I get or jab three that I get is just as important as that fourth-quarter shot when I had the leeway to take four shots in a row. That growth for him would be huge as a player.”

It’s unclear whether any of Brooklyn’s skillful sophomores will be able to crack the rotation in the final 50(-ish) games of the year. There’s a chance that Saturday against the Pacers was the group’s best shot at getting a real chance to show their stuff. Or, there’s a world where injuries or tactical rest gives the “Stay Ready” group an opportunity to show out once more.

Regardless, the Nets aren’t going to hinder the 2021 draftees’ development by having the foursome rot away on the bench. Brooklyn has been quite aggressive about using its G-League team, the Long Island Nets, as a space for Sharpe, Edwards, and Duke Jr. to get practice and in-game reps (Thomas is the only sophomore that has consistently remained with the big league club). There have been numerous assignments and call-ups to and from Long Island for three players mentioned throughout the season; it’s a way to build for the future while remaining competitive in the present.

The three have played a total of 14 G League games in a little more than two weeks and have been putting up big numbers along the way. Sharpe is averaging 22.3 points and 14.3 rebounds; Duke, 26.4 and 7.7 and Edwards, 14.9 and 7.0, helping the Long Islanders win nine of their last 11. At least Edwards and maybe Duke will be available Thursday night vs. the Westchester Knicks at Nassau Coliseum (a game that can be viewed on the YES App, ESPN+ or MSG2 starting at 7:00 p.m. ET.)

“I think you have to use that to your advantage. There’s quality basketball, quality games being played on the G-League level,” said Vaughn about Long Island, citing Sharpe’s production. “If you have the right approach to it, which Day’Ron has, he’s going to Long Island when he does to get better. When he gets a chance to play with the Nets, he’s giving all that he has. I think the approach is huge. It’s not a demotion. It’s part of the process you have to go through. We are a pretty veteran-laden team. He’s trying to work his way in the lineup. And the G-League operates a lot of opportunity to keep your skills current.”

Indeed, Alton Byrd, who runs Long Island’s business operations and was as big a star as British basketball has ever had, told NetsDaily a week ago Tuesday that with the Brooklyn assignees and Chris Chiozza, he thought his team could be competitive with a number of NBA clubs ... and four days later, he was proven right!