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Inside Jacque Vaughn’s unique approach to Nets practice and shootarounds

Brooklyn Nets v Washington Wizards Photo by Jess Rapfogel/Getty Images

It’s been an arduous start to the season for the Brooklyn Nets. Only the Utah Jazz, LA Clippers, and Detroit Pistons have played in more games than the Nets, who have had 29 in total. Plus, Brooklyn has had seven back-to-backs already, nearly half of the 15 in total they’re slated for in the 2022-23 NBA season. So yes, if you’re doing the math at home, 14 of their 29 total games have come in back-to-back format. Pretty insane to think about it.

And yet, the Nets have found a way to claw their way up to the Eastern Conference’s fourth seed with a 17-12 record despite a dismal 2-6 start. Brooklyn’s massive turnaround came after a coaching change, swapping out Steve Nash for Jacque Vaughn, who has a shot at Coach of the Year at the end of the season if his squad keeps producing. But it goes beyond just a new voice; Vaughn has been intent on giving his players as much rest as possible, cutting down practice days and shootarounds over the last month amidst the torrential downpour of games.

Hosting shootarounds before games was a Steve Nash special. It was a change he made last season to supplement for all of the time lost due to injuries (Kevin Durant’s MCL sprain, for example), COVID-19 absences, and in Kyrie Irving’s case, being barred from participating in any team activities—not just games—due to New York City’s COVID mandates. Ideally, the extra practice time would give Brooklyn some needed familiarity to build chemistry given that, well, the full group was rarely ever on the floor together.

Vaughn has basically done away with that philosophy this season. His team has been about as healthy as they have been since landing Durant and Irving in the summer of 2019 (still not great, by the way... the Nets have yet to experience a clean injury report). And they’re winning games, the most important part.

Prior to Thursday, the last time the Nets hosted a practice was December 6. Before that, it was way back on November 10.

As for shootarounds, which happen in the morning on game days, Brooklyn’s most recent shootaround was on December 2 before playing the Toronto Raptors. Before that, the Nets had one on November 20 prior to hosting the Memphis Grizzlies. The players who have been on the roster for a while, like fourth-year Net Nic Claxton, appreciate the change.

“No shootarounds, it’s good,” said Claxton about Brooklyn’s new approach to game days. “I think at this point, everybody kind of knows what they need for their bodies. We’re all pros. If you need to come in the morning to get some shots, you do that. If not, you can just chill and be ready for the games.”

Even the newcomers, like Ben Simmons who landed in Brooklyn in February, appreciate Vaughn’s approach. Ben pointed out that it puts the onus on Brooklyn’s individual players to get the requisite amount of work done on their own time, which fits right in with Vaughn’s ethos of accountability.

“It’s interesting,” said Simmons about the lack of shootarounds. “But as an individual, you kind of know you need to get your work done because you’re not going to have those days where you’re made to come in. So it’s a luxury but at the same time another responsibility to make sure we get our work in.”

Simmons also mentioned that Vaughn’s unique approach to practice and shootarounds is much different than what he saw in Philadelphia as a Sixer.

“Not to the same degree,” said Simmons when comparing the rigidity of Brooklyn’s practice schedule to Philadelphia’s. “We had days (in Philadelphia) where you wouldn’t come in for shootarounds, but it wasn’t as often as this.”

Vaughn himself has been pleased with the outcomes of his wholesale changes to game days. Largely doing away with shootarounds has allowed his guys to stay fresh, which has been essential for this group while attempting to survive these onerous first 29 games.

“Definitely seeing the benefit. I think our guys have been extremely fresh,” said Vaughn. “They’ve been locked in when we ask them, gameplan-wise, so it’s worked to our advantage. Hopefully, it continues and it gives us a chance to really hold them accountable to the effort and playing hard and what we’ve been talking about.”

This week has been no different. The Nets had a nice break in what’s been a grueling schedule with only two games in six days for the eight players held out of the Pacers game Saturday: one on the road against the Washington Wizards on Monday and the other on the road against the Toronto Raptors on Friday.

“It’s been good for everybody. It feels kind of like an All-Star break,” said Claxton. “It’s been nice. We needed it. We had a lot of back-to-backs and a lot of traveling. So guys really able to just focus on taking care of their bodies and getting back to it.”

The Nets had time to return home to Brooklyn between the two games, but Vaughn’s hands-off approach did not change. Wednesday was what Vaughn termed a “get-what-you-need-day,” where players could either choose to rest at home, get a massage, come into the facility and work with the coaches, or do whatever helps them prepare for Friday’s game.

“I came in and shot some free throws, real light touch-up around the rim a little bit,” said Nic Claxton about his ‘get-what-you-need-day’ ritual. “I didn’t do too much.”

Simmons, who talked to reporters on Thursday, took a more restful approach.

“Yesterday, got some treatment and rested up,” said Simmons. “Today, had a good session on the court today.”

That brings us to Thursday, which was a regular practice day for the Nets. But as mentioned, it was the first one in a while.

“Yeah, just overall we were able to get a little bit of practice in, which we haven’t in a while. So clean up a couple of things on both ends of the floor,” said Vaughn. “Start to prepare for Toronto as well so we used today for the group.”

All-in-all, Brooklyn’s restful approach should ideally reduce the load on its stars and mitigate the risk of injury going forward. Two Nets—Royce O’Neale and Kevin Durant—have been atop the leaderboard in minutes played all season. Other players, like star point-forward Ben Simmons, have missed significant time (10 games) with a variety of injuries: back tightness after a summer back surgery, knee soreness, and most recently, a calf injury. For players like Simmons, the Nets have gone a step further, placing them on minutes restrictions in certain games.

“It’s tough because once I’m out there, I want to stay out there,” said Simmons about the restrictions. “But we’re playing for the long term, you know? We want to get to the playoffs healthy and do the right thing.”

Ideally, at some point, Simmons will reach a point physically where he can handle his regular load of 30+ minutes and play regularly with the team, without any restrictions.

“We don’t have another [back-to-back] until January 19, maybe somewhere around there,” said Vaughn about the prospect of Simmons playing consecutive games. “But at the end of the day, I think we want all of our guys playing in all of the games, so yes, we want to work towards all of our guys being in a position to play back-to-backs.”

Of course, not everyone has appreciated Brooklyn’s restful, player-friendly approach. On the second half of Brooklyn’s most recent back-to-back, the team elected to rest eight rotation players against Indiana after hosting the Atlanta Hawks at home the night before. The NBA league office did not seem to take kindly to the gesture, fining the franchise $25,000 for “failing to report injuries properly.”

I guess Adam Silver wasn’t as amused as the rest of us by Cam and the kids taking down the Pacers on the road. What a shame!