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Vecenie: Kessler Edwards best bet among rookies, but don’t rule out Cam Thomas

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New Orleans Pelicans v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Sam Vecenie is The Athletic’s draft guru (among other things) and he spoke with colleague Alex Schiffer not who the Nets could take this year, if they indeed keep their pick, but how the Nets five picks last year should be seen heading into next season.

Bottom line for Vecenie: Kessler Edwards, taken at No. 44, is the most turned out of the picks, but don’t count out Cam Thomas, taken 17 picks ahead of Edwards, simply because of his pure shooting skills. He even calls Edwards “a Dorian Finney-Smith starter kit.”

Here’s his bottom line...

The Nets drafted players who have some limitations, and they drafted two guys in the first round (Thomas and Day’Ron Sharpe) who are very young with standout positive skills but who have a ways to go in rounding out their all-around games. I remain quite a fan of Edwards and think he showed some signs this year he could be an interesting 3-and-D guy. And though I wasn’t a fan of the guys the team drafted with their late second-rounders (Marcus Zegarowski and RaiQuan Gray), it’s hard to really complain much about guys taken in the final 10 picks, given that the success rate of finding even rotation players is between five and 10 percent.

In his discussion with Schiffer, Vecenie basically posed a single question: How will they play with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving ... in the playoffs. Edwards, of course, was the only Nets rookie to get time in the post-season. Thomas and Sharpe stayed on the bench. So let’s start there.

The numbers will never be sexy, but he’s a really helpful guy to have out there. Think of him like a Dorian Finney-Smith starter kit. He’s 6-foot-8 with good length and a developing shot in terms of consistency. He hit 35 percent of his 3s while keeping things simple in terms of not doing too much. It’s a thin line between knowing your role and not doing enough, and Edwards probably sits a bit too far on the “not doing enough” side of the spectrum right now. He passes up too many open ball reversals. He needs to be more willing to make occasional mistakes. But more than that, he’s a long, mobile wing defender who needs to get stronger but still generally makes a positive impact out there with his attentiveness rotationally and knowledge of how to play defense within a team concept. He’s semi-useful as a weakside rim protector, manages well in switches and is almost always in the right spot. And at 6-8 with real quickness, he’s not a target out there.

I think Edwards is actually the closest guy among the Nets’ young players to making an impact in a playoff series with Durant and Irving.

Vecenie, who had Thomas at No. 27 in his last mock draft of 2021, gets more in-depth with Thomas. While admitting Thomas is young, raw and in need of improvement in a lot of areas, is a bucket. And that matters.

You have to be so special as a scorer to be a primary guy in the NBA. Thomas’ margin for error is essentially zero because of that.

Having said that, Thomas is a bit of an exception because he’s so good as a scorer. He’s one of the more polished scorers in terms of footwork I’ve seen. He gets to his jumper from midrange with ease and really elevates to get his shot up from a variety of angles. I actually think he has the capability to get buckets in isolation at the NBA level. On a per-minute basis, he’s excellent at generating shots, mostly from the midrange. And long-term, I’m not actually that worried about the 3-point shot. He has excellent touch. So much of the issue with his shooting percentages across all levels just has to do with shot selection and decision-making. As a guy with unlimited confidence who is wired to score, he just doesn’t always hit reads to his open teammates and instead chucks up contested shots. It’s been a problem at every level, including his rookie year in the NBA.

It will be up to Thomas to improve in those areas, again if he wants to play with KD and Kyrie.

It’s going to be hard to put [Thomas] out there next to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant in a playoff series because opposing teams are just going to relentlessly target him. I think he remains a reasonable flier for the Nets to have taken at No. 27. Sometimes these kind of guys really, truly put in the work and become Jordan Pooles. Other times, they’re Rashad Vaughns.

As for Sharpe (who Vecenie had at No. 40 last year), he sees him as the rawest of the three and cannot imagine Sharpe and Claxton playing together.

I don’t think the Nets can play Claxton and Sharpe at the same time, if that’s what you’re asking in terms of “co-existing.” But I think they can definitely both be on the same roster as long as one of them remains on a rookie scale deal — which Sharpe will for the next three years. Sharpe is a definite project and absolutely not what I would have done at No. 30 last year.

Vecenie also doesn’t share the Nets optimism about Sharpe as a deep shooter, something Sean Marks mentioned in his post-draft press conference last July.

Sharpe is a non-shooting, big-bodied big with some defensive questions long-term about how he can translate to playoff games. I know the Nets think he has some upside as a shooter long-term, but he’s long been a sub-60 percent free-throw shooter. Even if we think the Nets are right, and he does have a chance to shoot at some point — something I remain skeptical about — I think he’s multiple years away from being a reliable shooter whom other teams actually defend as if he’s going to make shots. That’s such a big part of these floor-spacing bigs.

Vecenie did like what the Nets did on Draft Day last year in trading Landry Shamet for Jevon Carter and Sharpe’s rights. He is decidedly not a fan of Shamet, particularly in playoff scenarios.

I don’t see Shamet as a rotation player for a playoff team. I thought he was pretty awful for Brooklyn in the moments he was asked to try to play in the series against the Bucks in 2021, because he just gives teams a target to hunt out in ball-screen actions to get switches. The Nets were able to acquire a first-round pick for him. That’s good asset management by the Nets to move him before having to make a decision on paying him. The Suns have him locked in at between $9 and $10 million per year now for a guy who has been ineffectual in every playoff series he’s ever gotten minutes in.

Vecenie does like where Claxton is headed as long as he continues getting stronger.

I’ve always liked Claxton much more because of his potential to be a shot-blocking rim protector who can also legitimately move in space and defend out on the perimeter in switch scenarios. Though Claxton is still working through some mechanical issues on that front that lead to fouling, he’s largely on track toward developing as useful in both of those capacities. He just needs to keep getting stronger so he doesn’t get killed on the glass.

Finally, Schiffer asks Vecenie his opinion on whether the Nets should use Philadelphia’s first round pick in either 2022 or 2022. The Nets have to decide on that by June 1. His take is interesting.

Brooklyn should extend this pick obligation out into 2023. Why? Two reasons. First, you just never know with Joel Embiid’s health. Though he’s been healthy for the most part in each of the past two seasons, the value of an unprotected pick, if he were to somehow miss a big part of next season, would be much greater than the No. 23 pick in this draft. It sucks to prey on a player’s downfall, but these are the unfortunate realities NBA teams have to consider when making these kinds of asset allocation decisions. Second, the 2023 NBA Draft is considered to be much stronger than the 2022 iteration — not only in the lottery but also in terms of depth. Realistically, it makes more sense for Brooklyn to send this to 2023 and see what happens.

Still, Vecenie thinks the best use of the pick in either year is as a trade asset and suggests how and what the Nets should be pursuing in any trade package.

As far as a trade for Brooklyn, I’d be looking for a versatile 3-and-D defender. The team needs to load up its roster next year with more versatility on the wings. That was the Nets’ biggest weakness in this year’s playoffs, as Boston just repeatedly attacked mismatches on Brooklyn’s smaller guards that were forced into the lineup.

He notes as well that the Nets may wind up making their decision at the NBA Draft Combine which begins May 17 in Chicago. That’s when Draft Day deals often get discussed.