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Taking stock of the Nets rookies with the coach who oversaw their development

Alec Sturm sat down recently with Adam Caporn, the Long Island Nets coach, to review the Nets young players' progress.

Milwaukee Bucks v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Entering the 2022 Draft, the Brooklyn Nets have just one draft pick — the Philadelphia 76ers’ selection in the first round. As is the norm for most NBA contenders, the Nets have traded away the majority of their draft compensation for win-now players. Brooklyn can also defer Philadelphia’s pick to next year’s draft, leaving the Nets bare. They currently have no second-round choices and few assets to acquire one.

But on Draft Night 2021, the Nets were in a different spot. On the heel of a long playoff series against the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks, Brooklyn had a staggering five selections in the Draft; two late first-round picks and three late second-rounders as well. Two of their second-round picks, Marcus Zegarowski and RaiQuan Gray, signed G League deals with the Long Island Nets, Brooklyn’s G League affiliate, while undrafted guard David Duke Jr. signed a two-way deal with the Nets, bringing the total to six rookies: four on Brooklyn’s roster, and two on Long Island’s. First-round picks Sharpe and Cam Thomas saw time in the G League while on assignment.

Though Thomas was originally slated to spend ample time over in Long Island with the rest of the rookie cohort, that quickly changed after he score 79 points in his first two games, capped off with a 46-point outburst at home in a successful comeback effort. As the LSU product took over in the third quarter, there was a feeling on Long Island’s bench of, “Oh, we won’t be seeing this guy back here anytime soon.” And they were right. Thomas was recalled quickly following that game and spent the rest of the year in Brooklyn.

Meanwhile six players spent time in the G League in their rookies seasons with Day’Ron Sharpe and Duke seeing the most time of the players who went back and forth.

Long Island head coach Adam Caporn spent time guiding each and every one of the six, so NetsDaily sat down with Coach Caporn to review the season for Brooklyn and Long Island’s rookies ... and project where their careers will advance. Below is that conversation.

[Conversation has been lightly edited for clarity]

AS: First off, in my opinion, is Craig [Randall II], who was a breakout star early on in the year, wasn’t able to play late, but showed growth. Obviously in his scoring, in both output and volume, but in a lot of other ways too. What do you think of his all-around game?

AC: What I think about his all-around game is that — this is just my personal opinion — but I think he’s just a very good all-around combo guard. And that doesn’t mean to sound demeaning in any sense. He can really score. He’s a good passer, he can defend the ball, he’s smart, has a good feel for the game. He’s a very well-rounded player. And what he really showed he can do is pull upon those strengths depending on what he thought the team needed and what [the coaching staff] thought the team needed, and I enjoyed working with him in that capacity. He started the year as a lockdown defender for us and grew his role offensively and then with Ty[rone Wallace] I thought he really grew his passing when he was playing off the ball more but still using him in pick and roll. And in periods, we saw what he could do scoring the ball. A really dedicated, thoughtful player [that] I really enjoyed working with. H had some challenges this year that he just flourished amongst, which I’m really proud of.

AS: Day’Ron [Sharpe] specifically was someone who was featured a lot late in the year and I think had a bit of a different role than he did in Brooklyn, where he was a screen and dive player and was looking for opportunistic chances in the offense. And with you guys he was much more of a focal point. Where do you see him long-term as a basketball prospect?

AC: In the NBA, as a very good player. That’ll take some time. I believe, though, he’s shown the ability to improve very quickly, on a lot of things. One of the things I loved about what Day’Ron did was, firstly, he’s a joy to be around, a great personality and energy. And all the guys that came to Long Island [from Brooklyn] came with a great attitude, and I’m really appreciative of that. He — you talked about he’s had a slightly different role — just had more opportunity to score and make decisions with the ball. Which is why he’s there, to have those opportunities to get better. I never thought he abused that right or privilege. You know, he shot threes, but he didn’t shoot too many. He shot the right ones and he shot them well. He still rolled when we asked him to roll and did the dirty work and rebounded hard. And I think the mistake some players could make is getting out of their role or not doing the things that made them successful or are going to help them be successful in the NBA. He still did those. He’s just adding little things to his game. I think he really showed that he has the potential to also just make good decisions and be a play-making big. Really solid future.

AS: You mentioned his ability to improve as the year went on and that he was able to improve quickly.

AC: Yeah.

AS: In what way do you think he improved the most?

AC: The most? I’m not sure... Shooting. One of the ways was initially really impressed was I thought that he became a much better screener. And that’s one of the immediate ways when he’s working at the start of the year that I thought will translate to him on the court helping Brooklyn. How to set screens, how to get out of them quickly, how to read the ball defender, and things like that. I thought he really improved quickly at those things and at recognizing them. He’s a smart player. Yeah, that’s the thing that comes to my mind. I’m not sure if it’s what he improved at the most, but I thought it translated quickly and he did a really good job of it.

AS: The other player that spent the most time with you this year is David Duke Jr., who was a little tricky for me to figure out. I think in Brooklyn you saw him used in that Bruce Brown type role. The defensive offensive guard, filling gaps and whatnot. And for you guys, he started the year as the heal ball-handler. How do you project his skill set? What did you like about what he showed?

AC: You know, the things I think you’re saying and what I think of Duke’s strengths is that his versatility is just such a luxury. It’s always such a valued thing in the NBA. Because he plays bigger than he is, because of his athleticism, his strength and willingness to do the dirty work, rebounding, and just general competitiveness, he’s a warrior. So that gave us the ability to play him multiple positions, and that’s part of his development. So it wasn’t that his role would change. It was always like ‘you’re gonna go the other team’s best player, if he’s a forward or if he’s a point guard.’ And he was very coachable, he practiced very hard. He’s gonna be very successful. And like all young, you’re just learning to make better decisions at greater speed against greater length and I really enjoyed his growth there. And that’s why we put the ball in his hands and he made some big shots down the stretch. I think one of the games that I remember with Duke and his growth was we won at Lakeland close game, he defended the other team’s best player and made a lot of big threes. So his shooting is obviously something he’s developing and working really hard on. So I just see him as a versatile player who can play multiple positions, defend the other team’s best player, has a nice combination of offensive skills, can put pressure on the rim make plays for others, and shoot.

AS: The other two-guy, until pretty recently, was Kessler Edwards. Were you surprised to see him converted to a standard contract?

AC: I’m not surprised. I was hoping and waiting for it to happen. And we’re all seeing how much he was playing in Brooklyn. And he was playing so well, finished shooting 40 percent (actually 35.3) from three in the NBA and guarding some very good offensive players on the other team. So it was great to see him, to congratulate him, and it was great to see him after he got converted and congratulate him and, yeah, I’m happy for him. Totally deserved.

AS: As for some of the other players who Nets fans saw in Summer League. Marcus [Zegarowski] first I think, had a tough year with his plantar fasciitis. He tried to come back late and wasn’t able to what? What do you think went wrong with the injury?

AC: I don’t think necessarily anything went wrong. In fact, I know. He did everything he could to get back on the court. And that’s what you’re always balancing, long-term health and short-term goals and his long-term health is by far the priority, it has to be. That’s what we’re there to help young people with. And so he had plantar fasciitis which is a difficult injury, and I’m not the person to really speak on it. I just saw Marcus’s dedication to trying to get healthy and get through it and play. And unfortunately, that didn’t go the way any of us would hope. I thought he — we didn’t know this but — I really believe he grew from the experience. I thought he showed great resilience. He chose to stay around the team to the end, which I loved. I also had great discussions with him when he was working to get stronger. So ultimately, he’ll be better for the experience. I know he’s frustrated, especially at the time, and it would have been great to have him but adversity happens and he’ll be better for it.

AS: We still saw a good deal of him in the beginning of the year, though. And I think he showed off the skills that he was projected to, like the shooting, well. He’s someone who has taught me, at least, that shooting percentage is a number. If you watch a guy shoot and you see his range, you see his consistency, that’s a knockdown shooter, for sure.

AC: He’s an elite shooter.

AS: How and in what ways can you utilize that shooting in the offense?

AC: Loads of ways, especially with his shooting because he can shoot off screens, shoot off the dribble, and has range, as you said. Yeah, I mean, it’s pretty easy to use, to be honest. And when we saw Marcus at his best — and I’m not sure we ever truly did this year he was growing, but we will see his best — we can certainly see that his ability to play on the ball, play off the ball and make shots from anywhere on the court was really valuable. And I thought he really grew as a playmaker and we started to utilize that more and that’s another version of versatility that I think is really valued. Can you space the floor and catch and shoot can you be a rhythm shooter as well and shoot off the dribble? He could do both.

AS: What about RaiQuan Gray, who is it was an interesting prospect. A big with some passing, some shooting. All around, he definitely had some highs and lows this year. How do you think he projects moving forward?

AC: Yeah, highly. I was really happy to see him finish the year strongly. He shot the ball well, got back to his playmaking, and competed defensively. Not to say didn’t do that throughout the year, but his performance was up and down. And there were a number of reasons for that like injury, his first year out of college, and was doing difficult things and I thought he was always introspective and up for the challenge of overcoming that adversity. And he’s just a very unique player with his passing ability. I think he has a really bright future and like I said, I’m really happy to see how he finished the season strong because he did a lot of work on his shooting to see him rewarded for that and head into the summer ready to work hard and know that the journey is trending in a good direction was real positive. His passing’s elite, and that’s the skill that I think will define his career and hopefully get him in the NBA.

Before we wrapped up, Capes wanted to highlight one more young player on his roster: “You know, one of the guys I’m really proud of — I’m proud of all of them — but Brandon Rachal just got better and better and better, especially in his finishing and his growth as a player.” The 6’6” free agent averaged 13.6 points and 5.9 rebounds while playing tough defense, Long Island’s version of Bruce Brown.

Caporn knows development. He ran Australia’s Centre for Excellence, which bills itself as “the world’s leading junior development program.” He also handled development for the Boomers, the Australian national team where he’s an assistant coach.

NBA Summer League begins on July 7th in Las Vegas, and the Nets will be participating. That will be the next opportunity fans have to see many of these players perform — them and whoever else they pick up between now and then.