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David Duke Jr. most improved among Nets rookies but will he get standard deal?

2022 Las Vegas Summer League- Philadelphia 76ers v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

For David Duke Jr., the Summer League was not just a proving ground. It was an audition for a full-time job in the NBA. A two-way player last season, the 6’5” 22-year-old wants a standard deal which would end his Long Island commute ... and more than double his salary.

For the most part, Duke did well. He averaged 19 points, five rebounds, four assists and a steal and a half per game. And in Game 5, he not only came up with 24 points, he dunked over 6’10” Mifundu Kabengele in the first half, then met him at the rim in the second, both spectacular. While Kabengele got signed to a two-way deal post-game, Duke’s status remains unchanged. He is a restricted free agent who the Nets would prefer stay a two-way next season.

“I’m always going to strive for the most that I can get, right? So if there’s a [standard] roster spot to strive for that, then whatever happens from there, happens. But I’m just out here trying to play the best that I can, show what I can bring to Brooklyn, to whoever. And that’s just my mindset,” Duke said. “It’s just me trying to show my team that I’m with right now what I can do.”

The Providence product’s improvement was evident in his upgraded numbers. As Brian Lewis wrote Tuesday, he nearly tripled his production from last year’s Summer League to this. In 2021, after going undrafted, he put up 7.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 0.3 steals. But it was more than that. Duke showed an attitude, something he developed over the course of last season with some help from a veteran also known for his ‘tude.

“For myself, letting my aggression offensively make the plays for me, not being hesitant. You make more mistakes when you go out and hesitate than when you go out with aggression. Aggressive mistakes, coaches say they can live with that,” Duke said. “That’s the thing I’m working on this year: Just letting my aggression make my plays for me, using my instincts to make the right play.

“Specifically, Blake Griffin, I can give him credit. During the year we were playing in pickup and he told me, ‘Use your aggression to make your plays for you. You have good instincts: Use that. Let that be your go-to.’ From there on, I just always try to tell myself that going into a game.”

Duke also looked stronger as he barreled down the lane in Las Vegas, often ending up well above the rim. Finishing, he said, is a priority for him this season. He does have one big deficit that’s hurting his prospects, however. He’s still a mediocre shooter from deep, hitting only a quarter of his three’s.

As Steve Lichtenstein, formerly of WFAN, wrote in his Substack summary of the Nets Summer League efforts, that could hurt him.

How many times will this organization get burned by wasting roster spots on guards/wings who can’t shoot three-pointers? Duke Jr. went 5-for-20 (25%) from deep in Vegas, nearly the same conversion rate as he had on the 37 three-point attempts he took last regular-season. As we saw all last season, placing non-shooters on the floor makes running an effective offense extremely difficult, even when you have superstars like Irving and Kevin Durant facilitating it.

Duke did shoot well in college. His solid D and 38.9 percent shooting from deep at Providence made him look like a good candidate for a 3-and-D role in the NBA. Can he take the next step? Adam Caporn who coached Duke at Long Island and in the Summer League thinks Duke has already displayed enough potential, particularly on defense ... and professionalism.

“The great thing is I haven’t noticed anything other than complete professionalism and dedication to playing well, and doing everything we asked of him: Attacking and being aggressive within the team framework,” Caporn said told Lewis. “I just love what he’s doing defensively, picking the ball up, setting the tone. He’s doing everything the right way. And I’m happy for him.”

Teammate Cam Thomas, in post-game comments following Game 5, said he thought all the Nets rookies improved during Summer League, but singled out Duke as having the biggest jump.

Other teams, specifically the Raptors, have looked at Duke but so far he has no other offers. There’s no rush at the moment with the Nets roster so dependent on what happens with the team’s wayward superstars. Still, the Nets can, if they want, match any offers Duke might get. And Duke certainly likes it here.