Pat McAfee, Marquette King, or the Brooklyn Nets tonight? Chose your fighter. That’s essentially what we got this evening, as the Nets chose to punt tonight’s game away vs the Milwaukee Bucks after deciding to sit four of their 10 available rotation players.
Regardless, Brooklyn put a fight, sticking with the Bucks far longer than anyone expected them too. But alas, they ultimately fell short. The Bucks treated this one like any other game, playing Giannis Antetokounmpo, Damian Lillard, and Khris Middleton all beyond 25 minutes. They eventually pulled away with 144-122 final score.
With hard paying fans usually feeling shafted during games like this, the Nets instead gave them an entertaining show by keeping it competitive. But before we draw the curtains on it, let’s appreciate the extensive look Brooklyn gave us on some of their more hidden pieces.
There’s No Reason Jalen Wilson Shouldn’t Get Minutes (and more on the Rookies)
Jalen Wilson is one of those “immediate impact” guys every squad wants off the bench. Filling that role for Brooklyn tonight, he came into the game and immediately poked away a should-have-been defensive rebound from AJ Green to secure another possession for the Nets. Next possession after that? He bolted down the floor for a tough and-one.
Jalen Wilson with an and-one to tie the game at 27: pic.twitter.com/DzLVHa6B07— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) December 28, 2023
While the finish was sweet, I was most impressed by Wilson’s willingness to take the ball right at the Milwaukee defense. Pat Connaughton isn’t the most intimidating force, but that’s still rare to see from a rookie nonetheless. A few plays after that, Wilson soared over Bobby Portis to poke a lose ball off him and save another possession. That extra offensive set concluded with him drawing a foul and burring both his free throws.
Plays like that continued the whole game, as the rookie did all the little things better than anyone has for the Nets in a long time. He finished with 21 points on 5-of-13 shooting from the field and going 11-11 from the line. (He hasn’t missed from the line this year in Brooklyn and is shooting 76.5% for Long Island.)
Five points and a steal in this 20-second sequence for Jalen Wilson: pic.twitter.com/5x58Jvzswp— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) December 28, 2023
Wilson played as a menace on the boards as well, timing his pursuit of the ball perfectly each time he went up, grabbing 10 rebounds including seven on the offensive end. His size, ability to shoot from deep, and overall versatility truly make him an ideal product in today’s positionless league.
“I’ve always had a nose for just wanting to go rebound, ever since being in college, it’s always the main way to get on the floor,” Wilson said postgame. “Just playing hard, rebounding, and defending, I just want to carry it with me through my entire career. I feel like those are things that you can always have on the floor.”
The Nets likely expected Wilson to be more of an “NBA ready” product this year with him being 22 at the time of drafting him, especially compared to Dariq Whitehead and Noah Clowney, who are still teenagers and the second and fourth youngest players on NBA rosters this season. However, doing that is still a difficult feat for any guy unaccustomed to the NBA lights. But in his limited burn and after getting his first lengthy run tonight, he’s checked those boxes.
As for Clowney and Whitehead, they both looked raw, but what do you expect? Clowney did reel in his first NBA points by way of a two-handed jam. He came in early in the second quarter, whereas Whitehead checked in just before the period’s six minute mark.
“I was nervous coming in, you know, playing the Bucks obviously,” said Clowney postgame. “That’s a good team with a lot of big guys, so I was a little nervous. But once I got out there it’s just being confident and knowing that I can compete at this level.”
No first rounders from the 2023 NBA Draft had played fewer minutes so far this year than Clowney and Whitehead coming into tonight’s game. With that considered, you’ll gladly take any positives as progress.
Clowney looked comfortable lurking around the dunker spot for finishes and putting off-ball pressure on the rim. He also did well to position himself for rebounds or just box out ancillary Milwaukee bigs on a number of sequences, something his comparison in Claxton took a while to figure out. He finished with 14 points on 6-of-9 shooting and with four boards.
Again, it feels like all of DSJ's assists lead to dunks or layups: pic.twitter.com/c22lUdxx1S— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) December 28, 2023
Whitehead tallied just two points but dished out three assists and grabbed four rebounds as well. He flashed the skills which made him a more touted prospect at Duke and a willingness to shoot, but with him still on a pitch count in the G-League, we’ll likely have to wait a bit longer to get a real look at him at the NBA level.
Nets Value the Long Game
The overarching lesson of this one has to be that the Nets will not let pressure from the league or any other team keep them from doing their thing. Tonight, their “thing” was protecting their players. Jacque Vaughn brought that up on multiple occasions pregame.
“Looking at just cumulative loads for our guys over the course of these last three weeks, it’s like historical levels for our guys,” said Vaughn before the tip. “We’re putting them in harm’s way. So it’s my job to not do that.”
Coach stayed true to his word. Although Cam Thomas, Mikal Bridges, and Royce O’Neale played early, the did not log any minutes past the first quarter. Day’Ron Sharpe played a few seconds in the second and opened up the third, but then Brooklyn essentially tossed the car keys to their Long Island team plus Dennis Smith Jr and Trendon Watford.
The Nets have had four back-to-backs so far this year, but have yet to handcuff their guys to the bench at any point during them like they did tonight. However, this back-to-back came as their second one in two weeks. A back to back, back to back, if you will.
My hat’s off to whoever at the league office tried to sneak that scheduling body slam in around the holidays. A bold move for sure, but one that didn’t get past Vaughn. The Nets are more focused on preserving their guys for the long term, as they should be given their injury luck over the past few seasons. It’s an obvious lesson for tonight, but one too glaring to leave off here.
But after Mikal Bridges said he was “not a fan” of being held out, there will be recriminations. There are already from fans and maybe the league. We shall see.
An Unfortunate Spot for Trendon Watford
Being a guy who up until last week saw consistent minutes for the Nets, but hadn’t played more than a minute since the Knicks game, Trendon Watford gets kind of stuck in the middle on a night like tonight.
His awareness on the floor and ability to navigate a crowded paint were on display from start to finish. He finished with 17 points while shooting 6-of-9 from the field. He also dished out four assists and hauled in five boards.
Milwaukee cannot keep the Nets from scoring in the paint, this time it's Watford with a layup: pic.twitter.com/F36JCWcFXi— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) December 28, 2023
It was a solid performance tonight, but with the Nets set to get back a guy like Lonnie Walker IV soon, who’s frankly more deserving of any leftover Brooklyn minutes, Watford finds himself in a tough position. In games like this, you love having a guy like him, able to go out and test a defense at the drop of hat. But still, this was a one in every 20 games kind of night.
Considering how Brooklyn’s phased him out recently, it would have taken an all-worldly performance from Watford to warrant a return to the rotation. That’s a lot to ask, but such is the nature of the NBA. For as gorgeous as his floater is, as sneaky as his inside out game remains, Watford still feels like a specialist for this Nets team rather than a cemented rotation piece.
At the defensive end, he took too many bad angles tonight by my eyes. His limited offensive game as a capable, but not dangerous shooter leaves him a tier behind guys like Walker IV and even Jalen Wilson at this point. With Dennis Smith Jr. playing perhaps the best ball of his career as the team’s secondary or tertiary facilitator, Watford minutes will feel like a force going forward.
I said this before and I’ll say it again, even being a “specialist” on this deep Nets team isn’t bad for a guy deemed not good enough for the 8-21 Portland Trail Blazers. However, I feel the need to walk back my take from a few weeks ago that he’ll get minutes as long as Ben Simmons stays in street clothes.