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ROOKIE WATCH #1: How are Brooklyn Nets’ rookies performing in the G-League?

The first look at how Dariq Whitehead, Noah Clowney, and Jalen Wilson are playing in Long Island

Brooklyn Nets Media Day Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

Anytime a franchise selects three players in one draft, all of whom have reasonable chances of factoring into the team’s direction, fans are going to be eager ... ager to hear about them, eager to watch them play, eager to see and hear their interviews, whatever. Unfortunately for Brooklyn Nets fans, the trio of 2023 draft picks — Noah Clowney and Dariq Whitehead in the first round, Jalen Wilson in the second — are locked into the G League experience for now.

We get brief glimpses, like news of Jalen Wilson exploding for 32 points and an encouraging nine 3-pointers in Monday’s game against the College Park Skyhawks:

Or Dariq Whitehead and Noah Clowney checking in for their first minutes with the big-league squad, with the former clocking his first career point on the free-throw line:

The G League development process has solidified over the last decade, particularly for young players who are on rosters like that of the Brooklyn Nets, full of quality, playoff-hungry veterans who can't offer minutes to teenagers. That process just happens far away from the spotlight. So, how are Brooklyn’s youngsters actually progressing?

To answer that question, here’s the first edition of Rookie Watch, where I’ll take a look at Brooklyn’s three rookies in Clowney, Whitehead, and Wilson, and see how their first year in professional basketball is unfolding.

And we are not alone:

With Long Island just seven games into their season, we’re gathering preliminary information about these players, far from making definitive statements.

Noah Clowney

I think Noah Clowney, Brooklyn’s first selection of 2023 at #21 overall, is the most intriguing prospect of the three. It doesn’t really have to do with the theoretical 3-point shooting, which has remained theoretical so far (27.8% on 2.6 attempts per game). Rather, it’s about the way Clowney, at 6’9” with a 7’2” wingspan, can move his feet on defense to both keep up with ball-handlers and protect the rim.

His technique needs work; he’s often flat-footed and/or off-balance. As a result, Clowney is not always suited to take contact from physical drivers, though a very 19-year-old, skinny frame is partially to blame for that:

But when Clowney gets moving, he gets moving. He’ll often close out to a shooter or switch onto a guard and start from a disadvantage, flat-footed and such, but he can flip his hips to change directions at lightning speed, reminiscent of another skinny big the Nets employ:

1.4 blocks per game in nearly 30 minutes a night doesn’t jump off the page, especially since Long Island and Brooklyn share many schematic similarities, meaning Clowney is often in drop coverage. There’s an understandable lack of strength and size, not to mention the bad habit of reaching in the cookie jar or just leaving his hands low, picking up fouls. None of which is cause for alarm, but rather very standard, young big stuff.

However, the flashes of shot-blocking, either in 1-on-1 defense or coming over in help are already there. On Opening Night, Clowney tallied four blocks, including some highlight-reel stuff:

His drop coverage will be a slow burn, maybe not even worth checking in on until a proper, professional offseason. Clowney is a project after all, which the Nets certainly knew when they selected him, the fourth-youngest player in the draft and the second youngest in their history. Still, it’s encouraging that despite a bevy of mistakes like silly fouls and poor positioning, the defensive upside is so obvious through a month of G League action.

Offensively, Head Coach Mfon Udofia is using his starting center as a traditional big. There’s some five-out possessions where Clowney spaces the floor or picks-and-pops, but many more where he sets a screen and rolls to the rim. He’ll have to eventually get over his allergy to making contact on screens, but that’s a minor note for now.

You notice the length and verticality on alley-oop finishes as well as on the offensive glass, where Clowney is averaging 3.3 boards, 11th in the entire G. The big area of growth on this end has to come as a finisher in tight spaces. Clowney is making 66.7% of his two-pointers, the vast majority of which have come at the rim. It’s nothing to frown (or smile) at, though the tape shows room for improvement:

Too often, Clowney falls away from the rim when attempting to finish, which explains why he’s shooting a paltry two free-throws in 30 minutes a night.

In any case, Noah Clowney is far, far away from being ready for NBA minutes. That’s to be expected of course; his defensive progress will be measured over months and years, despite the obvious potential he’s displayed in just seven games. On offense, the shooting needs a much larger sample before we seriously consider his stretch-ability, but the interior finishing is what I’ll be keeping an eye on. Still, he's not the only rookie we won’t see in Brooklyn for a while.

Dariq Whitehead

Dariq Whitehead is generally considered the most exciting prospect of the Nets’ three rookies for good reason. Just over a year ago, a 17-year-old Whitehead was heading to Duke as a unanimous five-star recruit after being, at the bare minimum, a top-ten high school player in America.

His lone season at Duke was sandwiched between two surgeries on his right foot after the initial one “did not properly heal,” according to a report from ESPN. Whitehead’s play as a Blue Devil, which featured 3-point marksmanship but not much else, was tough to parse. How much of it was due to a bum foot? Where could we spot real worries about his game?

Watching Whitehead in Long Island is similar. The guard-wing hybrid is playing just 19 minutes a night, not due to a lack of production but surely as part of the Nets’ long-term plan for his health. As Whitehead’s conditioning and health gradually improve, so will his minutes.

And so will the production, simply because it has to. Whitehead is averaging 7.7 points a night on 29.8% shooting, including 19.0% from three. The outside shooting can be chalked up to small-sample-size shenanigans and perhaps a lack of confidence, and while the numbers themselves aren’t cause for concern in the long run, they do indicate how much ground Whitehead has to make up.

He doesn’t yet look like the plus-athlete he was as a high-school recruit, and it shows up on his adventures inside the arc. So too, though, do decision-making warts and an occasionally loose handle, as they did at Duke, where he posted 39 turnovers to 28 assists in just 571 total minutes — again, Whitehead was not only the second-youngest player in the 2023 draft, but he also missed out on valuable development reps due to injury.

Many of his takes with Long Island look like this:

Short-term goals for Whitehead include sinking more 3-point shots, of course, but we saw that ability at Duke, where he hit 42.4% from three. We haven’t yet seen Whitehead add more pace to his drives, not with a (hopeful) boost in athleticism. The tough floaters and below-the-rim finishes he’s shooting right now should turn into easier opportunities. As a highly touted prospect, it was Whitehead’s ability to finish at the rim and through traffic that popped, and the outside shooting followed. Now, it’s the opposite.

We also need to see some of his takes end in kick-outs; he’s a tunnel-visioned driver right now. When Whitehead puts the ball on the deck, defenses can rest assured he’s not going to make this pass to Jalen Wilson in the corner:

Whitehead is young in age like his counterpart Clowney, but even younger in experience, still working his way back from two foot surgeries during vital years of development. It would be irresponsible to judge his play over seven games as a disappointment, but we have to calibrate expectations. Progress should be measured in small doses: a strong at-the-rim finish here, a nice drive-and-kick there, an improving 3-point percentage.

Dariq Whitehead was one of the 2023 NBA Draft’s larger unknowns, and that remains the case today. The question is not whether he’ll become a valuable NBA player, but first, what that would look like. This season is about regaining the athleticism and pop he as missed as a Blue Devil plus showing growth as a ball-handler and decision-maker. Then, we can talk about Whitehead’s future in Brooklyn.

Jalen Wilson

Jalen Wilson, the four-year Kansas Jayhawk and 51st overall pick of the draft, is the most NBA-ready of Brooklyn’s rookies. Duh. Sean Marks hinted at the possibility that he could see minutes with the big-league squad early on, saying, “His IQ is off the charts. He’s a champion.”

And Wilson kinda already has seen real minutes with Brooklyn, playing six of them in the second quarter of Brooklyn’s fourth game of the season, a win against the Miami Heat. Wilson didn’t do much in those minutes, but it certainly wasn't garbage time.

The 6’7” wing projects as a classic three-and-D wing who, should he make an NBA rotation, must stay in it by ardently crashing the glass and being in the right spots on defense. He is not a particularly explosive athlete, and won’t offer much rim protection as a help defender. It simply remains to be seen how he’ll fare as an isolation defender against NBA-quality wings and guards, though Wilson seems primed to guard up a position or two. He’s not afraid to get physical, which would help mitigate size disadvantages, but there’s not much he can do about a foot-speed deficit were he to guard, say, Norman Powell.

On offense, Wilson is a physical driver (noticing a pattern?) but lacks creativity or a reliable left hand. If the defense can get in front of him, this is what you’ll see:

Much of this is why Wilson, despite a decorated collegiate career, was picked late in the second round. Yet, the biggest reason was probably a career 31.6% mark from deep. Hard to be a 3-and-D wing with mediocre shooting.

And yet, as a Long Island Net, Wilson is shooting a blistering 48.8% on 5.4 attempts a game, picking up right where he left Las Vegas Summer League, where he made 46% of his attempts. The path for Wilson to contribute, potentially sooner rather than later, is much clearer if he's stroking it like this. Injuries or major trades to the big league ball-club would have to pave the way, but he looks like a real shooter down in Long Island:

That’s a lightning-quick release on a corner pop, but Wilson is shooting from above-the-break, the corners, a few feet beyond the arc, you name it. 32 points on 9-13 from deep, as mentioned in the introduction, speaks for itself.

The NBA Draft is about taking swings, and to that end, you see why Wilson fell to the late second. He’s not going to start developing into a primary or even secondary ball-handler at 23 years old when that’s not his role. His dribbling skills and athleticism aren’t going to undergo major changes.

But if Wilson is shooting like this? Well, throwing him on an NBA court isn’t so scary a proposition. His jumper may have slightly more arc on it than it did at Kansas, and he’s firing it on the way up rather than at the peak of his jump, contributing to a quicker release, but I could be searching for clues that aren’t there. Maybe Wilson’s hot 3-point shooting is thanks to taking easier ones; he’s not asked to self-create as much as he was at KU.

Brooklyn’s 2023 draft class can’t be judged for a long time. Sean Marks took two 18-year-olds in the first round, both of whom are seasons, not months, away from contributing at the NBA level. Projects, in other words. Jalen Wilson is the polar opposite. He played four years in college, and appeared in his first NBA game just days before he turned 23 years old.

None of their careers are under the microscope just yet. Right now, we’re looking for signs from the trio of youngsters. And while it’s been just seven games in the G League, we’re seeing those signs.

And if you want to watch the rooks in person they’re home at Nassau Coliseum the next two nights. You can also watch live on the G League website.