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Long Island Nets looking for talent in basketball’s nooks and crannies

The Nets development ethos is going to be more important in the future as the team rebuilds. The ethos isn’t limited to NBA players. They look for players in the oddest places.

Bahcesehir Koleji v Filou Oostende - Basketball Champions League Photo by Serhat Cagdas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Sometimes, things work out in odd ways. Back in November, the Nets organization was trying to figure out a way to help Marcus Zegarowski get a better shot at the NBA. The Long Island Nets still held the G League rights to Zegarowski, who Brooklyn had taken with the 49th pick in the 2021 Draft, and Chicago had interest.

“The Nets have always been interested in young European talent,” said J.R. Holden, the Long Island Nets GM in explaining what happened next. “You want to put a player like Marcus Zegarowski who was on our roster — you want put him in a situation where maybe he gets a better opportunity.”

So in scouring the G League rights held by the Windy City Bulls for a return, Holden spotted the name Vrenz Bleijenbergh, a 6’11” point forward who many in his native Belgium had hoped would be their next countryman in the NBA but who had slipped in NBA scouts’ eyes.

Holden didn’t really need a scouting report. Holden knows European basketball from his 13-year career overseas and had first seen Bleijenbergh who plays for Oostende in the Belgian League, at age 16. He knew Oostende well, too, winning the Belgian League championship there in 2001.

“I looked at their roster and I played in Oostende, Belgium, I followed Vrenz when he was a younger player. So I looked at that and said, ‘this is a 22-year-old, 6’11”, can shoot it, left-handed, has really good skill set, just hasn’t quite turned the corner yet,’” added Holden.

So the deal got done back on November 14: Marcus Zegarowski’s G League rights for Vrenz Bleijenbergh’s G League rights. The move is typical of what the G League is about: taking chances while trying to fulfill the ultimate goal: development and thinking long-term ... and in this case, all it took was some paperwork.

“Who knows what his decision-making will be a year from now.,” said Holden. “If he says, ‘hey, I’d really like an opportunity to come to the G League and make it,’ So knowing a little bit of that, I though acquiring Vrenz was a smart long-term play.”

Holden has not spoken yet with Bleijenbergh about those plans, but will once the Belgian League has ended.

“As we have those conversations at the end of the year, we’ll kind of know whether we want to keep closer tabs on him,” Holden told NetsDaily.

Bleijenbergh believes he can play in the NBA, but admits it could take some time. So the G League intrigues him.

“I will not say I’m NBA ready, but I will be NBA ready in a few years” he told NetsDaily last month. “I think I just need the right people around me, the right work ethic. I think I have the right mentality at the moment.”

Bleijenbergh is no guarantee to make in the NBA but as Holden notes, there is potential. He dropped out of the 2021 Draft in part because he had a million dollar buyout with his old Belgian team in Antwerp. He did attract some interest back then. Mike Schmitz of ESPN even sat down with him, went over his strengths and weaknesses...

But his workouts didn’t produce positive results and there was an issue with his buyout. if he was taken, it would be late in the second round and the buyout with Antwerp was a cool million dollars. For a lot of reasons, including financial, he decided to drop out.

“My agent wanted me to go undrafted because I had several teams that wanted to draft me with the last picks,” Bleijenbergh told ND, “but my agent told me it was smarter to be undrafted so I can sign with any team later on.”

He played three games for the Windy City Bulls in the G League last year but didn’t impress, then four games for the Suns in Summer League with similar results. After dropping out of the Draft, he also spent some time with Seville in the Spanish League but was relegated to the bench and headed back to Belgium. There were moments, though...

To begin with, Bleijenbergh is, in a word, skinny — “I think I need to gain a lot of weight and more muscle,” he admits — and the competition he’s been facing is not ideal. The high expectations that followed Bleijenbergh weren’t met and he needs to improve in a number of areas before his next chance. Holden laid them out.

“He started maybe a little higher,” said Holden, talking about those expectations. “They thought he was going to get to a certain level and he didn’t get there, but I think going back to Oostende and really getting his career up to may the way that met expectations, it may turn him around to come back (to the U.S.)

“The biggest thing with Vrenz is his shooting,” said Holden. “He’s a guy at 6’11” who can pick and pop, he can handle it, he can run DHOs, dribble handoffs, he can be a solid decision-maker. I think those are his strengths.

“I think where Vrenz got himself in trouble is falling in love with those things and really not honing in on all the little things that it will probably take for him to make it, meaning he’s 6’11”, he’s got to be able to rebound. He doesn’t have great lateral quickness. He’s got to be able to switch onto smaller players in the NBA. Everyone’s switching 1 through 4 and 1 through 5 now in the NBA so he has to work on his lateral quickness and really committing himself to the defensive end of the floor. He didn’t rebound at the level a 6’11” guy should.

“I think now he’s starting to do those things and he’s just starting to touch the surface of his talent,” Holden added, noting that first saw Bleijenbergh when he was a 16-year-old phenom.

Indeed, there is video evidence of that improvement just in recent weeks, since the Nets acquired his rights...

He also recently recorded a double-double with 14 points and 17 rebounds, the final one sealing a win for Oostende.

And on Sunday, he led Oostende to a double overtime victory over arch-rival Antwerp in the Belgium-Netherlands league championship, scoring 21 points on 77% shooting and registering nine boards, three assists and two steals.

“The draft is behind me. I’m not looking back at it, it made me stronger. Now I’m trying to do my thing in Europe, try to prove them wrong and to prove myself right.” he said.

Bleijenbergh, Holden says, has the court vision as this clip from a recent game in the Belgian League shows.

It’s not uncommon for Oostende to use him as their primary playmaker.

Bleijenbergh likes the idea that his rights are held by a team with a history of finding diamonds in the rough, like Joe Harris and Spencer Dinwiddie, who Brooklyn found in the G League or like Cam Thomas and Nic Claxton who were taken at Nos. 27 and 31.

“Ya, I think so because it was a little bit bad where I was and I think it was a good thing to do,’ he said. “Now we did it and now we see what brings the future. You never know.”

He told NetsDaily that he expects to go to the U.S. at some point and talk with the Nets.

“I received a lot of messages on Instagram and on Twitter like, ‘You going back to the States?’” he said of the reaction to his trade back in November. “But for the moment, no because I’m just in a good situation. I think I’m an important player for the team and I don’t want to let the team down. I think I’m on the right path and I’m just focusing on myself and the team and trying to get the team wins.”

The Nets have a little time to make a decision on what to do with him. Under G League rules, they can retain his rights for two years. That could mean an invitation to the Summer League or time with the Nets and their overseas consultants. In the past, the Nets have gathered their European players and stashes in gyms to work on shooting and other basics in the off-season.

“He’s only 22, sometimes you don’t reach your peak till you’re 25, 26. So I think he has time and I think the big thing for him is believing in himself,” said Holden. “Continue working on the little things. I don’t think he has to be a special shooter but I do think he has to be a little bit more consistent.”

Bleijenbergh understands all that.

“I’m not looking forward to that because right now I’m in a really busy period and my focus right now is to really stay here with Oostende. Finish the season strong, to get the cup, the BNXT winner and the championship with Belgium. So it’s a really important year for us and me too. We will see what we will do this summer. I think I need to gain a lot of weight and more muscle. It will bring me closer to my goal.”

Currently, he is on a two-year deal with next year a player option. So he’ll have to make a decision. In the meantime, he wishes Nets fans well.

“I hope to meet you guys in the future, you never know what’s going on in my path. Fans are really important for basketball and every player so keep on going to the games and keep on rooting for the players on the Long Island and the Brooklyn Nets so keep on pushing them forward.”

For Holden and the Nets in general, Bleijenbergh is typical of what his Long Island Nets have to do at all levels: look in the nooks and crannies of basketball for talent, then develop them.

“I think the No. 1 thing is player development,” Holden said of his marching orders as a G League GM. “So Sean (Marks’) message to us is player development ... and if you do that, winning will take care of itself.”

In fact, Bleijenberg is one of two young Europeans he has in his back pocket, rights wise. Last month, Long Island traded their rights to Craig Randall II, a star last year in Long Island who had been playing in Australia, to the Iowa Wolves and in return got the rights to 6’9” shooting guard Derrick Alston Jr. who plays for the Rostock Seawolves of the German League.

“I know Derrick is right now working in Germany. playing really well. People are surprised at how well he’s playing,” said Holden. Indeed, Alston is averaging 19 points a game while shooting 33% from deep. He averaged 13.3 points a game last season in Salt Lake City in the G League and had a Summer League gig with Golden State a camp invite with Utah at the beginning of last season.

However, Alston Jr. is 25, three years older than Bleijenbergh.

“I will sit down with them at the end of their season and see what the future looks like for them,, why we acquired them and if they have interest in coming to the G League, ” said Holden. “By then we will know if we want to keep closer tabs on them, if they want to coem to the G League.”

Will either make in the NBA? That’s the ultimate goal, but the point is that in the G League you take chances on development whenever you can ... and the Nets are doing that. They have to now.

For more on the Belgian, check out this interview our Ajayi Browne did with Bleijenbergh back in 2021 where he touches on his personal upbringing growing up in Belgium.