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Nets stand pat and draft young, betting on upside

No trades, no moves up or down. The Nets went young, very young in the first round, experienced in the second.

2023 NBA Draft Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

The Brooklyn Nets entered Thursday night’s NBA Draft with an abundance of options. Armed with consecutive first-round picks at Nos. 21 and 22 as well as the 51st pick, the Nets could have packaged their selections to move up, or trade one of their veteran wings, Royce O’Neale or Dorian Finney-Smith for an improved pick. They opted for neither.

The big surprise was there was no surprise.

Speaking to the media at the conclusion of the Draft, Sean Marks acknowledged the possibility of moving up in the draft order, but said the Nets opted against it.

“Yeah, I mean, there’s a lot of conversations had at the draft, you know? You go in, you think you know what’s going to come your way and then all there’s always a couple of things that maybe surprise you a little bit,” he said. “But we didn’t see the need to do that. And as the draft unfolded, I think we’re very, very happy with how it how it played out for the Brooklyn Nets.”

It played out for Brooklyn by drafting two 18-year-olds with their consecutive first-rounders, Noah Clowney and Dariq Whitehead, respectively. How young are they? Whitehead is the youngest prospect ever drafted by the franchise, Clowney the second youngest.

Clowney, a 6’10” power forward from Alabama with a 7’2” wingspan, brought tenacious rebounding and and a strong willingness to fire from deep to the Crimson Tide alongside overall No. 2 selection Brandon Miller. Whitehead, another one-and-done prospect, hails from Duke, where the Newark native struggled with a recurring foot injury that led to a slide in the draft.

At the tail end of the night, the Nets pounced on 6’8” Jalen Wilson, bucking the trend from first round with a 22-year-old four-year prospect from head coach Jacque Vaughn’s alma mater, Kansas University.

By and large, the Nets are betting on long-term upside with these players. After being swept in the first round of the postseason by the Philadelphia 76ers, the club is far from competing for a championship, and well aware of it.

“We’re thrilled with these young men that we get to add to our Nets family. It’s just terrific, the upside of all of them,” Marks noted. “I mean, you know, a couple these guys are 18 years old, so just thrilled to see, ‘where’s this guy going to be in two years? Where’s he gonna be in three years? Where’s he gonna be in five years?’”

Ironically enough, Clowney doesn’t seem to know where he’ll be in two, three, or five years.

“Two to three years from now, that’s hard,” he told the media shortly after being drafted. “I never really think about [myself] individually.

“Obviously, I want to get better and perfect my game in every [way] possible. I want to be as versatile as I can be, as far as dribbling, shooting, everything. I want to be able to pass the ball well because when you’re a good decision-maker, that makes the game a whole lot easier offensively. And defensively, I want to be a force. I want to be in conversations for Defensive Player of the Year awards. But truthfully, I want playoff runs. I want to win.”

Clowney is an energetic big whose willingness to shoot from 3-point land infatuates Nets brass. He averaged 9.8 points, 7.9 rebounds and 0.9 blocks per 25.4 minutes a game in his sole collegiate season. Even though he only shot 28.3% from deep in the SEC, his 3.3 attempts per night provided optimism for Marks.

“He doesn’t shy away from shooting it. That’s what we want. Confidence is something that some people are born with, some people it grows, and you hope a guy like Noah, his confidence just continues to grow and grow and grow.”

On the defensive end, Clowney says that’s where he “hangs his hat.”

“Guard multiple positions. We protect the rim ... from a mental standpoint, I do whatever I’m asked,” he asserts. The Nets may not have echoed those goals Thursday, but are impressed with his lateral mobility ability to switch and guard multiple positions, much like his fellow South Carolinian, Nic Claxton.

Whitehead’s upside may be even higher. The former No. 2 prospect in his high school class was sidelined by a right foot injury and then returned to play too quickly requiring a second procedure which dropped his stock. He ultimately posted averages of 8.3 points in 20 minutes per game but with promising shooting percentages. He projects as a strong marksman with a 42.9% from deep and 79.3% accuracy from the charity stripe.

The repeated foot injuries are reminiscent of a previous Nets draft selection Caris LeVert, another guard/wing selected in the 20s of the first round. Whitehead, like LeVert, underwent a surgery at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York earlier this month. Dr. Martin O’Malley, a longtime member of the Nets medical staff who also performed Kevin Durant’s ankle and Achilles surgeries.

Marks is confident the foot injury will not be a worry, citing LeVert’s history with the franchise. “Knowing what we know and, it’s obviously not the same injury, but a similar injury with Caris LeVert, and our performance team has done a heck of a job. So they know what they’re in for with him.”

Whitehead will not play in NBA Summer League in Las Vegas but will be ready for training camp in the fall. And although he was not on hand for the Draft, he’s certainly excited.

Brooklyn’s final selection of the night, Jalen Wilson, will be suiting up in black-and-white in the Nevada desert in July. Wilson led his Jayhawks team in scoring and rebounding, with 20.1 and 8.2 each, and was a key member of the National Championship run in 2022.

“Jalen: He’s a champion,” said Marks of Wilson who was part of the Jayhawks run to an NCAA title in 2023. “He’s won before, so he’s seen what it takes. Being coached really hard, being coached well.”

Despite no longer being perennial championship contenders, the Nets plan on competing, said Marks. They’re not going to turn into a juggernaut overnight, and especially not on Draft night, he acknowledged but with a summer full of possibility ahead, Brooklyn certainly kept its options open. They didn’t have to trade DFS or O’Neale or spend Joe Tsai’s money to move up on their home Barclays turf. Instead, they drafted their version of “best player available” and keeping the ball rolling ahead.

The Nets will introduce all three picks Friday at 12:00 noon ET at a press conference hosted by Marks.