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What did the Brooklyn Nets reveal about their future on draft night?

The answer may be more mundane than we expected

2023 NBA Draft Pick Portraits and Press Conferences Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

The 2023 NBA Draft came and went, and despite the Brooklyn Nets making three selections on three unique young talents, their night was, overall, pretty pedestrian. Not because their selections - Noah Clowney, Dariq Whitehead, and Jalen Wilson, respectively - were underwhelming or anything. In fact, the post-draft consensus on Brooklyn’s night is starkly positive, with most draft experts, if such a thing exists, assigning the Nets ‘A’ or ‘B’ grades.

Which seems fair. Noah Clowney, at just 18 years of age, has tools that you “can’t teach”, according to Sean Marks, namely a 7’3” wingspan. He also has a workable outside shot, taking 3.3 3-pointers a game at Alabama, but making just 28.3% of them. Either way, even the most cursory look at his game reveals some enticing potential.

The same can be said for Dariq Whitehead, the youngest Nets draftee ever. The upshot? The No. 2 ranked player in his high school class who looked every bit of the ideal, modern NBA guard with size, athleticism, and shooting ability. And while a right foot injury limited him in his lone season at Duke, Brooklyn’s own Dr. Martin O’Malley recently performed his second surgery - if Marks & co. think Whitehead can make a full recovery, that seems like an excellent swing to take.

And lastly, Jalen Wilson, the 51st pick of the night, is fresh off a season at Kansas in which he unanimously won Big 12 Player of the Year, and the Julius Erving award for the NCAA’s top small forward. The year before that, he started on a championship Jayhawk team. Sure, he’s already 22 years old and currently without an obvious, above-average NBA skill, but the pedigree is there.

So, pedestrian isn’t the right word, then, to describe Brooklyn’s draft night. Boring is more like it.

After weeks of whispers and hints that the Nets could go in all sorts of directions on draft night, they simply stayed in their lane. We didn’t see a small trade, such as the oft-rumored wing (Royce O’Neale or Dorian Finney-Smith) and a pick in exchange for an opportunity to move up in the draft. And we certainly didn’t see a swing for the fences, AKA a trade for Damian Lillard.

At this point, the Brooklyn Nets may be as sick of the Dame Game as NBA fans are, and who can blame them? Sure, if Brooklyn wants to seriously compete, as they’ve telegraphed at every turn, it’d be wonderful to land, at worst, a top-5 point guard in all the land for the right price. But Sean Marks has his own franchise to run. The constant will-he-or-won’t-he question of Dame maybe, possibly, politely suggesting he’d like a trade out of Portland is what it is. Shams Charania and Chris Haynes each dropped non-updates again during the draft about Lillard considering his future and whatnot. This may go on until the day the seven-time All-NBA’er ponders, or considers, or debates retiring.

Brooklyn’s message to the world on Draft Night was that they are content. The front office, while actively scrounging around the marketplace for enticing deals, are not going to overplay their hand. They are happy where they are, and while ‘risk-averse’ may be too strong of a word to describe their current decision-making philosophy, it is certainly leaning in that direction.

At his exit interview following the Philadelphia 76ers’ first-round sweep of the Nets, Marks analyzed his view of the situation as such:

“Do we build quick and expedite this thing? Because a player comes around that we know ‘hey this player or players would fit within a group and give us an opportunity to really get back in and be contenders again. That could happen, but at the same time, I don’t think we’re in any hurry. We’re not going to be pushed to make changes just for the sake of making changes.” [Emphasis mine.]

So, the Nets are not contenders, even according to their GM, but they clearly are not bottom-dwellers either, or even selling off pieces as many pundits thought they might. At least, not yet. They’re in the dreaded purgatory, the middle of the NBA ladder where contenders squash your fingers and tanking teams nip at your heels.

Flash forward to Draft Night, though, and that’s fine with Marks: “Our timeline, we’re gonna compete. That’s what we’re here for. I’m not gonna sit here and say we’re a contender overnight, but I mean I think what we’ve shown the ability as an organization to pivot and compete potentially quicker than probably we were thought [to].”

As for how this situation affects Brooklyn’s newest crop of Nets, Marks continued, “let’s let these guys develop. A new coaching staff? Let’s let them put their fingerprints all over this group, and then see where it goes over the next couple months and then couple of years and go from there.”

While a no-pressure, stingy 8-seed sort of team may not be something fans are looking forward to (and even a team that may draw less fans to the seats than Joe Tsai is anticipating), Marks is right about one thing: This is an ideal situation for Clowney, Whitehead, and Wilson.

The Nets have a new coaching staff, yes, but the Marks regime has been remarkably consistent at churning out productive NBA players taken outside the lottery. Even though Clowney does not add much positional size to this roster — that is, unless the outside shooting pops much quicker than expected and he can play next to, say, Nic Claxton -- there is not a logjam of bigs ahead of him in the rotation. While that could change over the summer, it’s doubtful that Marks drafted the native South Carolinian just to watch him ride the pine.

The same can be said for Whitehead, who will not be rushed back from his foot injury under any circumstance, according to the GM: “I think we’ll take it slow, and be very systematic with how we bring him back...There’s absolutely no rush to do this.”

And when Whitehead does come back, if he does return to full health, the Nets will surely take a look at a player Marks predicted would have gone in the lottery if not for the injury.

Even Wilson, despite being a late second-rounder, will have his chances to impress the coaching staff and front office for the same reasons Clowney and Whitehead should be excited to get to the borough: This is not a sink-or-swim situation for prospects any longer. The Nets are not foaming at the mouth to get ten solid minutes a night from the 8th and 9th men in the rotation, given that they no longer have championship expectations. Long-term improvement far outweighs the importance of day-to-day production for the youngest players on the roster. Clowney can play through his struggles, Whitehead won’t fret being forgotten about thanks to a long rehab process, and Wilson should get a look because, well, why not?

To reside in NBA purgatory certainly has its downsides, downsides I’ve written about repeatedly. But if Sean Marks’ consistent, verbal messaging over the past few weeks didn’t convince you that his team would opt to stay in this lane — and you ignored the developmental weight of the coaching hires, perhaps his actions on draft night did. And for that, his trio of draft picks should be thankful; they’ll certainly have a bite at the apple. For the rest of us, well, all we can do is wait.