The NBA has reached its annual gossip zenith, perhaps the most anticipated part of the year. In other words, there’s no basketball being played! Not even Las Vegas Summer League! Nope, we’re at the extra special, chaotically sloppy weekend of the year, where the free agency floodgates open and all hell breaks loose. The dam has already started to leak, which any of you that have kept up with certain former Brooklyn Nets already know.
So, before it gets lost in the sauce, lets take a good and proper look at Brooklyn’s trio of draft picks - two of them being enticing 18-year-olds taken in the first round. While just about every 2023 draft pick is guaranteed to be old news by the time 6:00 p.m. ET Friday rolls around, the start of free agency, our newest Nets shouldn’t be forgotten about so quickly. The organization has all but telegraphed that the loudly approaching offseason will be their quietest in some time, and that the three youngsters they selected at the draft will be more than immediate trade fodder. So then, let’s get to it.
The vision for Noah Clowney, a skinny, not-yet-19-year-old coming off one season at Alabama, is plain to see. He already has a 7’2” wingspan attached to 6’10”, 210-pound frame, stuff “you can’t teach,” as GM Sean Marks accurately put it. And while he shot just 28.3% from deep at ‘Bama, he took 3.3 3-pointers a game, which indicates that “he doesn’t shy away from shooting it. That’s what we want,” in Marks’ words. It’s not hard to see why; his stroke looks fine, even great at times. How about this triple off slight movement with a close-out coming?
It’s hard to imagine he’ll be asked to take more difficult long-range shots than that at the pro level. Thus, the distinct vision for Clowney’s career features him developing into one of the sport’s most sought-after archetypes: a true 3-and-D big. The requisite athleticism seems to there; he averaged over 11 rebounds per 36 minutes at school while shooting 66.9% from 2-point range. On film, you find him covering real ground and exploding off it to reject a poor soul’s lay-up attempt:
With players of Clowney’s archetype, there is a tendency to tie their offensive and defensive ceilings together. In a topsy-turvy offensive landscape, where point-centers and rim-rolling-guards roam, you are who you defend. For Clowney, that means he enters the league as a new-age tweener; not stuck somewhere between the forward spots, but somewhere between what remains of the power forward and center positions. If he turns into a real floor-spacer, then this doesn’t matter much -- figure out who he guards on defense but, crucially, play him with whoever you want. However, if defenses don’t respect his shot, that takes a bunch of options off the table. He would either be pigeon-holed into guarding opponents’ centers next to forwards that can shoot, or wait while Brooklyn (or any future employer) searches for an actual floor-spacing big to play next to Clowney. You know, the type of player they hoped to draft out of Alabama.
But the native South Carolinian — like Nic Claxton — hasn’t played a second of NBA basketball yet. Let’s slow down on how he may fit into a functional squad, and parse the defense (which is more complex than just ‘can he actually shoot?’) separately.
His frame may currently and possibly permanently be a bit thin to be a true defensive center. I don’t mean a small-ball 5 who can hold up for 10-12 minutes a game against bench units, that’s within reach; I mean an anchor. Similarities between Clowney and none other than a young(er) Nic Claxton have been noted, which is reasonable enough after a glance at their physiques. But Claxton, who was at minimum a top-ten defender in the NBA this past season, would be an incredible, euphoric outcome for the 21st pick in this year’s draft. Yet, even Claxton faces legit questions holding up as a full-time center. The Nets, in part but not solely due to Clax, got worked on the glass this year. Even when the 2019 draftee is in deep drop coverage, he’s not the defensive glass eater that the premier anchors are. And drop is far from Claxton’s best deployment. So, where does that leave us with Clowney?
Clowney is not the athlete that his older counterpart is, but few are. Claxton was a secondary ball-handler at Georgia, for crying out loud, and was an immediate beast when switching out to the perimeter, his original defensive calling card before he damn-near decided to lead the league in blocks this year. The bigger gap between the two is in the footwork/technique department, seen here, thanks to Adam Spinella’s excellent YouTube channel:
Clowney’s footwork on that last closeout is a mess, and though he briefly recovers to the driver, he’s far too out of position to provide any resistance. That in addition to a thin frame that, as Spinella notes, leaves him little room to recover when beat on drives. Asking Clowney to help off of and recover to opposing forwards may be too much to ask in his first year as a pro. Cam Johnson, for example, is far from the NBA’s most explosive athlete, and even he frequently glides past sloppy closeouts to occasionally put one on Joel Embiid’s head.
What to Watch for
I’d assume this to be a feel-out season for the coaches that work closest with Clowney. It’s foolish to set limits on an 18-year-old’s potential, as Marks also noted, so I don’t expect too many hints at what Brooklyn envisions their 21st pick’s eventual defensive role being. With time, he’ll either focus on truly beefing up, or focus on becoming the most nimble version of himself. But as a rookie, he will build the natural muscle that barely legal adults do upon entering the NBA while bettering himself as an athlete and defensive technician. Thus, he’ll get reps as a forward, spacing the floor and being a secondary rim protector, as well as somewhat of a traditional big who’s more closely tethered to the paint on D, while screening and rolling on O.
Fans should hope to see a steady dose of minutes for Clowney, whether that’s in the NBA or in Long Island. The Nets should prioritize extracting a healthy sample size of their young big wearing all hats, to get a better idea of his specific strengths and weakness, while providing him an opportunity to take 3-pointers in games. Understandably, we all want to see him in the Association, especially on a team with mediocre aspirations, but the ‘G’ may provide Clowney’s best situation in the immediate.
Aside from examining his defensive roles and where he excels, I’ll be looking at those aforementioned 3-pointers throughout his rookie year. Clowney really only has the 3-point volume, in one year of NCAA ball, going for him. He rarely took long twos at ‘Bama and his free-throw percentage was a mere 64.9. His numbers are not screaming “shooter’”
Yet, form-wise, the only oddity I can find with his stroke is that you’ll frequently see an inward bend at the knees (valgus collapse) on his load-up:
While that may have been a strict no-no for shooting coaches back in the day (BEEF!), a valgus collapse is not as frowned upon now, especially since an inward bend at the knees helps generate power for extra long-range shots, shots that grow in frequency with each passing NBA season. And a slight inward bend at the knees is inevitable for jump-shooters, anyway; a perfect, squat-like motion isn’t realistic.
The question, per usual, is the repetition of the shooting motion. Clowney doesn’t load up his shot like that every time. I’ll be curious to see if that or anything else about his shooting form changes over his rookie year, and of course, what Clowney’s 3-point numbers look like after his rookie season — no matter how that season is divided between Long Island and Brooklyn.
The vision for Dariq Whitehead is a little less clear than the highest hopes for Noah Clowney, who the Nets picked a spot before him in the 2023 NBA Draft. However, the ultimate vision for Whitehead, whatever it may be, is much more enticing. As you’ve likely heard, this Newark native was either the #1 or #2 high school recruit in the nation, according to the major ranking apparatuses. He’s the youngest draft choice in Nets history, no matter where they were located, just barely edging out Derrick Favors for the honor. Just one year ago, Whitehead was considered the crown jewel of his age group. Then, a foot surgery, an underwhelming one-and-done season at Duke, and another foot surgery later, he fell to #22 in the draft.
What never wavered during that tumultuous stretch for Whitehead, where his athleticism faltered and he missed some games due to injury, was his shooting ability. He shot 42.9% from deep in his lone season at Duke, on roughly six 3PA/36 minutes. The negative among us will point to the fact that he played just 576 minutes in college, thus taking only 98 threes over that time; that’s a three-week sample size for a bona fide NBA shooter.
But Whitehead was a renowned prospect in part for steep shooting improvements in his age-16 and age-17 seasons on the AAU circuit. When there plenty of makes that look like these over the past two years, it’s easy to believe in his shooting ability:
Combine that with clips, even if they’re just brief flashes, of serious driving ability (thanks to the Swish YouTube channel)...
...and you see the outlines of a star guard.
Well, health, first and foremost. Whitehead simply didn’t look like the athlete that dominated the high school and AAU ranks, and that’s part of why he was regulated to an off-ball, primarily spot-up role. I know we just saw him throw down a monster dunk, but far too many of his finishes were below the rim, simply devoid of elite or even remarkable explosiveness:
As he said of last season, “I was playing on one leg.”
That’s a 6’7” star guard rim-grazing, not flushing the ball, even with a whole runway to take off. The first and only obstacle for Whitehead to clear is his health. Considering Dr. Martin O’Malley, a Nets team physician, performed his second surgery prior to the Nets selecting Whitehead, the team clearly feels confident that Whitehead’s foot is not a cause for existential concern. And the Nets have been down this road before with Caris LeVert in 2016 and LeVert’s surgery was more complicated. Both did involve bone grafts.
The next question, and the only one we can really take a stab at, since predicting health is pointless, is as follows: If the athleticism does come back, how much does that change the calculus for Whitehead?
Can we really blame 27 assists compared to 39 turnovers at Duke (yeesh) all on a bum foot? Can we blame some of it on that bum foot? How about the two-point scoring, or lack thereof, that we saw at Duke? Is making just 41.4% of those looks, less than his 3-point percentage, all due to the foot injury?
Probably not, considering a finishing package reliant on below-the-rim makes was a concern for scouts while Whitehead was still at Montverde Academy. According to Spinella, Whitehead “had zero self-creation dunks in the halfcourt in high school - even before the injury.”
And while the now-18-year-old was lauded for making impressive passing reads as early as the end of his junior year at Montverde...
dariq whitehead's development has been a joy to loosely track, 16 year old god athlete making reads like this (+a nice kendall brown read) pic.twitter.com/Sle8l00M9y— ben pfeifer (@bjpf_) July 4, 2021
...many of those passes were in simple situations, like a pick-and-roll without help defense (above), or in transition. At Duke, we too frequently saw plays like this, where Whitehead misses a wide-open corner shooter while driving to the rim:
He was clearly moving well enough on that play to make the right read, but didn’t. It’s not an awful floater he takes, but decisions like that will result in an assist:turnover ratio (far from a definite measure of passing talent, for what it’s worth, but still a benchmark) below one. Still, the Nets believe he could wind up playing multiple positions for them.
What to Watch for
Again, I am not a medical expert, but I do have internet access. InStreetClothes.com tells me that, if suffered during the season during the regular season, a fracture of the fifth metatarsal (Whitehead’s injury) causes, on average, 42 missed games or about 2.5 months. However, this is following Whitehead’s second surgery on June 7, and with Sean Marks saying that the Nets will be “very measured in the process” of getting their second first-rounder back on the court, and that “there’s absolutely no rush to do this,” let’s be extra cautious in our estimations as well. Double the initial timeframe, for the sake of it, and say Whitehead makes his Brooklyn or Long Island debut in five months, towards the end of November. Say it takes him a couple months to really get his feet under him; that brings us to the NBA (and G-League) All-Star Break.
All this to say, I think we will get some real insight into Dariq Whitehead’s future as an NBA player this season, even if it’s not until the second half of it. By the time his rookie campaign concludes, the Nets will have a solid grasp on how diminished, if at all, his long-term athleticism is after two foot surgeries early in his career.
They’ll also have a better grasp on just what he can do with the ball in his hands. I hope to see the Brooklyn staff, the Long Island staff, or both run the talented rookie off a bunch of pin-down screens or handoffs to get him going, early on. The shooting gravity is there; we don’t have to worry about opposing defenses (dis)respecting his shot. Springing him into actions and watching him work with established advantages should provide a nice base of evaluation for a potential ceiling, with the added benefit of teaching the former Blue Devil how to work off the ball early in his career. No matter how the Nets handle Whitehead, though, I’ll be locked into his upcoming season, wherever he finds minutes.
Eagle-eyed readers will notice I did not mention Jalen WIlson, Brooklyn’s second-round draft pick selected at #51 overall. Wilson, who we will see at Las Vegas Summer League along with Clowney (Whitehead is still rehabbing that foot), projects as a potential 3-and-D wing who has major questions on both sides of that equation. Wilson made just 31.6% of his 443 3-point attempts over his four-year career at Kansas, although he took nine of ‘em a game last season as the go-to Jayhawk. Perhaps the percentages increase in a smaller role at the next level. Defensively, Wilson has athletic questions that quell some of his defensive expectations.
Those are the negatives. The positives include Wilson being a smart team defender, and an overall experienced player, especially compared to Brooklyn’s other two draft picks. I suspect we’ll hear glowing reviews out of Brooklyn’s training camp sessions later this summer, and despite a relatively low perceived upside, I wouldn’t be surprised if Wilson is the first Nets rookie who receives a real crack at the rotation this season. All it takes is a hot start shooting the ball, and following an offseason where Royce O’Neale, Dorian Finney-Smith, and Yuta Watanabe are constantly hearing their names in rumors, there may be minutes up for grabs. He just has to be more consistent.
This is an exciting rookie class in the long-term, even if the trio may not offer much production in the short term. At worst, Long Island Nets games just became much more enticing. At best, Brooklyn selected two 18-year-olds who could fall short of their greatest potential and still turn into NBA studs. Yes, the draft is a long-game. Despite instant reactions on the last Thursday in June, we don’t know how these picks truly turn out until years down the line. But that doesn’t mean Nets fans shouldn’t be excited to watch the newest batch of rookies develop.