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NetsDaily Off-Season Report - No. 13

Every weekend, we’ll be updating the Nets’ off-season with bits and pieces of information, gossip, etc. to help fans get ready for ... whatever

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Atlanta Hawks v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

When Sean Marks took over the Nets in February 2016, he had nothing. He had one, maybe two, legitimate NBA players in Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young ... who within four months he had traded for the 20th pick in the NBA Draft which turned into Caris LeVert. Other than that, he had no first round picks. No seconds either. The franchise mantra had to be development.

Marks, aided by assistant coaches, scouts, etc. were able to find prospects like Joe Harris and Spencer Dinwiddie who had last played for the G League affiliates of the Cavs and Bulls. By the next summer, he had traded for a prodigal No. 2 pick in D’Angelo Russell and drafted Jarrett Allen, a 19-year-old center who many teams thought didn’t love the game enough because he had other interests. LeVert who no team other than the Nets thought was a first round prospect because of his three foot surgeries became a legitimate NBA scorer and fan favorite.

Finally, by 2019, the team of retreads, misfits and the under-appreciated got to the playoffs, helped in their pursuit by some sharp veterans, and attracted the attention of a couple of superstars who everyone thought would be the ultimate reward for all that hard work. You know the rest of the story.

Now, after four years of fan disappointment, internal distress and ugly departures, development is back. The situation is nowhere near as gross as it was in 2016-17. The Nets have legitimate NBA talent in Mikal Bridges, Nic Claxton, Cam Johnson, the aforementioned Dinwiddie and, as always IF healthy, Ben Simmons. They also have 11 first rounders in the next seven drafts, three each in 2027 and 2029, seven trade exceptions of all sizes, etc.

Still, if the Nets want to compete this season and win more than the 20 games they won back in 2016-17, they will have to develop the players they picked up and drafted like they did seven years ago. When the Nets signed Harris, he was 24, Dinwiddie was 23. LeVert was 21 on Draft Night 2016, Allen, as noted, was 19 in 2017. Now, the talent they need to push and pull into a competitive NBA squad are only slightly older with better resumes than their forebears. Dennis Smith Jr. is 25, Lonnie Walker IV 24, Darius Bazley 23 and Armoni Brooks 25 while the rookies are 18, 19 and 22.

There are parallels between the two groups, the easiest to draw is LeVert and Whitehead, both former patients of Nets orthopedist Dr. Martin O’Malley (who also performed Kevin Durant’s achilles surgery.) Insiders will tell you that LeVert’s surgery was more complicated than Whitehead’s and he should be back before December 8, the date LeVert finally came off the bench his rookie year. There are doubts about Noah Clowney as there were about Allen. Smith Jr. wasn’t drafted as high as DLo nor does he have the raw talent, but both were abandoned by the teams that drafted them, Russell at No. 2, Smith Jr. at No. 9. Harris and Dinwiddie were both given one year minimum deals back then like Smith Jr., Walker IV and Bazley were this year. (There’s no easy comparison for Jalen Wilson and that’s fine.)

All that said, this is a different group but for them to succeed, they will have to be as hungry as the first group and the Nets will have to be as smart in pushing them, adding to their skillsets. When Harris arrived, he could shoot. Kenny Atkinson noted Harris wasn’t a very good NBA player. He became one of the greatest 3-point shooters in league history but also got stronger, became a better rebounder, better defender. He and Dinwiddie wound up with contracts that paid them $20 million a year.

So where does development stand now? What are the needs?

In the current group, the agenda will no doubt starts with defense. The Nets hope they are building a team that can defend at the highest level. They already have a core. Bridges and Simmons were both Defensive Player of the Year runners-up. Claxton finished 10th this season. Smith Jr. is one of the best defensive point guards in the NBA. Bazley spoke this week about his pride in defending and Johnson takes pride in his D as well. Walker IV has always been seen as a player whose physical gifts permit him to play better defense.

On offense, the Nets have to find ways to create better shots. Secondary playmaking is something Bridges has spoken about after the Nets got swept by Philly back in April.

“It was just shot selection, [we’re] not getting easy one sometimes,” Bridges said after Game 4. “They did a great job making us just play a little more iso: Credit to them. It’s tough. We haven’t been together that much and just trying to find the spacing and where guys should be. … They made us play just one-on-one ball.”

With the departure of Harris, Patty Mills and Seth Curry (on top of the losses of KD and Kyrie), 3-point shooting is a big question mark after being a big strength. Cam Thomas could help there as long as his overall game has improved ... and word out of HSS is that he is training hard. Claxton, too, has been working on his 3-ball but no one (yet) expects him to suddenly become a stretch 5. (More importantly, as Erik Slater of Clutch Points pointed out Sunday, the sketchy videos of Claxton’s off-season also suggests he’s working on ball handling and live dribble finishes, a further indication that you’ll see more offense out of the 7-footer.)

As Steve Lichtenstein wrote this week in his substack there is a 3-point deficit...

[T]he Nets appear to be on a trajectory to post their worst 3-point shooting team since the first two Kenny Atkinson seasons. I would expect Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson to continue to be threats from deep, but who else scares defenses? In the last 27 games of the season following the Kevin Durant trade to Phoenix, Brooklyn ranked 20th in 3-point percentage, with Royce O’Neale and Cam Thomas the only other remaining Nets to shoot threes above the league average. It got worse in the playoffs, with the Nets posting a 34.5% conversion rate, placing them 13th among the 16 teams.

Of the newbies, only Walker IV offers real hope of being a reliable 3-point shooter. That’s a problem. (Wilson and Brooks both shot near 50% in Summer League but they are two-ways.)

Above all else, there’s rebounding or lack of same. The Nets were near the bottom of the league last year both before and after the deadline trades. As Evan Barnes wrote at the end of the season, “besides being 25th in rebounding after the Durant trade, the Nets were 27th in second-chance points and 28th in opponent rebounds per game.”

Jacque Vaughn said after Game 4 of the Philly sweep, the Nets would have to address that in the off-season.

“We’ve got to get bigger over the summer,” said Vaughn. “We’ve got to get nasty over the summer. We’ve got to get guys who really love hitting, and take it personal when the other team gets a rebound. That’s what we’ll be looking for.”

At least on its face, that hasn’t happened. Clowney is not ready and he’s the only player taller than 6’9” who the Nets added in the off-season. Maybe Marks and Vaughn believe that some new scheme, a different use of the 6’11” Simmons, who did average eight rebounds per game in four years with the 76ers, or the 6’7” Dorian Finney-Smith, whose career average in Dallas was near five, will help in that area. Claxton did grab nearly 10 rebounds last season. Otherwise, there’s not a lot of nastiness or bigness and as Bridges said to Brian Lewis Sunday, the roster appears set.

The performance team will have challenges as well, getting Simmons back on track being the critical one.

Indeed, it would seem that the Nets are going to rely on Simmons to fill in a number of voids as long as his health permits, getting the Nets better shots, grabbing more rebounds, anchoring the defense. How much of that hope is justified, we will find out soon enough.

Keeping other Nets players on the court will also be a priority for the performance team and a challenge. Last season, Bridges and Claxton missed one game combined to injury. Bridges played in 83 games and while Claxton played in 76, but only one of those missed games was due to injury. He got poked in the eye. The other five were due to rest (four games) and a personal absence (one game.)

Adam Caporn, the Nets assistant coach and new director of development, will be charged with improvement. It worked once before but there will be misses as well as hits, just as there was in 2016. Back then, the Nets brought in Anthony Bennett, the former overall No. 1 pick, in hopes of finding a gem, a fallen angel. He was gone by early January. Similarly, Marks dumped Yogi Ferrell, an undrafted undersized shooting guard, in October to make room for Dinwiddie, much to the disappointment, even anger, of fans when a few months later Ferrell stroked nine 3-pointers for the Mavericks on national TV. He’s currently playing for the Shanghai Sharks. There’s a lesson there: trust the process ... or something like that.

Whitmore and Whitehead

There has been legitimate praise for the Rockets after Summer League. With the 20th pick, just before the Nets two picks in the June Draft, they took Cam Whitmore who in the days leading up to June 22, was seen as a lottery pick, maybe as high as No. 7. Whitmore had either hidden injury issues or teams didn’t like his taciturn ways in interviews. It was bizarre but it happens. GMs see counterparts scared off and they get nervous. Call it the “what-does-he-know?” syndrome. Whitmore justified the Rockets faith in him by winning the Summer League MVP, positively dominating opponents in Vegas with a chip the size of the MSG Sphere squarely on his shoulders.

So, is there another player who for whatever reason fell too far in the Draft? We nominate Dariq Whitehead, the 6’7” Duke wing the Nets took at No. 22. The rationale for letting Whitehead fall was different from Whitmore’s. There were legitimate reasons — two very real foot surgeries in August and June — that gave teams pause. But Whitehead was, not that long ago, seen as the top player in his high school class by Rivals which ranks the top high school players. He was Mr. Basketball USA and both the Sports Illustrated Player of the Year and the Naismith Prep Player of the Year while taking home MVP honors at the McDonald’s All-American Game. Here’s some highlights. Note that No. 0 in blue handles the ball quite well...

Whitehead spent five years at Monteverde Academy, the Sarasota, Fla., basketball factory, and played with, among others, Cade Cunningham, Jalen Duren, Scottie Barnes, Precious Achiuwa and Day’Ron Sharpe. He is the only player in high school basketball history to win four national titles.

There’s a reason to use his high school tape rather than his Duke tape to make an argument for him as a sleeper pick. He fractured his right foot in practice in August of last year and as he said, spent the entire season playing on one foot. Just when he thought he was “getting his pop back,” he suffered a noncontact lower left leg strain in January.

Once the season was over, he opted for a second foot surgery, this time at the hands of Dr. Martin O’Malley, the Nets team foot/ankle specialist. O’Malley described the June 7 procedure as “revision operation with bone grafting for a fifth metatarsal Jones fracture.” He also told ESPN that Whitehead “should be ready for full participation at the start of NBA training camp.” (This being the Nets, don’t believe a fast return is written in stone. The performance team is very cautious. Think more like a November start date. Still, the Nets do not believe that Whitehead’s procedure was as complicated as LeVert’s.)

Whitehead told WNBC’s John Chandler just after the Draft that having O’Malley as a Nets team doctor is a big advantage to him and his recovery.

“Honestly speaking, that’s the best thing that can happen, being Dr. O’Malley who did my surgery and coming back to Brooklyn with him,” Whitehead told Chandler. “He knows what it takes for me to get back to 100%. He’s gonna make sure I’m doing all the right things, as well as the staff here. So like I said, that’s honestly the best situation for me, and I’m glad it happened this way and no other way.”

Still, the double whammy of a fracture and leg strain cost in a number of different ways, Sam Vecenie of The Athletic noted prior to the Draft...

Whitehead seemed to add quite a bit of weight. At Montverde for his senior year, he was listed at about 200 pounds. At Duke, he was listed at 220 pounds. At the NBA Draft Combine, he came in at 217 pounds. And with that weight, I think came a bit less flexibility in his hips. It didn’t seem to be a functional weight that allowed him to compete at his best. Sometimes when you get hurt – especially with foot injuries – it’s hard to maintain the style of conditioning you want or the type of quick-twitch footspeed you need to thrive as a creator.

It also hurt that different teams have different tolerances for medical issues. (In LeVert’s case, several teams’ medical directors warned their clients not to even take a chance on him in either round.)

One team may have a player off its board when another has real confidence in a player’s long-term outlook. It’s all about an organization’s risk assessment and how risk-averse decision-makers are. Projecting the long-term outlook of a body is an inexact science. At a certain point, the risk certainly becomes worth the reward.

Bottom line, added Vecenie, is how much of his disappointing turn at Duke was due to his injuries and how much to other deficiencies in his game that only showed up on the bigger stage that is the ACC. Vecenie specifically cited some issues on the defensive side of the ball.

His team defense left a lot to be desired as well. Really struggled a lot to chase in off-ball screening actions. That was probably the worst part of his defensive tape. He was kind of a magnet for contact on these screens. This results in a lot of scramble closeouts that are difficult to recover from. Or, he simply wouldn’t get around them and it would lead to a wide-open shot. How much of this had to do with reduced twitch due to the foot injury?

Again, an impossible question for teams to answer based off the information that they currently possess.

The Nets certainly considered all of that prior to taking him and with their confidence in O’Malley and their performance team, they made the decision to go with him. There were other things that drove the Nets interest in Whitehead, including his personality. They showcased a bit of it last week when they mic’d him up for Summer League.

Whitehead, as we’ve reported, is mature for an 18-year-old. He had a brother, Tahir, who played in the NFL for eight seasons, He has faith things will work out.

“I’m a big believer in things happen for a reason and God has everything set in the right path, so it’s definitely gonna fuel the extra motivation, but I’m just here to think about what’s here now,” he said. “I’m here to focus on the future, so I’ve gotta put that behind me and help try to contribute to this team and [playing] winning basketball as much as possible.”

One other thing: Whitehead grew an inch between his senior year at Montverde and the NBA Draft Combine in May, going from 6’5 1/2” in bare feet to 6’6 1/2”. Is he still growing? That’s a good thing.

Joe Tsai give back

When Joe Tsai was a boy, his parents sent him from his home in Taipai, Taiwan, to the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, where he began eight years of school in America, five years at the private school, four years at Yale undergraduate, then another three at Yale Law.

It was at Lawrenceville, where he found his love of sports, playing lacrosse at the high school level, a love that continued through Yale and now as the owner of two franchises in the National Lacrosse League, the indoor league, and a principal in the Professional Lacrosse League, the outdoor league.

Forty years later, Tsai is trying to give opportunities to similarly situated teenagers ... who play basketball.

The Joe Tsai Basketball Scholarship Program every year sends 10 Chinese middle schoolers, boys and girls, between the ages of 13 and 15, all promising hoopsters, from the mainland to the U.S. to better learn the sport while studying at American prep schools. Among the most promising players in last year’s class were Sinan Huan, a 7’0” big who attends Windermere Prep in Orange County, Florida, and Sifeng Huan, a 6’10” small forward who attends Bishop O’Connell in Arlington County, Virginia. Here’s video of the two of them. Sinan is often referred to as Yao Ming II...

Tsai takes a personal interest in the program, addressing the kids as they head off to the U.S..

Final Note

In Bruce Brown’s lengthy interview with Theo Pinson this week, he spoke about Game 7 of the Bucks series back in 2021 and what it was like in Brooklyn that night and how much he appreciated the Barclays Center crowd.

“Game 7 was insane. The atmosphere. How locked in people was,” said Brown. “BK turned when it needs to be turned. The fans, they love basketball. They there for the game.”

Of course, that was the single most debilitating loss in the history of Brooklyn basketball but it’s good to hear a player talk about how much the Brooklyn fans love hoops and how much he appreciated them.