It’s an old line, often overused, but in this case it’s true: If Mikal Bridges didn’t exist, the Nets would have had to invent him. It’s that simple.
Luckily, he does exist and he plays for them in Brooklyn. Increasingly since the February 9 deadline deal that brought him to Brooklyn, Bridges looks good and not just on the court. Yes, he averaged 26.1 points a game after joining the Nets (27.4 if you eliminate the four-second cameo in the last game of the season.) But that’s not why he is so valuable to the organization. After years of controversy and superstars pouting or protesting or simply pushing their legacy, Bridges is exactly what the Nets needed, the proverbial breath of fresh air. Yeah, that’s an overused line, but again, also true.
There are any number of instances why, as Woj said the night (morning) of the Kevin Durant trade, Sean Marks & co. “long coveted” Bridges, much of which played out in those 27 games between the trade and end of the regular season. Sure there were the three 40-point games, including the breakout game vs. the Heat where he scored 15 straight to win it. There was the durability, his streak of consecutive games now eight away from 400, his defense and even his willing admission at season’s end that he was fatigued.
But it’s the off-court — and off-season — activities that have shown his character, a word that hadn’t been thrown around a lot the past four years in these parts. One instance where we thought he went above and beyond may not even have registered with Nets fans. On the Paul George podcast in late July, he spoke glowingly about his much-maligned teammate Ben Simmons. Fans’ takeaway then was more about the news aspect of what he offered George: how he was optimistic about what Simmons could do next season. But aside from the news, his encouragement of Simmons stood out.
“Ben is my guy, man. I got confidence, I got big faith in him this year,” Bridges told George on his Podcast*P show in late July. “His back was messed up. Now that he’s got surgery and he’s getting back. He love the game, bro. I think he’s in a good place, f*cks with all of us like we’re close. He’s the one talking in the chat all the time and we all f*ck with him.
“Obviously, we want him to score and all that but we ain’t pressed about it like we just want him to be him,” he told George who followed up by asking how Bridges is supporting Simmons.
“Just be there with him man, support him, even if he struggled, that’s cool,” he told George. “Like, sh*t, whatever city we’re in, we gonna hang out, go get dinner, whatever you want, get ready for the next one.
“I think that’s the biggest thing. just (so) he can be confident enough to fail and know like you’re there for him. You don’t want nobody to feel that pressure every single time, ‘Oh, if I don’t play well... oh sh*t, these guys might not like me.’ For me that’s not the case. ‘Listen, bro, you struggle, you struggle. we wanna be there for you through the process. If you shoot five middies in a row and you miss all five, f*ck it, shoot the sixth one.’”
That is about being a teammate. You didn’t hear much if any of that last season and it might not have mattered considering what we know about the physical issues Simmons was dealing with. But saying it out loud in the setting he chose matters.
That same character has been evident in his time with Team USA, as his new best buddy, Austin Reaves of the Lakers noted in an interview this week with Dan Woike of the Los Angeles Times. Woike jokingly suggested that Reaves might have hated Bridges before their time in red, white and blue.
“I mean, I didn’t hate him. I didn’t know what to think about him back in the day,” said Reaves about how he thought about Bridges before they teamed up. That quickly changed.
“But it was just like, his energy. He’s never in a bad mood. You know at all times, he’s going to do and have the right intentions towards the game. He’s not going in without any wrong intentions. it’s always good. He’s picking up full. He’s not scoring a lot, but he’s doing all the other stuff.
“We were talking the other day and he looked at me and said, ‘Bro, I don’t care. As long as I can put a gold medal around my neck, I don’t care. I don’t care what happens. As long as we win, I don’t care.’
“That means a lot for me to hear. You go back to last season when he’s with Brooklyn. Like, he’s averaging over 25 after he gets traded. He’s got the ball in his hands. For someone to able to adapt like that, really just care about winning, it’s been cool. That’s been the one I’ve kind of meshed with the most, on and off the court. As far as taking away stuff from guys’ games, it’s really more been about the approach, the time spent either in the weight room or on the court. Not really moves or anything. It’s more about the approach.”
The approach indeed. Steve Kerr, the Team USA and Warriors head coach, has identified Bridges, Reaves and Cam Johnson as his “glue guys” and talked about the importance of that in molding a team out of 12 guys who have never played — not one of of them —a minute in international ball. Moreover, he’s become popular even beyond Team USA. His 3-point celebration has even been adopted by players around the league and the globe...
Jaren Jackson Jr. knocks down the triple to bring USA within single digits— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPoints) September 3, 2023
His teammates even wanted him to “flash it” at his birthday party in Manila...
The Nets marketing department understands the attraction. They’ve been promoting him all summer long and why not. He and that gesture are quite marketable.
He is not, nor will he likely ever be, Kevin Durant, the player who he, Cam Johnson and boatload of picks was traded for, but he is eight years younger, a lot more durable and just a positive presence on and off the court. Of course, who won that trade — or any other for that matter — won’t be known for years. If Phoenix wins an NBA championship, the Suns will have won. No debate. And the rule of thumb in any trade is the team that gets the best player won. Durant was clearly the best player.
In reviewing the trade with Nick Friedell of ESPN two months after it went down and Bridges had taken off, Marks talked about what he liked about the deals for Durant and Kyrie Irving.
“We were able to come to terms with that knowing that the package we were getting back in return was something that has a clear pathway,” he said in typical GM-ese, trying to put the best spin on what had gone down. “We’ve never sort of had a group of young guys before that were under contract, proven, healthy and you can see a pathway of, ‘Hey, I can see what this may look like in two, three years from now.’ ... Not just Mikal but all of them, where do they all take their games to? Who’s the next person that takes that leap?”
He was then asked if the Suns deal would have gone down if Bridges had not been included. The Suns new owner, Mat Ishbia, was willing to include Bridges (and a lot more) to get KD, but James Jones, his GM, and Monty Williams, then Suns head coach, decidedly were not.
“The simple answer is no,” Marks told Friedell. “Clearly, no.”
No spin there.
Nets fandom has spent a lot of the summer wondering who would back up Nic Claxton. Why didn’t Sean Marks sign free agents Christian Wood, who wasn’t extended by the Mavericks or Bol Bol who was waived by the Magic? What about Mo Bamba?? Said one team insider, a better question about all three was, “why was he still a free agent at this point?”
That’s changed of course. In the last few weeks, the Nets have signed a plethora of bigs of various experience and skill levels. Indeed, it’s been a while since Brooklyn has had so many big men under contract, none older than 25. Here’s the list...
- Nic Claxton, 6’11”, 24 years old, $8,75 million, expiring.
- Day’Ron Sharpe, 6’10”, 21 years old, $2.21 million, rookie scale contract
- Noah Clowney, 6’11”, 19 years old, $3.09 million, rookie scale contract
- Darius Bazley, 6’9”, 23 years old, $2.16 million, non-guaranteed one year contract
- Trendon Watford, 6’9”, 22 years old, $2.02 million, non-guaranteed one year contract
- Patrick Gardner, 6’11”, 24 years old, $1.12 million, Exhibit 10 contract
- Harry Giles III, 6’11”, 25 years old, $2.71 million, non-guaranteed one year contract
And even though he says he’s a point guard and says that Jacque Vaughn agrees with him, Ben Simmons is 6’11” and will earn $37.89 million, fully guaranteed.
First things first, only Claxton, Sharpe and Clowney are guaranteed. It is believed that Bazley, Watford and Giles all have an identical deal: non-guaranteed through Opening Night. If any make the 15-man roster, they’re guaranteed $200,000. Then if they make it through December 15, the guarantee goes up to $700,000 and if they go all the way to January 7, they’ll be fully guaranteed. Will all three non-guaranteed bigs make it that far? Doubtful. Are they all competing for one, maybe two deals? Maybe. Could a loser in the competition wind up with a two-way deal which pays $552,000? Could be.
None are traditional bigs, meaning the Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic model monster. Instead, for the most part, they are athletic, defensive-minded and capable of playing more than one position. In each their own way, they are also looking to comeback. The Suns didn’t extend a qualifying offer to Bazlery, The Blazers waived Watford and Giles simply hasn’t played in two years, taking an extended time off to reconstitute his body after multiple injuries and surgeries.
Their physical attributes, style and youth are what the Nets are looking for. It’s not by accident the Nets are taking a chance on them. And truth be told, if you’re trying to avoid the repeater tax, their low pay also fills a need.
Also, the Nets will likely utilize a wide open offense and a switching defense. Gardner is more of a 3-point shooter who last week admitted he’s probably headed to Long Island and a G League assignment. So, he’s unlikely to be a factor. Clowney, the second youngest player ever drafted by the Nets by a few days, is also likely to spend time at Nassau Coliseum.
That leaves the three non-guaranteed bigs, comeback kids all: Bazley, Watford and Giles, as well as Sharpe to fight it out for roster spots and minutes. Defense is likely to be the higher priority but also let’s assume the Nets plan on giving their bigs more offensive responsibilities. Claxton hasn’t been shooting threes in L.A. without the brass back in Brooklyn encouraging him. Same, one could assume, goes for the back-ups.
Let’s start with defense. Giles from a statistical standpoint has put up the best numbers defensively. His career defensive rating is 109.7, comparable to those of Claxton (108.9) or Jaren Jackson Jr. (106.8), the Defensive Player of the Year. Sharpe’s career number is 110.8, Bazley at 111.4 with Watford at 117.4.
Of course, Giles situation is uncertain. He’s missed two full seasons and it will take some time for him to get back to being NBA-ready. Bazley is best known as a defender. As our Lucas Kaplan wrote after his introductory press conference in July, Bazley prides himself on his defense... but is he a big or a wing?
Other than raw athleticism, Bazley is known as a defense-first wing, a quality he expects to bring to a Brooklyn team known for building around its wing defenders. When asked what skills may get him on the court, he said, “First and foremost, defensively: being able to match-up 1 through 4, 1 through 5, guard bigger wings, be able to guard smaller guards as well. I’m looking forward to that.”
The Thunder and Suns tried Bazley at the 5 last season It’s hard to draw any conclusions from a relatively small sample size —43 games, one start and 616 minutes — but he did average 2.0 blocks per 36 minutes. At 6’9” and with a thin frame, he may be undersized for the 5, but in the Nets system, the 4 and 5 won’t be much different.
Bazley and Watford can shoot the 3-ball to an extent. Bazley has a career percentage of 31.0% and Watford, 33.3% but neither have put up that many shots in their careers. Last year, Bazley did shoot 37.7% in both Oklahoma City and Phoenix but only on 53 attempts. Similarly, Watford shot 39.1% from deep but took only 64 attempts. Is either for real?
And if you haven’t had enough of small sample sizes, there’s Giles and Sharpe’s 3-point numbers. Giles has shot only 25.8% in his career but in his last season, back in 2020-21, he shot 34.8%. His sample was even smaller than Bazley or Watford’s. He put up only 23 from deep. The Nets had Sharpe work on his long-range shooting at Long Island last season. He hit only 22.2% in the G League though. In limited time with Brooklyn, Sharpe shot 54.5% (!) from beyond the arc, going 6-of-11. (Gardner, at Division I Marist, took 149 threes in 33 games, making 57 for 38.3% so there’s that.)
Putting aside the specific defensive rating and 3-point stats, Bazley also appears to be the most consistent of the group. Over a two-year period with OKC between 2020 and 2022, Bazley averaged 12.1 points and 6.7 rebounds in 124 games, 108 starts mostly at the 4. He also averaged a block a game in 2021-22.
Watford’s two-year numbers, more recent than either Bazley or Giles, don’t approach that. He’s only been in the league two years and averaged 7.8 points and 3.9 rebounds in 110 games, only 22 as a starter. He is not a rim protector, averaging only 0.4 blocks.
Giles injury history simply doesn’t permit a good comparison. His two best years were his first, 2018-19 and 2019-20, a long time ago in NBA terms. He played in only 104 games in those two years, averaging 7.0 points and 2.9 rebounds. Sharpe hasn’t played that many minutes, period, and his two-year averages are 5.3 and 4.4 but in only 80 games. Still better and more recent than Giles, it should be noted.
So what’s the bottom line? There are several. It would appear Bazley has an edge statistically. He was also the first of the three non-guaranteed bigs to get signed (and the only one to throw out the first pitch at CitiField!) Giles may have potential and is still only 25, but he’s likely a long shot. Nearly half the NBA worked him out and the best he could get is a non-guaranteed deal. His agent, Daniel Hazan, did tell SNY that the Nets had monitored Giles throughout the off-season and he chose Brooklyn over two other “serious suitors.” Good luck to him, but... Watford is only 22 and has some potential, as does Sharpe, etc. How much, we will find out.
The other bottom line is this: the Nets are likely to have a non-traditional offense with a lot of small ball, giving undersized, athletic deep shooters like these four more opportunity. Note that there is not a traditional big on the roster. That’s not accidental.
ALL that said, despite all the new bigs, other than Claxton, there is not a great rebounder on the roster. MAYBE, Sharpe who is a rebounder will take the next step. MAYBE, Giles shows he can get down and dirty when he steps on the court for the first time since January 2022. No doubt the Nets expect a lot of team rebounding and Ben Simmons has averaged 7.8 per game over his career. BUT the East is now filled with bigs who can dominate the boards whether it’s Joel Embiid in Philly or Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee or Bam Adebayo in Miami. Boston has a lot of proven depth up front, led by Kristaps Porzingis and Robert Williams III.
At this point, the Nets have added quantity at the big positions. Now, they need to figure out if they added quality.
Farewell to the Muscle Devil
Yi Jianlian announced this week that after 21 seasons in the CBA and NBA he’s calling it quits.
“Time flies; in the blink of an eye, basketball has been by my side for 21 years,” the now 35-year-old Yi wrote on the social media site Weibo. “After much contemplation, I have made the decision to officially bring my basketball career to a close.
“… Farewell is not the end, but rather a new beginning. I will cherish the memories of the past while continuing to move forward, embracing new chapters in my life. Goodbye, my beloved basketball.”
His Chinese career was a huge success. Discovered playing street ball in his home province of Guangdong, not through some government sports program, he won six CBA titles and starred for the Chinese national team after Yao Ming hung up his sneakers.
In the NBA, he didn’t do so well. He was drafted at No. 6, way too high, but despite his failings, there were always NBA executives who thought all he need was this or that. The Nets traded Richard Jefferson for Yi on Draft Night 2008, a worse decision than the Bucks drafting him at No. 6. After his first season in New Jersey, he famously spent the summer building up his body in China. Chinese sports writers began to call him the “muscle devil”, at least according to the translations. We loved it, but it didn’t produce the desired results.
He had his moments, but he missed 51 games in two seasons here and when Mikhail Prokhorov bought the team and hired Billy King after the 12-70 season, the seven-footer was sent on his way to the Wizards as part of a house-cleaning. He had gigs with Dallas and the Lakers but he finally returned to China and got back to his dominant ways.
In a post-script to Yi’s announcement, Jeremy Lin offered his personal thoughts on Yi.
The utmost respect to you Yi JianLian for an amazing career. The way you played the game, the way you battled back from adversity, and the way you handled the weight of global pressure. Congrats on your retirement! Thanks for paving the way for Asian hoopers like me to believe… pic.twitter.com/urrjvAY7qf— Jeremy Lin (@JLin7) August 30, 2023
Best wishes, Yi.
We’ll be reporting later on Team USA’s loss Sunday to Lithuania (ugh), but in the meantime, let us offer congratulations to former Nets assistant coach Royal Ivey. Ivey who is now with the Rockets has been head coach of the South Sudan national team for the past two years and this weekend, South Sudan qualified for the Olympics. The youngest nation in the world, and one that has suffered the ravages of a brutal civil war, South Sudan is the darling of the tournament and for good reason. Ivey spoke Sunday on his team’s accomplishment...
South Sudan coach Royal Ivey got emotional talking about his team's journey to the Olympics. He said a year ago they were practing outside on a concrete floor with eagles circling above and flooding. Now they're headed to the Paris Olympics. pic.twitter.com/gSnJIXoemA— Sid Ventura (@Sid_Ventura) September 2, 2023
Two of his bigs, 6’9” Wenyan Gabriel and 6’9” Nuni Omot, have Nets connections. Gabriel, now with the Lakers, signed an emergency 10-day deal during the height of the Nets’ COVID crisis in December 2021, playing one game. Omot was a camp invite in 2018 and played for Long Island in 2018-19. Congrats to them as well.
Long Island roster filling out
The G League schedule has not yet been released. The Long Island Nets season begins about two weeks after the NBA but despite that, the roster is filling out.
Long Island will have the services of the Nets three two-ways which at this point means Jalen Wilson, the 6’8” Nets draft pick, and Armoni Brooks, the veteran 6’3” shooter. Both performed well in the Summer League.
The Nets two other picks, first rounders Noah Clowney and Dariq Whitehead, will likely spend some time at Nassau Coliseum as well. They’re both barely 19 and Whitehead is rehabbing from foot surgery. Camp invite Patrick Gardner who played for Egypt in the FIBA World Cup and averaged 8.8 points and 4.8 rebounds, said this week he expects to play for Long Island where he grew up and still lives.
Long Island GM J.R. Holden has also traded for the rights of two top G League prospects, D.J. Stewart, a 24-year-old 6’6” wing who averaged 20 points last season for the Heat affiliate in Sioux Falls, and Jordan Hall, a 21-year-old 6’8” wing who was a Spurs two-way and played for Brooklyn in the summer league. He’s a Jersey guy from Wildwood who played his college ball for St. Joseph’s in Philly.
Also, we expect Kennedy Chandler, the 6’0” point guard who still had two years left on his four-year deal with Memphis, to join Long Island as well. The hyperathletic Chandler played for the Summer League Nets and although his shooting had issues, he can control a game. (Holden told us last season that the first thing you need in the G League is a reliable point guard.)
What about the non-guaranteed bigs mentioned above? It would not be a surprise to see one of them get the remaining two-way. That’s the making of a pretty good roster for new head coach Mfon Udofia. Udofia has been an assistant coach and interim head coach for Nigeria’s national team.
We barely touched on Ben Simmons in this week’s report despite everything he said in his exclusive interview with Andscape’s Marc J. Spears earlier in the week. It’s all been said at this point more than once, more than twice. And we expect at least one more interview to drop. Mark Jones of ESPN has tweeted about how he, too, has sat down with Simmons. That should hold us till Media Day on October 2 ... and the games which begin three weeks later.