NEW YORK — Two-thirds of the way through their preseason, the Brooklyn Nets are sounding increasingly confident that they got the offensive leader they were looking for then they signed Jeremy Lin to a 3-year, $36 million deal.
“It’s been great,” incumbent star Brook Lopez said of playing with his new teammate. “He makes everyone on the floor better. He makes me a better player, no question. He’s just such a great influential presence out on the floor for us.”
The preseason has been as encouraging for Lin as it has for just about any team’s newcomer. Lin joined the Nets, his sixth team in seven NBA seasons, without a true star résumé. But he has been every bit the leader in both qualitative and quantitative terms. He has looked in control of the on-court proceedings and is leading Brooklyn in preseason scoring (16.3 ppg) and assists (4.3). That scoring average would top his best season ever, and he’s still not even playing his usual rotation time, logging just 22.7 minutes on average in the three games he’s appeared in.
So this isn’t just a case of preseason opportunism. Not only will Lin’s minutes go up after October 25, but he’ll be a more integral part of the offense, too. Lin’s modus operandi is as a pick-and-roll specialist, a smart reader of defenses who not only reacts to what his man and the screener’s man do, but also to where the third defender comes from, and what the defense does on the back side to adjust. That’s his primary strength as a point guard — and it’s something he’s not really even doing yet.
For now, head coach Kenny Atkinson is prioritizing the team’s spread motion offense. While he recognized on Thursday night that his team will need to rely on pick-and-roll centric schemes at times, the club is treating the preseason as an opportunity to get comfortable in his offense.
“Right now we’re trying to get the ball moving, get the ball side to side, get everybody touches,” Atkinson explained after a preseason loss to Boston. “We’ve still got to progress with our offense, and that’s where we’re at right now.”
Atkinson stressed that even Lin and Lopez are learning to “work within that dynamic,” and the point guard himself doesn’t disagree.
“For us right now, we understand that we need variety,” Lin said. “We have so many different types of players. So if we stay in the pick & roll, at some point that becomes a little more predictable. If we’re able to hit them from a lot of different angles, obviously that’s what we’re going for.”
Both Lin and his backup, Greivis Vasquez, are primarily P&R point guards, so they’re certainly adjusting along with the rest of the Nets to this new style. But both guards — and their coach — think that they’ll be better suited in the long run by broadening their basketball vocabulary.
“We got Brook, back to the basket,'” Lin continued. “We’ve got shooters: Randy (Foye), Joe (Harris), Sean (Kilpatrick), coming off staggers. And then we have pick & roll guys; me and Greivis love making plays out of the P&R. So why not try to find something where we can put it all together? That’s the goal.”
It will take some time, and that’s why both Lin and Lopez have seen an unusually low number of pick-and-roll possessions so far in the exhibition season. “The process will definitely continue in the regular season as well,” said Lopez, citing the number of new players. “We have a lot of intelligent, smart, unselfish guys here so we’re picking it up quick and we’re enjoying playing with each other.
Eventually, the Nets will move on from their games being a glorified practice session for running the spread offense, and they’ll go back to a more balanced approach. When they do, that will be good news for their starting point guard.
Lin doesn’t get spooked by hedging or trapping bigs on the pick-and-roll, and he can use quick bursts of speed to create “oh crap” moments for bigs who think they can stay in front. When more conservative defenses drop the big back, Lin will go straight at him, keeping his head up to see where the third defender is coming from. If everybody stays home, Lin knows that at, the very least, he has a rolling big man being guarded by the opposing team’s point.
He’s adequate when the defense invites him to finish the P&R possession himself, but he can get better there. His .79 average points on those possessions last year ranked him 64th among the 112 players to complete 100 or more plays as the P&R ball handler. (Obligatory disclaimer here about how those stat classifications on NBA.com can be noisy, but there’s still directional value there.)
In all, Lin’s stock is up this October. He looks comfortable in Brooklyn’s black and white, and he’s scoring and assisting in scant preseason minutes even with an offense that currently skews away from his wheelhouse. He’s looking solid, and his teammates like what they’re seeing.
“He’s obviously our leader,” Vasquez said.
Better than billed?
While we’re on the subject of Lin, the 7th-year guard had a great mini-rant on Thursday night that lined up well with a previous TFB column about the Nets’ 2016-17 expectations. Bottom line: Lin isn’t ready to concede anything.
“I know, on paper, everybody doesn’t have great expectations for us, and that’s fine,” the Harvard product said. “I just think that we all know we’re NBA players. We all know we’re capable of competing at this level.”
He continued: “But then it comes to, like, what are we going to look like together? I’ve never had any fear that our team can’t compete with these good teams, I just think that we have a much, much, much smaller margin of error. But from a talent standpoint or whatever you want to say, do I think that our ceiling, one day we could be a really good team? Yeah, I believe that. I believe in the guys in this locker room, and right now we’re just trying to see how good we can be.”
Lin — and Atkinson for that matter — expressed satisfaction at a better effort level in their fourth preseason affair, even though it marked the third straight loss. Both hope that intensity becomes a calling card.
“That’s where it has to start for us,” Lin explained. “We have to be the hardest-playing team, and from there we have a chance to win. That’s just how it has to be. It has to be our identity.”
Vasquez echoed his fellow point guard. “We’re gonna play hard.
“Frankly,” the Venezuelan guard continued, “I like our team. If we continue to work the way we’re working, we’re gonna surprise a lot of people. It’s gonna be hard. It’s not gonna be easy for us. But we got good players. Believe it or not, we do have good players.”
With the preseason past its halfway point, Atkinson whittled away at the rotation, using just 11 in his team’s exhibition loss to Boston. After the game, he admitted that those 11 are, roughly speaking, the “guys we’re thinking about getting regular season minutes.”
Lin and Lopez started, along with Foye and forwards Trevor Booker and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Vasquez marshaled the second unit which also featured Kilpatrick, Harris, Bojan Bogdanovic, Anthony Bennett and Luis Scola. It looks like those will be Atkinson’s core guys, although the rookie head coach insisted that he and his staff will continue to evaluate.