The Brooklyn Nets aren’t exactly teeming with star-level talent heading into the 2016-17 campaign, which they’ll kick off with an Oct. 26 visit to Boston. But what they do have is a perhaps underrated stable of rotation-ready perimeter players.
That none of them are stars at this point helps explain the modest projections for Brooklyn’s season. But star depth and rotation depth are assuredly different, and the Nets have quietly given coach Kenny Atkinson some options in terms of figuring out how to divvy up 144 nightly perimeter minutes. Atkinson’s roster includes a half-dozen wing players with a case to be made for rotation minutes, as well as two point guards who are, at the very least, fringe starters.
Any discussion of Brooklyn’s wing depth — or really, any discussion of the Nets at all — should start with Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.
RHJ is coming off a rookie season in which he averaged 5.8 points in 21 minutes a night, so calling him Brooklyn’s second-best player might seem premature. But the Nets should hope he’s just that, because a quick spike in the 21-year-old’s development is probably the best realistic thing that could happen to the franchise’s medium-term outlook. FiveThirtyEight gave him the second-highest projected ’16-17 WARP of any Net, so it might not be a stretch: this guy is going to be really important.
He’s not a three-point threat at all, and it’s unlikely he’ll add that component anytime in the future (1-of-4 through four preseason games). In fact, his jump shot overall is a bit of an adventure, but that’s kind of beside the point with Hollis-Jefferson. He’s an elite defender and a smart player. Brooklyn’s defense was 8.4 points tighter per 100 possessions — a HUGE difference — when the Arizona product was on the floor last year compared to when he was off, and part of the problem is that he was not on the court at all for 53 games (fractured ankle). Getting him back on his development trajectory needs to be among Atkinson’s top priorities.
He may or may not turn into a star, but a huge part of Brooklyn’s rebuild rests on finding that out.
If preseason rotations are any indication, Randy Foye appears to be holding down the other starting wing spot, and for now that’s probably fine. He’s a seasoned veteran, if a bit of a specialist, a three-point shooter whose overall offensive output is below league average (career TS% of 52.5, and last year a pretty dismal 46.1 in Denver and OKC).
Look, he’s a fine stopgap here for a team that’s not necessarily aspiring to much. But the Nets’ longer-term prognosis on the wings will look better as soon as there’s someone improved enough to justify supplanting this 33-year-old undersized shooting guard with an inefficient overall game and a downward career arc.
Joe Harris started the one game Foye missed, and in all has seen decent minutes in the preseason. The plan appears to be to use the third-year guard. In some ways, he’s not that dissimilar from Foye: he’s a catch-and-shoot expert who also happens to rank in the bottom quartile for overall possession efficiency. He has almost non-existent steal and block rates, just one symptom of a defensive game that is lacking overall.
But man, he can get his shot off. Harris is always shot-ready, has a quick release and doesn’t even need to get set up in the conventional way. He often catches with his feet set awkwardly or his lower body not squared toward the hoop, but he can make those shots anyway.
Speaking of guys who can fill it up, Bojan Bogdanovic is another Net who is capable of catching fire from deep. But the Croatian forward is a bit more well-rounded as an overall scorer, and it showed when he was promoted to third option (behind Brook Lopez and the since-departed Thaddeus Young) after Joe Johnson escaped to Miami via buyout. Bojan averaged 15.7 points from that point forward, and, per Nets Daily, plans to pick up where he left off.
If those four all hit something near the top of their best-case scenarios, that’s a passable four-wing rotation, especially for a team coming off a 21-win year.
Sean Kilpatrick figures to have a fight ahead of him for minutes, but expect him to find some here and there. He signed last season as a minimum salary call-up, but became a fan favorite with his attacking mentality and knack for scoring. The Westchester County native also gets to the line with some frequency and makes 91 percent of his freebies, which could be water in the desert for a Nets team that finished in the bottom five in free throws attempted and made last year.
Those five will probably hold the fort down while rookie Caris LeVert continues to rehab from foot injuries, but the Nets hope that the former Wolverine is a bit of an ace in the hole. The way to accelerate a rebuilding project is to nail some late picks, and LeVert is ostensibly NBA-ready, with legit physical tools and skills like shooting, playmaking and decent perimeter defense. Yet he slipped to No. 20 because of concerns about his bum foot. Expect LeVert to make an impact as soon as he’s ready.
That someone like Chase Budinger might not make this roster is evidence enough that the Nets have plenty of intrigue on the wings. Not that long ago, the hoops world regarded Budinger as an interesting shooting specialist, and Brooklyn brought him in as insurance in case its other young wings looked like they’d need some time to marinate.
Given LeVert’s injury, the Nets would probably love the luxury of keeping Budinger on for just that reason. But the deal with the 6’7″ shooter doesn’t provide that option; his contract becomes fully guaranteed if he’s on the roster opening night. Given that Budinger has played fewer preseason minutes (7.8) than the five non-injured wings listed above, Atkinson may be trying to get comfortable with the idea of going into the season without the veteran around for insurance purposes.
The other likely wing cut is Beau Beech, who has yet to appear in the Nets’ first three preseason affairs. Beech is a big guard who can ostensibly shoot the lights out, but there may not be room on the roster for the undrafted marksman. The Nets guaranteed $45,000 of his rookie minimum salary, right around the token amount for teams to ensure that their D-League affiliate has first dibs on guys waived in camp via the affiliated player rule. In other words: Beech will be hitting threes for the Nets this year, but it will be the Long Island Nets.
We’ll talk much more about the point-guard situation as the preseason and season roll along. For now, let’s start here: both Jeremy Lin and Greivis Vasquez are quality point guards.
Both guys have started almost exactly half of their games in the past four seasons. When healthy, both guys are accustomed to starter minutes (roughly defined as 2,000 minutes on the season), whether they’re actually part of the first five or coming off the bench. Neither guy is elite, but the Nets can put starter-quality point guards on the floor for 48 minutes if they want.
Lin is a pick-and-roll expert, which makes him a well-suited partner to Lopez. He’ll start, and he should; he’s a good stylistic fit with the other starters and he projects to add more value in macro terms.
But there will be nights when the Nets get more out of Vasquez, a better spot-up shooter and a bigger guard. In theory, the 6’6″ Vasquez can defend off-guards in two-guard lineups, but it hasn’t really worked out that way. He should be a better defender than he is at his size, but he sometimes comes up short in the effort department — like a play in Tuesday’s exhibition game where he closed out poorly and then gave up on the play while his opponent rattled in an unmolested 15-footer.
Veteran Jorge Gutierrez came to camp to compete for the third PG role, but his salary is fully non-guaranteed and he has seen just 16 total preseason minutes. That seems like a pretty good indication that the Nets will run with Isaiah Whitehead, a Brooklyn-reared rookie to whom they gave first-round money despite selecting him with a mid-second-rounder they scored from Utah on draft night.
Like Beech, Yogi Ferrell got a partial guarantee that likely signals the former Hoosier will suit up for the Long Island Nets this year.
So the point-guard position isn’t as stocked with rotation-tiered talent as the wing, but Atkinson has two borderline starters there to complement five or six good choices for minutes at the off-guard and small-forward positions.
It’s not a roster full of stars, but the Nets have the bodies to ostensibly produce some quality perimeter play this season.