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Utah Jazz forward Trevor Booker drives to the basket during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Portland, Ore., Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016. The Trail Blazers won 99-85. (AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer)

Trevor Booker’s critical role with the Nets

AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer

Trevor Booker wasn’t the Brooklyn Nets’ top offseason signing, nor is he one of the club’s prized young prospects. He’s only on a modest two-year contract, so he’s seemingly not a major pillar of their long-term rebuilding picture.

Nevertheless, Booker has a chance to fuel the Nets’ gradual turnaround and fill a critical role. His defensive prowess, aggressive athleticism and leadership could point this transforming franchise in the right direction.

Booker is coming off a strong two-year stint with the Utah Jazz, where he served as an interior defender, relentless rebounder and explosive rim-runner. He energized Quin Snyder’s bench with 20.2 minutes per game from 2014-2016. His per-36 numbers were rock-solid: 11.6 points, 3.4 offensive rebounds, 6.1 defensive rebounds (9.6 total rebounds), 1.9 assists and 1.1 steals.

Utah held opponents to 103.9 points per 100 possessions last season when Booker was on the floor, compared to 106.8 when he sat. His alertness, quickness and heady instincts helped him supply stout on-ball and off-ball defense. Opponents shot 41.3 percent against him, which is 4.0 percent worse than they shot against the rest of the league.

Booker never gives up on plays and has a penchant for coming to the aid of teammates. Here are a few clips that illustrate his full-court speed:

 

It might sound cliche, but that’s the kind of smart defensive energy Brooklyn’s starving for.

In a more practical, concrete sense, the young Nets need someone who can show them how to execute. They need someone who can show them how to physically challenge low-post opponents, defend the pick-and-roll and deliver well-timed help stoppage. The 2015-16 Nets finished 29th in defensive rating (110.9), thanks to lackluster performances from everyone but Thaddeus Young, Brook Lopez and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.

Luis Scola is not a talented defender, and Brook Lopez’s defense is fairly one-dimensional. Booker is the one frontcourt player with the experience, smarts and physical tools to play top-tier defense. Josh Burton of NetsDaily.com explained Booker’s multidimensional value for coach Kenny Atkinson:

Booker is big enough to be able to hang with true 4’s that set up shop around the basket and at 28, is still quick and athletic enough to get out on the perimeter to guard forwards who can stretch the floor… (He) can swing between different types of defensive assignments with ease.

Burton pointed out an example of when Booker was switched onto Portland Trail Blazers’ point guard Damian Lillard in a pick-and-roll. Booker stuck with the speedy guard and thwarted his drive:

 

On the offensive end, Booker won’t stand out, and he definitely won’t replace the production lost with Young’s departure. However, his off-ball instincts and aggressiveness will give Lin and Lopez a dependable weak-side outlet.

Booker’s made a living off cutting at the right time in the right place. He slips into the soft spots of the defense while his teammates draw opponents’ attention. Once he catches the rock with momentum toward the hoop, he aggressively elevates for the finish. Utah also mixed in some pick-and-rolls, where his timing and agility are lethal.

The Nets will get an offensive boost from Booker’s rebounding as well. He had the second-highest offensive rebounding percentage on the Jazz last season (11.9 percent). Booker’s strength, leaping and nose for the ball yield tons of put-back chances, and he’ll likely be Brooklyn’s most effective board-getter in 2016-17.

The rest of Booker’s offense isn’t spectacular. He’s a spotty, inefficient jump-shooter, and he doesn’t have the handles to consistently shake opponents in isolation. Fortunately, he’s quick and dexterous enough near the rim to execute spin moves and score off the glass.

Second-year prospect Chris McCullough will certainly push Booker for minutes at power forward. The Nets may even start the youngster just to give him valuable experience and development against other teams’ front lines. However, Atkinson won’t run McCullough into the ground, and he might sporadically use him at center, so there will be ample time for Booker to make a dent at power forward.

While veterans like Lopez, Scola and Greivis Vasquez are in the fold, Booker’s leadership presence will still be valuable. He’ll lead by example on the court, especially on defense, and he’ll also lift the team’s bench energy and offer words of wisdom in the locker room.

Don’t take my word for it. Booker’s teammates gave a huge nod to his leadership and locker-room savvy this offseason. At the 2016 NBA Players Association Awards, he was named the Jazz’s Best Teammate:

Along with Lopez, Scola, Vasquez and Lin, Booker’s experience and maturity will help balance out the extreme youth of the remainder of the roster. No one on the squad can demonstrate stout frontcourt defense like he can. He’ll set the foundation of defensive workmanship, ball movement and energy that could eventually turn this team around.

Trevor Booker’s critical role with the Nets

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