In the Something To Prove series, we’ll be taking a look at a few players from each team with — you guessed it — something to prove during the 2017-18 season. Some may be at a career crossroads, while others may need to prove an added part of their game is sustainable.
The Brooklyn Nets were about as bad as expected last season. They finished at the bottom of the East, only winning 20 games. And thanks to their infamous trade with the Boston Celtics, they didn’t even have a lottery pick to show for it.
The Nets season was bad, but it wasn’t unproductive. Brook Lopez started flinging 3-pointers around the lot, and was actually pretty decent at it. They got flashes from under-the-radar players like Caris LeVert, Sean Kilpatrick, and Spencer Dinwiddie. More important, as ESPN’s Zach Lowe noted in his piece, the Nets started establishing a culture — one of hard work and togetherness:
Those 20-win Nets were perhaps the happiest, tightest-woven terrible team ever. That was Phase 1 in Sean Marks’ plan as general manager: wipe away years of infighting, ignore the wreckage of a trade that built a contender elsewhere, and mold a culture of work around hungry young players and workaholic coaches.
The Nets have a long way to go, but they appear to be on the upswing. They had an active summer of adding unwanted parts around the league. Here are the guys with the most to prove this season.
The ball is in your court: D’Angelo Russell
Perception is a powerful thing. The dangerous thing about perception, specifically in basketball analysis, is that it can skew our opinions of players. There might not be a player hurt by outside, non-illegal perception than D’Angelo Russell at this point.
By now, we’re all aware of his mishap with former teammate Nick Young. Players and fans alike have soured on him as a teammate (which is at least a little bit stupid, but that’s a rant for another day), but somehow, that has overshadowed Russell as a player. He’s only 21 and is one of the most talented young players in the league:
Take this stat for example: Russell put up 26.5 points, 8.2 assists, and 5.9 rebounds per 100 possessions last year. The list of players to put up 26-5-8 per 100 within their first two seasons is fairly short, and includes players like LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Dwyane Wade, Grant Hill, and Allen Iverson.
FanRag Sports’ Andrew Bailey made a Russell comparison last week, pinning him up against “rising star” Devin Booker. You can see the tweet and graphs here. Surprisingly, Russell checked more boxes than Booker did.
To clarify, that shouldn’t be taken as a shot at Booker. He has proven to be supremely talented despite not being in a system or surrounded by players to maximize his talent. He has legitimate star potential. The point is that Russell matches up favorably with Booker, is around the same age, but doesn’t get a fourth of the recognition.
There isn’t much Russell can’t do on offense. He sees the floor well and can deliver passes. He has shown flashes of a post game, something the Nets should definitely explore moving forward. The best part of Russell’s game right now is his shooting. He has a quick, easy release that he can get off at the blink of an eye off the bounce or on the catch:
A quick breakdown, per Synergy:
- Russell ranked in the 64th percentile on total jump shots.
- He ranked in the 65th percentile on catch-and-shoot jumpers, including a 43.6 percent clip (71st percentile) on unguarded catch-and-shoot jumpers.
- He ranked in the 74th percentile on jumpers off the dribble. His 0.923 PPP mark was higher than the likes of Kevin Durant, Gordon Hayward, DeMar DeRozan and Carmelo Anthony.
A change of scenery could work wonders. Russell will be afforded room to spread his wings under coach Kenny Atkinson, a player development guru. The Nets played at the fastest pace in the league last year; running at that tempo and spreading the floor with shooters would be good for Russell.
Beyond the specifics of his game, this is an opportunity for Russell to clear his name. There’s no Nick Young, no back-and-forths with Byron Scott, and no pressure to bring the NBA’s glamour franchise back to prominence. Russell can just focus on hooping; perhaps the rest of the NBA world will too.
We need answers, Sway: Allen Crabbe
The Nets tried to bring Crabbe aboard last summer, but the Trail Blazers matched the four-year, $75 million offer sheet. The Blazers hoped he would make a leap last season; it didn’t come but he was still a productive role player.
Crabbe averaged 10.7 points while establishing himself as an elite-level shooter. He shot 44.4 percent from deep on decent volume (3.8 attempts per game). He also ranked in the 93rd percentile on spot-up attempts, per Synergy. Give him a sliver of space, and you’re pretty much done for:
Unfortunately, he didn’t bring much else to the table. He didn’t showcase much playmaking chops, didn’t rebound much and was a meh defender. Basically, he hasn’t exactly lived up to his contract.
He should be a clean fit for Brooklyn. The Nets need shooters; they were first in spot-up attempts last season, but only ranked 25th in field goal percentage. Crabbe will help. But he needs to add another dimension to his game or at least make more of an impact on defense.
- DEMARRE CARROLL: Between injury woes and his 3-point percentage fluctuating, Carroll fell out of favor in Toronto two years into his four-year, $60 million deal. Toronto had to attach picks to get out of Carroll’s deal; that could turn out to be a worthwhile bet for Brooklyn. He’s not an elite defender, but he’s a competent one that can hold his own against either forward spot. If his 3-point stroke returns, he could be a valuable spacer at the 4.
- TIMOFEY MOZGOV: Mozgov was traded to Brooklyn as a salary dump, which is why Russell was needed to sweeten the deal. His contract is pretty bad, and he’s basically a placeholder until rookster Jarrett Allen is ready for the job. However, Mozgov can still provide value. He’s a strong screener, does work as a roller in pick-and-roll situations, and can knock down open mid-range shots. As our own Sean Kennedy wrote on Sunday, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Mozgov extend his range and try to add the 3-ball to his repertoire.
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