Jan 8, 2017; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Brooklyn Nets guard Jeremy Lin (7) reacts with the team during the third quarter against Philadelphia 76ers at Barclays Center. Sixers win 105-95. Mandatory Credit: Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports
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The Brooklyn Nets made it publicly known they are willing to part way with their franchise center, Brook Lopez, for the right price. Making it very apparent they are in full rebuild mode, who are the players they should keep to build around?
Last season was called a “bridge year” for good reason. It bridged the Hello Brooklyn-Deron Williams–Billy King era to the Sean Marks–Kenny Atkinson-Brooklyn Grit era. It is best we all forget the 2015-16 season as we look forward to 2017 and build towards the future, but who will be part of the future?
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Many people around the Nets make the claim that this year’s roster is filled with high-character guys that have great potential. Yet, Brooklyn has pretty much locked up the 30th spot (dead last) in the power rankings, which means that most of these guys will not be on the roster when the team finally reaches respectability, or at least .500.
Brook Lopez has been the best player on the Nets this season. Lopez has added a three-point game to his offensive repertoire and is currently averaging over 20 points per game to show for it. However, his rebounding numbers are a career-low at 5.1 per game because he is spending so much time shooting from the arc and not in the paint.
Despite being one of the most loyal players in the league and the longest tenured Net ever, he is not untouchable by any means. The team has already made it known they are looking for two first-round picks for Lopez. So with the writing on the wall for Lopez, we must look to see who the Nets should keep and build a winning culture around.
Dec 10, 2016; San Antonio, TX, USA; Brooklyn Nets shooting guard Caris LeVert (22) shoots the ball past San Antonio Spurs center Dewayne Dedmon (3, right) during the first half at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Acquired after the Nets traded Thaddeus Young to the Indiana Pacers for the 20th overall pick in the 2016 draft, Caris LeVert is seemingly highly regarded within the Nets organization. LeVert was once considered a lottery pick coming out of Michigan, but injuries dropped his standing in the draft.
Standing at 6-foot-7 and weighing 203 pounds, the 22-year-old is the ideal prospect for the offense Kenny Atkinson is trying to run in Brooklyn. His strengths coming out of college included his versatile offense and defensive potential. LeVert can play the shooting guard and small forward position but also run the point in the offense to set up his teammates, and the Nets plan to use him as such.
LeVert made an impact in his debut. While he failed to score a single point, he stole the ball three times and grabbed four rebounds in his first nine NBA minutes. Since then, he has shown aggression driving to the basket and good shot selection when shooting from deep.
The former Michigan Wolverine scored his career-high 19 points in 27 minutes against the defending champions, the Cleveland Cavaliers. Even though the Nets lost the game, LeVert was the bright spot, as he showed fearless defense and his willingness to make plays on offense.
Short of receiving an unprotected first round pick somewhere in the top ten or top five, it is hard to imagine that Sean Marks would trade his first draft pick as general manger of the Brooklyn Nets. Less than 20 games into his NBA career, LeVert is averaging 5.4 points, 2.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists and more steals than turnovers in 16.9 minutes per game.
Dec 12, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Brooklyn Nets guard Isaiah Whitehead (15) brings the ball up the court during the third quarter against the Houston Rockets at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
The 42nd pick in the 2016 NBA draft is the star point guard from Seton Hall and the Brooklyn native, Isaiah Whitehead. Coming out of college, there was a dispute whether he would be a point guard, shooting guard, or glorified tweener in the pros. What he lacks in speed and explosiveness, he makes up for in strength and willpower.
Whitehead played shooting guard for most of his basketball life before he started running the offense in his second season at Seton Hall. After getting drafted by the Jazz and traded to his hometown team the night of the draft, the expectation was he would be assigned to the D-league to start.
Injuries to the point guard position changed that plan. Whitehead was a scorer in college, but in his first 30 NBA games, he has shown to be quite the defender for a rookie. On top of that, the kid from Coney Island has shown a willingness to get inside the paint and grab rebounds. He recorded his first career double-double, 10 points and 10 rebounds against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Whitehead has shown his determination to learn the point guard position on the professional level, willingly asking proven veterans that he guarded during the game about what he needs to improve on and how to go about it. If actions speak louder than words, Whitehead has already shown his self awareness about his flaws and his motivation to progress. He has progressed, much faster than expected in fact, and much to the delight of the coaching staff.
Whitehead fits the mold of the multi-position player Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson wants: a natural guard who is not afraid to get into the paint with significantly larger players. In 29 games (21 starts), the Brooklyn native is averaging seven points, 2.9 assists, and 2.6 rebounds in 22.7 minutes per game.
As of right now, Whitehead has seemingly earned a permanent spot on the main roster. It would be shocking to see him get assigned to the D-League if he continues to play consistently at this level. Right now, his floor seems to be a good defensive backup guard. However, if his offensive game continues to develop, he might be the starting point guard of his hometown team in the future.
Apr 6, 2016; Washington, DC, USA; Brooklyn Nets forward Chris McCullough (1) dunks the ball against the Washington Wizards in the third quarter at Verizon Center. The Wizards won 121-103. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
The Bronx native was the 29th overall pick in the 2015 draft. Chris McCullough would have went as a lottery pick, possibly top ten or top five, if it were not for an injury sidelining him after only 16 games at Syracuse. Many viewed the Nets drafting McCullough with the 29th pick as a steal.
McCullough only played in 24 games (four starts) his rookie season due to his injury. In 15.1 minutes he averaged 4.7 points, 2.8 rebounds and 1.2 steals. However, it should be noted most of his playing time during the 2015-2016 game in garbage times and/or once the team had no shot at competing during the postseason.
Once Marks and Atkinson took over, McCullough was regulated to the D-League to get more accustomed to the speed of the pro game and work on his strength. This shouldn’t be seen as a negative however, considering the fact he played less than 20 college games before playing in the NBA.
Take into consideration that he played small forward throughout high school before being placed at the power forward position upon joining Syracuse. So playing the power forward position in the NBA must have been staggering for the (then) 20-year old.
Since being assigned to the D-League, McCullough has been killing it, averaging 19 points, 8.7 rebounds and 1.7 assists. Standing at 6’9” the freak athlete could dominate in the league as a prototypical stretch four if he does strengthen up and improve in the paint. If he doesn’t, he could still be an effective sharpshooter on the wing if he can translate scoring in the D-league on the 15-man roster.
Most Nets fans are anxious to see McCullough in a Brooklyn uniform instead of Long Island and some believe he would be better suited at the small forward position instead of power forward. Regardless, most Nets fans see “Brisk” as a definite building block for the future and from what we can tell, so do the Nets.
Dec 20, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Brooklyn Nets guard Sean Kilpatrick (6) goes to the basket and scores against the Toronto Raptors at Air Canada Centre. The Raptors beat the Nets 116-104. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
How is a 27-year-old undrafted shooting guard untouchable? Well, if you have watched Sean Kilpatrick at all in 2016 you’d know. Averaging 14.8 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.6 assists in 27.4 minutes, the former D-league leading scorer has earned his spot in Atkinson’s rotation.
Kilpatrick admitted that the Nets signing him changed his life. Besides expressing his gratitude for Sean Marks, he has displayed his character, willing to come off the bench as a sixth man despite being one of the best scorers on the team.
Kilpatrick is also on a ridiculously team friendly contract. After some 10-day contracts, the Nets signed him to a one-year $980K deal with a team option for a second year. If the Yonkers native continues to score around 15 points per game, it is not hard to believe a contender could want to make a deal for him. Yet, short of a valuable first round pick, it is hard to see the Nets moving him, especially when he is seemingly very happy in Brooklyn as a fan favorite.
Kilpatrick at times is the best player on the court for the Brooklyn Nets. If the Nets move Lopez, many of the younger, inexperienced players on the team will turn to Kilpatrick as their veteran. Similar or reminiscent to how the team would turn to Joe Johnson in the clutch.
Kilpatrick earned his way into the NBA, rising from the D-League, earning endorsements from And1 and building his undrafted brand. He recently had a billboard in Times Square. If he doesn’t embody the Brooklyn Grit culture, who does?
Dec 20, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Brooklyn Nets guard Jeremy Lin (7) looks on against the Toronto Raptors at Air Canada Centre. The Raptors beat the Nets 116-104. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
Undoubtedly the biggest “star” on the Brooklyn Nets, Jeremy Lin is the closest to “untouchable” within the organization. While Lin doesn’t have the potential or ceiling that McCullough or LeVert currently have, Lin is definitely the best guard on the team and the de facto leader of the Nets.
Only playing 12 games this season due to injuries, Lin is averaging around 14 points, 6 assists and 3 rebounds. In the games he has not played, he is often seen, in street clothes courtside, looking like a glorified assistant coach.
How is an injury prone point guard untouchable? Well for starters, who is going to trade for an injured Lin, who many in the NBA believe is best suited as a backup? Besides being the clear-cut starting point guard on this team, he is a mentor to the younger guys like Whitehead. This is invaluable considering the negative influence many superstars have on younger players, especially rookies, just look across town to Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks. Anthony, among others questioned the Nets decision to give the keys to the franchise to Lin. However, those in-the-know are aware Lin embodies the culture Atkinson and Marks are building.
Lin was undrafted out of Harvard and took the league by storm. Even though no one believes there will be a second coming of “Linsanity” in Brooklyn, Lin has evolved passed that. He wanted an opportunity to start and he reunited with Atkinson as his head coach who is all about giving gritty play-makers said opportunity.
Lin leading the Nets to a championship is improbable, if not impossible but that’s not what they’re paying him for. The word “intangible” has become a sports media buzzword but in all honesty, Lin’s intangibles are what make him untouchable. At least for as long as Kenny Atkinson is the head coach in Brooklyn.