Brooklyn Nets Roster Preview: The Frontcourt Rotation
The Brooklyn Nets are another year further into the Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson vision of the rebuilding aftermath of the Celtics Trade Gamble. Despite beginning the rebuild bereft most of the assets a rebuilding team can count on, Marks and Atkinson have found intriguing value to add to the Nets roster by this point of the 2017 NBA offseason. However, much of the attention paid to the current Nets roster has been given to the guards and wing rotations of the team — to an extent where spectators may be underestimating the potential impact of the beefy behemoths Atkinson will be deploying. The Nets do not have the makings of the next Parish/McHale/Bird frontcourt, but contributions from Trevor Booker, DeMarre Carroll, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Timofey Mozgov, Jarrett Allen, Quincy Acy, Tyler Zeller and Jake Wiley could all surpass expectations.
Perhaps the most unsung solid player in the NBA currently is Trevor Booker. Just the thought of Booker probably conjures images of lunch pails and elbows for most fans. Yet, Booker’s adapted utility for the modern NBA game has gone overlooked. Booker has done a great job to keep up with the influx of small-ball 4s and perimeter bigs in NBA offenses. An above-average athlete with great strength and proactive rotation anticipation skills, Booker unquestionably served as one of Brooklyn’s two best defenders during the 2016-17 NBA season. Not a label that will win boatloads of plaudits as the Nets finished 23rd in defensive rating in 2016-17 (via Basketball-Reference), but a very succinct phrase to demonstrate Booker’s value to the Nets.
Booker has also made efforts to abide by Kenny Atkinson’s downtown-happy philosophies. In 2016-17, Booker teased out about a three per game, following in his footsteps as a member of the Utah Jazz in years prior. Booker’s perimeter shot has yet to become consistently dangerous with him only hitting 32 percent of his jumpers beyond 10 feet for 2016-17. Still, Atkinson will surely request Booker to continue to fire one away every so often this coming season.
Hopefully, another full offseason of knowing Atkinson’s wishes helps Booker improve his shot proficiency. Until Opening Day, Nets fans should at least take comfort in Booker continuing to be extremely effective at beating mismatches with his quickness and strength at the rim. A last chance at a major contract in the 2018 offseason may motivate Booker even more to keep up or surpass his solid play.
Although DeMarre Carroll arrived in Brooklyn from the East-contending Toronto Raptors mostly as a salary dump, one should still expect Carroll to contribute standard rotation player impact for the Nets on the floor in 2017-18. Carroll has certainly lost much of his athleticism from his Hawks tenure, with his ability to attack the rim even off closeouts and switch defensive assignments on the perimeter rapidly diminished as a Raptor. However, Carroll should be able to find comfort in Atkinson’s trigger-happy scheme. Carroll’s Toronto tenure proved him capable of average 3-point shooting on a hefty volume. That, combined with the defensive smarts Carroll has accrued over his 31 years on Earth, should stave off a decline into negative impact for Brooklyn. At least until 2018-19, the final year of Carroll’s four-year, $60 million contract.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson perhaps did not show the offensive skill progress Nets fans crossed their fingers for in his sophomore year in the NBA. Even with a healthy uptick in minutes played as a small-ball 4, Hollis-Jefferson did not have much success taking advantage of his quickness over opposing bigs to get to the rim, and his jump shot lacked both confidence and efficiency. Hollis-Jefferson even struggled scoring consistently while in transition, as his handle is just underdeveloped. Year 3 tends to be the year of the largest leap in impact for an NBA player, so he may shake out some more utility. But, for now, Hollis-Jefferson remains a rotation player solely for his defensive talents.
Still, his defensive talents remain quite impressive. Despite not having the success guarding one-on-one most pegged him to have coming into his draft class — he finished in the 20th percentile on guarding isolations in 2016-17 and in the 12th percentile in 2015-16 via Synergy — Hollis-Jefferson has excelled using his high motor and athleticism to shut off scoring opportunities prematurely, cause turnovers and hold his own on the defensive glass. Hard to find too many more impactful team defenders in the league than Hollis-Jefferson right now. Even then, that list should shrink as RHJ gains more experience and diminishes his few mistakes.
Timofey Mozgov has become a punching bag for being the major beneficiary of the salary cap spike of 2016 via a four-year, $64 million contract. Mozgov certainly did not help matters by spending his sole Lakers season performing below his usual standards on both ends of the court. Still, Atkinson will be hoping to use Mozgov as maybe the only Net next season who can provide consistent rim protection and credibly guard the largest centers of the league. Mozgov should fit into departed Nets legend Brook Lopez’s role quite well as a stupendously-sized center with slow speed. He should replicate Lopez’s ability to stonewall layups at the rim on the defensive end. Atkinson should also apply similar Lopez tactics to hide Mozgov against spread pick-and-rolls.
Mozgov, of course, cannot replicate the low post dominance Brook Lopez brought to Barclays for so many years. Yet, he may show some untapped knack to replicate Lopez’s 3-point shooting. Mozgov is 7-of-40 in his NBA career from long range, but has shot a respectable 73.7 percent from the free throw line, a decent indicator of some shooting potential. He also hovers around 40 percent on his midrange set shots. Asking Mozgov to step back a tad and having him hopefully hit some above-the-break shots should be a bit easier. The 31-year-old does not have the nimbleness to cause much danger rolling to the rim off sets with Jeremy Lin and D’Angelo Russell, so expanding that pick-and-pop range will be a must for him. Thankfully, that range expansion seems quite feasible.
The 22nd pick of the 2017 NBA Draft should be handled with kid gloves in his rookie NBA season. The 19-year-old spent much of his lone season as a Texas Longhorn playing out of position as a power forward. Despite the handicap, that season still demonstrated enough warts in Allen’s decision-making to assume Atkinson will play it slow and steady with his development. Allen will still provide the Nets’ frontcourt its most potential for dynamic playmaking on both sides of the court due to his phenomenal length. The rookie center has a great chance to lead the team in blocked shots. Allen could also establish consistent range on the midrange jumper playing out of position at Texas forced him to develop. However, Allen is not explosive enough of an athlete to completely erase his mental mistakes as a rookie, and expecting more than average rookie production from him seems premature.
Quincy Acy has reinvented himself into an effective stretch four who won’t get exploited religiously on the defensive end. Expecting Acy to shoot 43.4 percent from behind the arc again like he did during his 32 games as a Net last season seems like a losing proposition. However, if Acy maintains above-average proficiency from range, he will warrant a few minutes every game, despite it being his only true NBA tool now.
Tyler Zeller and his career 77 percent free throw percentage also has a chance to emerge as a sudden stretch 7-footer (you can tell Atkinson has a type). A couple of seasons ago, the 27-year-old had an effective season for the Celtics as a mobile screener who could both roll and pop off those screens. That mobility even allowed Zeller to flash a little of the pick-and-roll defensive acumen his younger brother Cody now makes his name with. In the seasons since then, Zeller has been completely ineffective in all aspects of his game. If he can recover some of his shot-making and get acclimated to Brooklyn’s defensive system, he could prove to be the best Nets big available at handling pick-and-roll heavy offenses and running with high tempo in transition. That is a big “if” though.
The Brooklyn Nets recently decided to take a stab at Jake Wiley, a 23-year-old rookie from Eastern Washington who has the athleticism, motor, shot-blocking instincts and free throw shooting success to become a savvy small-ball four project. Wiley stands at 6-foot-7 and weighs 220 pounds, balanced by a 7-foot wingspan and explosive leaping ability to help cover any mismatch inside. The two-way contract will give Wiley much-needed time to catch up mentally to the speed of pro basketball. He had only played serious NCAA minutes in his final senior season, following transfer seasons. However, Wiley represents the kind of lottery ticket purchase most teams should be making. Marks has done well to see the Summer League standout through, even if he does not end up synthesizing all his athletic gifts into an impactful NBA player.