Jarrett Allen, Caris LeVert
ESNY Graphic, Getty Images

So far, the Brooklyn Nets have passed the 2019-2020 preseason with flying colors. We may, indeed, have a title contender on our hands.

Matt Brooks

Friends, family, fanatics and all the rest: We are back! The summer-long curse of a world without basketball has finally been lifted. With the assistance of some exciting New York City baseball (go Yanks!) and maybe the occasional White Claw, you guys, we earned it.

The 2019-2020 NBA season is upon us.

Well, sort of. Three semi-competitive preseason games in and the refurbished Brooklyn Nets unraveled a lengthy scroll of commanding opening statements.

For starters, holy crap this team is DEEP. After finishing second in bench scoring last season, those dang Brooklyn Nets did it again. Through three games, Brooklyn’s 69.0 bench points per contest represents the fourth-best mark among the 38 teams who qualified. (Keep in mind, we’re dealing with molecule-sized samples here, so any sweeping judgments of team/individual player performance should be taken with a grain boulder of salt.)

While Brooklyn’s bottomless pit of depth may have shocked some (slowly raises hand), the Nets have subtly hinted at 1-through-13 productivity on the depth chart for quite some time. On media day, newcomer Garrett Temple expressed unrelenting optimism about Brooklyn’s bench unit to a small group of reporters.

“We’re deep at a lot of the positions. A lot of different skillsets as well. A lot of guys that can.. do a lot of different things. Guys that are great finishers, guys that are great shooters, guys that can do a little bit of both. Rim protectors, defenders.” Temple continued, telling ESNY, “so we cover all the boxes right now. We just gotta get that camaraderie together and, you know, try to get that chemistry together so we can go out there and win some games.”

Two weeks and one China trip later and we’re already seeing an ethos of early-season unity.

With playmaking maven D’Angelo Russell out of the picture, it was assumed by some (slowly raises his hand again… a bit more shamefully this time around) that the Nets would see a gradual decline in team-wide creation. That couldn’t be further from the truth; through three preseason games, the Brooklyn Nets’ 30.3 assists per game is a mark that leads all teams. (The Nets were 21st in this metric last season.)

The holistic willingness to make that extra pass and find the best available shots starts and ends with the impact of potential franchise cornerstone Caris LeVert. As expected by some (smiles proudly), with no more D-Lo, LeVert has manifested his elite hesitation game into stupifying creation for others. Picking up right where he left off in April, LeVert has continued to surprise defenders with his footwork — which resembles a nimble acrobat owning a balance beam — and has jolted the Nets’ offense with his team-leading 58.8% assist percentage. Some of his assists were just filthy.

Make no mistake: Caris LeVert has the potential to become a big-time scorer. He paced the Nets with 22 big points during Brooklyn’s second victory versus the should-be title-contending Los Angeles Lakers. LeVert is more than cognizant of his gravity and can use his shot-making prowess to attract multiple defenders before dumping the ball to his bigs (see: the clips above).

In the second clip, he operates with the slipperiness of a used car salesman, causing Anthony freaking Davis to bite on his pump fake. LeVert completes this successful transaction by giving 6-foot-11 crony Jarrett Allen a grossly easy layup opportunity.

Other young players on this roster have made similarly palpable playmaking jumps. Rodions Kurucs jumped off the page after game one of the China circuit. Too many times last season did we see Kurucs barrel into opponents, teammates, referees, ball boys, etc. during fastbreak opportunities and open lanes to the rim. It’s early, but it appears the 21-year-old forward is experimenting with a change of pace on drives. By slowing his footwork ever-so-slightly — versus going balls to the wall-crazy — Kurucs awards himself a sliver of daylight to chest-pass that bad boy to his frontcourt buddy Jarrett Allen.

To be clear: Rodi’s playmaking still needs work. He’s recorded more turnovers (6) than assists (3). But he’s at least showing basic signs of surveying the floor and scoping out teammates. It’s something to keep an eye on.

What’s impressed me even more with Kenny Atkinson‘s Nets is the increased attention to defense. Stylistically, not much has changed. The team toggles between zone coverage and traditional man-to-man in a flash depending upon the opposition’s lineups. What has been modified is Kenny’s personnel.

Already, veteran 3-and-D savant Garrett Temple has etched his mark on the flow of the team. When the young Nets blew rotations, Temple’s veteran spidey-senses kicked-in to perform gorgeous on-the-fly switches.

Here, third-string point guard Theo Pinson completely misreads the offense, choosing to go over the Danny Green screen — ultimately giving Avery Bradley an empty runway to the basket. This is easy pickings for the meanspirited passing architect LeBron James, who guides the ball in like, well, a 17-year vet.

But not so fast! Temple, recognizing his teammate’s error, sprints back into the play and stops on a dime to block Bradley’s two-point shot.

In fewer minutes, Wilson Chandler has done similar things for the Nets — switching when necessary and providing excellent help defense. However, presumably because of his impending suspension, Atkinson has kept the 32-year-old glued to the bench. Down the line, I see him contributing.

Another defensive standout: Fan favorite, Caris Coleman, the $52.5 million man. Caris LeVert represents the rarest of young specimens; he’s a star in the making with a 3-and-D foundation. While his three-point shot is still in its origins (shooting it well so far!), his defensive clamps were unabashedly on display for the world to see.

After averaging just 6.6 steals last season (fourth-worst in the association), Brooklyn’s initiative within the passing lanes has been commendable and they’ve recorded a 7th-best 10.7 steals per game during the preseason. Credit due to LeVert, who snatched 6 total steals in three games (really, two, given his early exit versus the Lakers during the Nets’ second game).

Already a great secondary defender, LeVert has further perfected the art of the “dig,” ripping the ball away from unsuspecting bigs as they prepare booming post-moves near the basket. He’s forced fumbles like a slimmed-out Kahlil Mack against even the most cunning low-block monsters thus far.

(For those of you unaware, a “dig” is when a perimeter defender cheats off his man and lunges toward a post-up player to force a turnover without fully double-teaming. I’ll be explaining certain terms like this all season long. Don’t you worry, my readers!)

Last but certainly not least: the three-point shooting.

Kenny’s frisky Nets have long been known for letting loose from deep. After launching 36.9 threes per game during 2018-2019, Brooklyn is back in similar fashion with a brand-new caveat.

They’re actually making them.

Kenny Atkinson teams have never finished higher than 14th in terms of accuracy from deep. Heads up, small sample alert, but the boys in black-and-white are clipping threes at a 40.7% rate; the whole damn 15-man roster is shooting the rock-like Joe gosh-freakin’-darn Harris.

Brooklyn’s hot start from downtown stems from the immediate impact of Taurean Prince, who was once looked at as salary filler following June’s big transaction with the Atlanta Hawks. Two weeks ago, Prince told ESNY that he critiques shooting “every year (to) stay at around 38 to 40% as a three-point shooter.”

Prince essentially hasn’t missed in his new Brooklyn home, canning an ungodly 73.7% of his team-high 6.3 threes per game. Most of these looks have come off the catch, although the 25-year-old combo forward briefly flirted with a pull-up trey-ball off a smidge of motion.

(Also, it’s worth mentioning, his post position on superstar center forward [ugh] Anthony Davis was outstanding. Other parts of his game need tinkering including passing off the bounce, at-rim finishing and off-ball awareness. But the early signs are satisfactory.)

Most of the Nets’ three-point production has, surprisingly, come from its home-grown roots. Caris LeVert and Rodions Kurucs — non-shooters last season — are both eclipsing the 40% mark from deep; we’ll see if that remains the status quo. Dzanan Musa, the team’s first-round pick in 2018, appears to be the real deal. He, too, is shooting north of 40%. His makes, however, have come off a much higher degree of difficulty.

I’m setting the over/under at 5 games before Musa becomes my favorite player on this year’s Nets. There’s a good chance he quickly becomes Kenny’s 6-foot-9 third-string point guard in certain lineups.

Other Notes:

Things I was not expecting in 2019:

  1. Popeyes Chicken completely fumbling the bag with the rollout of the chicken sandwich. It’s been nearly two months since those damn things “sold out.” What the hell happened? You had Chick-fil-A ON THE ROPES, I tell ya! You’re open on Sundays! A total advantage! What do you guys need? Buns?? I can get you buns. Pickles? Shoot, let’s start fermenting those sons of bitc— anywho, my goodness, what a blunder …
  2. The Brooklyn Nets’ strongest depth at any position is at god-dang center.

Yeah, that’s right. After getting absolutely, positively pummeled by Joel Embiid, short-lived John Wick villain Boban Marjanovic and really anyone else over the height of 6-foot-10 on the Philadelphia 76ers roster, the Nets frontcourt rotation is … kind of good?

Thus far, Brooklyn’s centers have put up the fifth-best net-rating among groupings that qualified. What I like about the rotation is that each big man brings a different skill-set to the table.

Nic Claxton possesses the outlines of the modern-day center that franchises dream over. In limited minutes, he’s showcased a willingness to take shots from the perimeter. Against the Brazilian professional club, SESI/Franca, Claxton hounded perimeter players with his imposing 7-foot-2.5 wingspan and pitter-patter footwork. A bit unsure of himself in terms of traditional big man traits (i.e. screening), he’s certainly still a project. But boy, the kid could be tremendous down the line.

DeAndre Jordan is an early surprise for Brooklyn. His four-year, $40-million contract raised a few eyebrows among pundits and was widely looked at as a handshake deal to bring in his USA homies, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. Yet, DAJ might have a little bit left in the tank! You know what you’re getting from him as a shot-blocker and communicator across the backline, but what really impressed me was his passing. His ability to create plays from the pinch-post and top of the key is so delightfully old school.

Of course, I saved the best for last: My man, Jarrett Allen. To some, the 21-year-old center has barely progressed — if at all. His preseason numbers certainly support that notion: 8.7 points, five rebounds and two blocks.

Here’s where you’d be grossly wrong. It’s subtle, but The Fro has made slight tinkerings to his defensive game. Here’s an example courtesy of my own Twitter. (Ugh, the shameless self-share continues to be unapologetically vain!)

There were other moments in which Jarrett exhibited an enhanced defensive palette. I really like the idea of him defending out to three, even if it mostly comes from disjointed possessions. With a 7-foot-6 wingspan that practically engulfs entire continents, plus spiffy footwork, there will come a point in his career when guarding the arc is no longer a mere accident.

He’s still the same old Jarrett in other aspects: an excellent screener, who can spin on a dime and roll to the rim with fury. It’s very easy to overlook Allen for what he isn’t, rather than appreciating him for what he brings to the table. If it hadn’t been for Caris LeVert’s monster performance in Game 3, Jarrett would have been my preseason standout.

  • A small little footnote: Right now I have Theo Pinson and David Nwaba eventually getting squeezed out of the rotation. David Nwaba has appeared volatile on offense and not in a good way. He leads the team in total turnovers with 10 and his defense just isn’t outweighing how, erm, bad he’s looked on offense. Down the line, I think it’s best to use him as an active cutter and spot-up option. He shouldn’t be handling the ball this much.
  • Theo Pinson just doesn’t look ready to usurp big duties as a third-string point guard. He’s second on the team in total turnovers (9) and is shooting a ghastly 26.9% from the field. This is his first time getting real minutes so it’s certainly worth extending him some leeway. There’s a chance he becomes a Spencer Dinwiddie-lite slashing guard.

That’s all for now. A great start to year four of the Sean Marks regime. On to the regular season we go, my Brooklyn Nets fanatics!

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