The Nets were on the clock long before the 2021 NBA Draft began.
Their timer started tick-tock-tick-tocking the second Kevin Durant touched the floor with a healthy Achilles, and that timer fast-forwarded with the blockbuster mid-season trade for James Harden.
The Nets are competing for a championship, and championship teams don’t usually try to fold rookie players into their current plans. Instead, we’ve seen a history of contenders packaging those first-round picks in deals for a veteran player who can make an immediate impact.
The Nets, however, made draft picks as versatile and flexible as the roster they hope to build around their Big 3. Picking shooter-scorer Cameron Thomas at No. 27 and passing big man Day’Ron Sharpe at No. 29 gives the Nets a security blanket. They can keep the picks if there are no takers or trade them if they’re blown away by an offer.
“I look at it like it’s a great opportunity. With every championship team, the players that are often talked about the most are obviously the stars, obviously the ones that play the 35-40 minutes a night, but if you look back at every championship run, there’s always been that one, two or three players who maybe aren’t in that top-eight rotation that come in, whether throughout the year or in the playoff run, and really step up big,” said Nets GM Sean Marks after the draft. “And we’re gonna need that when we’re competing, and hopefully contending – that’s the plan here – we’re gonna need somebody to step up for us, and I think with those two specifically, they played a very high level in college, they’ve been under some great coaches, and again I mentioned just the level of competitiveness from both of them, and the fact that they’re not afraid. It’ll be great to get them in the group.”
It’s no secret that with DeAndre Jordan fixed at the end of the bench, the Nets needed help at the center position. Nic Claxton can play the five, but so can Sharpe, who averaged 9.5 points and 7.6 rebounds in under 20 minutes per game as a freshman at North Carolina. Sharpe was projected as a lottery pick at the start of the season, so getting him with the second-to-last pick of the first round is a win for the Nets — whether they keep him or not.
The same can be said of Thomas, who averaged 23 points per game as a volume shooter at LSU. Thomas averaged seven three-pointers attempted per game and connected at just a 32.5% clip, but the volume shows confidence in the ability to make shots.
Thomas was the fifth-highest scoring freshman in the last 25 years of NCAA basketball behind Trae Young, Michael Beasley, Markelle Fultz and Kevin Durant. He is a talented scorer, and the selection adds depth to a Nets team that just traded Landry Shamet to Phoenix for backup point guard Jevon Carter, and the pick that became Sharpe.
“Regarding Cam and Day’Ron, both ecstatic to have them first and foremost,” Marks said. “We know those guys very, very well. Very comfortable with who they are both as people and how they’ll fit in from a system fit and so forth.
“With Cam first and foremost, incredible scorer, shooter, really enjoyed getting to know him and I think he’s a fit with what we’re doing moving forward. And Day’Ron his size, mobility, his ability to stretch the floor, which to be quite frank hasn’t been really seen yet, so we’re excited to get both these guys in the gym, both continue to develop with our development coaches and go from there.”
This is why the Nets won the first round. Yes, conventional wisdom says to trade your first-round picks for an immediate impact player, but if that immediate impact player isn’t available, you draft the best available for your team’s needs.
The Nets also selected Pepperdine’s junior forward Kessler Edwards at pick No. 44, Marcus Zegarows Creighton’s sharpshooterki (younger brother of Orlando’s Michael Carter-Williams) at 49, and versatile Florida State forward RaiQuan Gray with pick No. 59.
Sean Marks is a patient general manager. He acquired Allen Crabbe and Tyler Johnson years after making offer sheets on each in the summer of 2016. He waited until the middle of last season to trade for Harden despite the Nets and Rockets discussing a deal last offseason.
But for a team as deep as it was last season, the Nets suddenly need more bodies, and they need them at a low salary with a payroll exceeding $160 million and a hefty luxury tax bill looming overhead. Keeping draft picks saves some cash, but at the expense of veteran expertise.
The Nets, though, have proven willing to take chances on those young players. Claxton played critical minutes in just his second year and earned a bigger role than Jordan, who has the veteran chops but is no longer productive in his minutes on the floor. The Nets also signed Alize Johnson to a multi-year deal when they could have used that coveted open roster spot on a veteran on the buyout market.
Both Shamet and Bruce Brown played big minutes despite each being just three-year players (though Shamet’s first two seasons were on playoff teams). If the player is productive, is a good fit, and has a chip on his shoulder as Marks loves in his draft prospects, there’s no reason why they can’t fit on this championship roster.
Well, there’s one reason: inexperience, and a whole lot of it. The Nets don’t have time to wait for players to develop and mature.
That clock that’s ticking in the Nets’ championship window is ticking two-fold with Durant, Harden and Irving all eligible for contract extensions. Brooklyn’s front office needs to prove it can put a championship roster around a championship-caliber Big 3.
So far, the Nets’ started their pivotal offseason with moves that embody the crossroads they face: To keep talented young players, or trade them for experienced veterans? That is the multi-million-dollar question.
At the start of last season, the Nets had trade rumors swirling around themselves and Harden, and Marks’ open-door, honesty-first policy helped the players come to terms with their reality. Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, Taurean Prince and Rodions Kurucs were moved in the megadeal months later, a fate the rookies could see should that trade offer for an impact player ever surface.
“Look, the plan is with these players we have right now, they’re on our team,” Marks said. “They’re the Nets, and these guys have a great opportunity to be part of the Nets family. We look forward to welcoming them to Brooklyn and going from there. I think one thing we always try to do is be as honest and upfront as we can. If there’s rumors out there, which honestly is part of the business that we’re in. It’s not the fun part having to read your name out in the press and so forth, but it’s the nature of the business and it’s the job we chose, so guys are mature enough these days to figure out what’s real and what’s not, and all we can do is make sure we have honest conversations with them and make sure that we’re available, whether that’s myself, that’s Steve or anybody else to have those honest conversations with those players.”
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