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In Season One, Nets' New Armor Shines (Full)

May 11, 2012

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—In their first season as a one-to-one "hybrid" affiliate of the Nets, the Springfield Armor set a franchise record for wins, made its first playoff appearance and had three players called up to the NBA -- two to the Nets.

Two weeks apart, Dennis Horner and Jerry Smith each do a postgame interview as members of the Nets.

They answer directly, confidently, with resolve. They speak about opportunity and the future, about "firsts" and reinforced beliefs.

Each then slips out of the postgame locker room, further into the restricted area. Each returns. Each packs his shoes.

Horner and Smith were teammates at several points this season, the longest stretch 2 1/2 months; the most recent, on the All-NBA Development League Third Team after strong seasons with the Nets' one-to-one affiliate Springfield Armor.

And they weren't the only members of the Armor to earn recognition: teammates Jeff Foote (2nd Team) and JamesOn Curry (Honorable Mention) shared in the end-of-season awards; Smith additionally earned a spot on the All-Defensive Team. Foote, Curry and Smith represented the Armor in February's D-League All-Star Game; there in Orlando, guard L.D. Williams defended his Dunk Contest title. First-year coach Bob MacKinnon finished second in D-League Coach of the Year voting, leading the Armor to a franchise-record 29 victories and their first playoff appearance since joining the D-League in 2009.

"I'm sad it's over," says Nets General Manager of Minor League Operations Milton Lee. "I think, as Coach MacKinnon and I reflected a little, it was a great journey we were on. We talked about that at the beginning of the season: what we wanted to accomplish, the type of kids we wanted on the team; we never talked about wins and losses or playoff goals -- we kept talking about the journey. I think that's what the real basketball junkies enjoy. It's not always the final result so much as what goes on (on) the way to where you end up."

"I think from the players' point of view, they both accomplished and were given much more opportunity than they had anticipated. For anyone to think that a team that's averaged 10 wins a season for the previous two seasons could have three All-Stars, the Dunk Champion, four different Call-Ups, the league leader in assists, top rebounders and guys who get postseason awards, that wasn't really in people's plans before the season."

In a quirk of the NBA's lockout-shortened schedule, the D-League season begins by the time big-league Training Camp starts in December, offering the Nets a three-game look at the roster Lee and his staff had assembled. After two wins, they extend invites to three players: Curry, Horner and Smith. The trio earns praise from Nets coach Avery Johnson for the energy and competition they provide, but Smith and Curry are cut before the final preseason game, reassigned to Springfield after clearing waivers. Horner earns a non-guaranteed contract to start the season with the Nets.

Late additions to the Nets' frontcourt leave Horner with little playing time, and the team cuts him in January to create room for Larry Owens. Injuries create a need for another wing, and Owens -- then a member of the D-League's Tulsa 66ers --represents the first player in a four-man exploratory mission to fill minutes at the 3.

D-League rules allow any player to be called up to any NBA team, and the one position Springfield lacks NBA-ready talent is small forward; the team starts L.D. Williams, an uber-athletic 6-foot-4 guard, alongside Curry and Smith in the backcourt. Lee explains it's the scouts' jobs to be aware of league-wide talent, and until the rules change, teams will continue to pluck players off every roster.

After a two-week, seven-game trial, the Nets opt to waive Owens for veteran Keith Bogans. The ninth-year guard -- cut at the end of training camp by the Bulls after starting every 2011-12 game for them, including the playoffs -- plays five games in eight days before breaking his left ankle (also tearing his deltoid ligament) while attempting to contest a dunk by Pistons center Greg Monroe.

Forced to re-evaluate their options, the Nets again turn to the D-League, this time picking up Andre Emmett from the Reno Bighorns. Making his first NBA appearance in seven years, the former second-round pick sees limited action (7.5 minutes per game in six appearances) before his 10-day contract expires at the All-Star Break.

It is then the Armor's success affords the Nets an opportunity: with three players in the D-League All-Star Game, Lee and his staff get an up-close look at former first-round pick and NBA Dunk Contest Champion Gerald Green, representing the Los Angeles D-Fenders on the West Conference All-Star Team. Opening the game with a soaring alley-oop, Green's athleticism and refined shot selection are on full display. He earns recognition as the game's Most Valuable Player, tallying 28 points on 10-of-17 shooting (3-8 3Ps).

For the East, Smith starts alongside Foote, with Curry joining them off the bench and igniting a furious second-half comeback that nearly obliterates an eight-point deficit in the game's final 10 seconds. Yet Green steals the show, earning a trip to Houston for a one-on-one workout that ultimately results in the first of two 10-day contracts with the Nets; on March 18, they will guarantee him for the year. Cut by the Lakers in training camp, after two years out of the NBA, after time in Russia and in China, Green makes good on his potential -- with the D-League to thank.

"I just didn't wanna go overseas, you know?" Green says. "Overseas, it's just not my life, it's not my style. I don't speak the language, so it's hard to eat. Don't get me wrong -- it's a great opportunity; I had a great time in Russia and China, a great time over there. Those two countries are unbelievable.

"But I didn't dream of being overseas. I didn't work hard every day when I was little and dream of me playing in Russia; this has always been a dream of mine, to play in the NBA. So that's one thing: I didn't want to be so far. I feel like me being overseas, I was just lost, a lot of players would get in contact with me and then couldn't see me play. But me being in the D-League, being in the States, a lot of people could keep up with me, see my development and how I was doing, so that's part of the reason why I stayed."

The 26-year-old forward credits D-Fenders coach Eric Musselman with instilling confidence and boosting his drive with positive reinforcement ("You did this good, but do it better!"). A renewed focus on basketball as business enables Green to maintain a dedication to the craft he admittedly lacked during his initial NBA experience.

While the high-flying Green and subsequent trade acquisition Gerald Wallace flip small forward from a team weakness into a strength, the injury bug continues to bite, nipping the point guards in the calf (Deron Willams) and groin (Jordan Farmar). In Springfield, Smith builds on an impressive All-Star performance (14 points, 5 rebounds, 6 assists in 23 minutes). After returning to D-League Player of the Month honors (February averages: 22.1 points, 5.9 rebounds and 5.0 assists), Smith reels off 20-plus scoring performances in four March games, including a game-winner:

As the fifth approaches on March 16, Smith sits next to MacKinnon on the team plane. Leaving from Hartford, Conn. and headed to Tulsa, Okla., the plane touches down for a layover in Detroit. MacKinnon's cell phone chirps. Lee had texted to ensure Smith doesn't make it on the plane to Tulsa -- the point guard had been individually re-routed to Orlando for a game against the Magic.

"It just happened like that," Smith says. "Probably hadn't set next to Mac in 20-30 flights that we've had this year. I did that and when we landed in Detroit, he told me as soon as we landed.

"You shed a few tears, man. Because you work so hard your whole life for something like this, this opportunity to play in the NBA. And to get that call was just amazing."

News spreads to the rest of the team, and smiles began to follow. Each comes up and congratulates Smith with a hug and kind words. If this moment sounds sweet, that's because it is. If it seems fake, a cover for envy and a side-eye, consider MacKinnon's take:

"It's very uplifting for a team in the D-League, because the D-League is a league of hope and it gives hope to everybody. They've seen how hard Jerry's worked at it and the improvements he's made. Guys like JamesOn Curry and Lance Hurdle, who go up against Jerry every day in practice, I think they feel part of it, part of his improvement, and that gives them hope that good things will come their way."

The compressed NBA schedule includes a back-to-back for the Nets, and after 20 minutes in his NBA debut (5 points, 2 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals) Smith and the team return to New Jersey. The next day, with the Nets hosting the Hornets, he prepares for a reunion with Foote, who had been called up by New Orleans earlier in the week.

MacKinnon says Foote's improvements have come mostly on offense, that he's developing into a solid low-post scorer who can rebound and defend his position. Combined with a 7-foot frame, this draws the Hornets' attention. Coach Monty Williams admits size was the main reason for Foote's Call-Up, joking that an Ivy League education at Cornell made Foote a good bet to quickly learn plays.

While cautioning that the lockout-shortened schedule makes assessing the NBA's relationship to the D-League difficult, Williams thinks it's a good system, especially when teams have a one-to-one affiliation: "I think most young guys should go down there and play, just so they know what it's like; so it can not humble them to make them feel bad, but allow them to know that it's a privilege to be in the NBA -- I don't think everybody understands that."

Meeting with Smith and Foote pregame, Armor GM Lee cracks wise that Foote's Call-Up indicates the Hornets are a smart organization; he expects other teams will follow suit. Smith says it's special to see Foote, even as an opponent, because both are sporting NBA jerseys. Smith plays 12 minutes. Foote does not get off the bench. Three days later, Foote returns to Springfield.

Back at the end of Nets training camp, Johnson wrote "a prescription" for Smith to work on developing into a lead guard. In four years at Louisville, Smith played off the ball, notably alongside former Nets swingman Terrence Williams, who served as Rick Pitino's point forward. With the Armor, Smith found himself alongside another combo guard in Curry.

Johnson -- known as the "Little General" in his playing days -- told Smith to be more vocal on the court, more directorial, more of a leader. MacKinnon, whom Johnson helped to hire, created opportunities for Smith to follow through and stayed on him whenever the point guard went quiet. Smith says his teammates understood the developmental goal, that working to develop Smith into an NBA-caliber lead guard would ultimately benefit their games and their prospects.

But at the end of 10 days, the Nets' guards get healthy. Smith is reassigned.

"It's been great, man," Smith says. "(I) played hard. I'm excited they gave me my first opportunity in the NBA. It shows that somebody here believes I can play in this league. And I'm excited to keep working hard and continue to push to get better. Hopefully I find a guaranteed contract somewhere."

It is two weeks before another opportunity. Again, due to injury. This time in the frontcourt: big men Jordan Williams and Shelden Williams go down in the same game, the former with a concussion; the latter, an eye injury.

Springfield gets a short-notice special, and Dennis Horner returns to the NBA. He's immediately shipped out to the West Coast, for a three-city California swing. Over the phone, he laughs, deadpans that he can't complain. Except it's not a joke. He means it. Must be nice. Probably is.

Horner's second go-round plays out much like the first: mostly on the bench, but with a good vote of confidence in his NBA potential. This is twice now the Nets have turned to him. But the injuries heal, and Horner too returns to Springfield. He will spend the summer bulking up, to better challenge NBA power forwards defensively, and expanding his game to include post play. Horner will be careful to maintain his shot; he efficiently averaged 21.0 points (.471 FG%, .373 3P%) for the Armor.

"I want to work to where hopefully I can be in here, and this is what I want," Horner says. "I don't know if it is my future, but it's what I want for my future, so I'm going to work this summer to hopefully stick this year."

In the final weeks, needing a point guard who can score and also run the offense, the Nets add Armon Johnson from the D-League's Idaho Stampede. He is their sixth Call-Up, helping push the D-League's season total to an all-time record 50.

Meanwhile, Horner and Smith return to Springfield for the stretch run, helping the Armor clinch a playoff spot and the best record in the East (via tiebreaker with Dakota). Matched up against the seventh-seeded Canton Charge -- the top eight of 16 D-League teams (both conferences) make it and are seeded by record -- the Armor drop Game One on the road after shooting just 33-of-84 (.389) and being outrebounded 53-41.

In the best-of-three First Round, the teams return to Springfield, where the Armor start strong (43 points, .700 FG% after one) and weather a comeback before prevailing in overtime, scoring the game's final eight points. Curry, Horner and Smith score 88 of the team's 125 points; Horner and Smith each add 11 rebounds; Curry hits a franchise-high 15 of 43 made free-throws, also an Armor best.

But in the decisive Game Three, they again cannot contain the Charge's offense, allowing .562 shooting and losing the rebounding battle, 48-31. Curry and Horner each drop 20-plus, but Smith (11 points) and Foote (10) struggle to score. The team cannot overcome an average night from the floor (.440 FG%). The season ends April 16, and by the next morning, players are going through exit interviews with the coaching staff.

Lee, MacKinnon and assistant Chris Carrawell discuss things each player should work on, and whether or not the player's future lays in Springfield.

"Not all of them should come back," Lee says. "There are certain guys at certain points in their career that need to earn money. There are certain guys that might have reached a ceiling. And it's no reflection on the fact that you wouldn't want them back, because they're very high character, coachable guys that can play; but it's more a reflection on what's best for their careers.

"We talk about it as being a 'developmental league' -- it's not only developmental for (the) NBA; it's developmental for whatever stage in your basketball career is, so that might mean going to China next year, that might mean retiring next year for somebody and trying to get into coaching. And then there are a handful of guys that we said, 'Hey, we think you can make these improvements; we think you can play a bigger role next year.'"

Lee calls it a curious process, wondering what the decision of every player on the roster will be, even as he begins diving into preparations for November's D-League Draft. By then, Lee should have an idea of how many will return, but there's an element of finality when he knows it's possible half could be traveling new paths.

With the NBA Draft approaching on June 28, Lee becomes another set of eyes to evaluate players at places like the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, grading them not only for NBA potential, but whether they might fit in Springfield. MacKinnon, in addition to evaluating talent, will helm both the D-League's national tryout in Chicago (one of four this offseason) and its Elite Mini-Camp, held shortly before the NBA Draft and featuring the top 30-35 players who weren't called up last season.

Given so many opportunities to scout, and a year under their collective belts, Lee believes his staff will be more prepared for this year's Draft, and also for trade proposals. The focus remains upon developing players while creating a culture and atmosphere that can easily absorb Nets players on assignment. They are confident the wins will follow.

"We'll have four draft picks; last year, we didn't have a first-round draft pick," Lee says. "And I wouldn't be surprised, if just because of our success this year, more players want to come back. We didn't have much success within the last two years and six players came back because there was a chance that it was gonna get better. And then we proved it.

"We showed that it got a lot better, so we might have a nice problem of a lot of them wanting to come back. I think we're going to have good problems going forward."


For more on the Nets, be sure to follow Ben Couch (@viewfromcouch) or @BrooklynNets on Twitter or visit our Fan Page on Facebook.

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