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'Right There': Adding Armor to Nets Camp

December 23, 2011


EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.—This season, the Nets begin their "hybrid affiliation" with the Springfield Armor of the NBA D-League, and invited three Armor players (G Jerry Smith, G JamesOn Curry, F Dennis Horner) to training camp, with a chance to play for the parent club.



This is a warehouse. A loading dock, really. Metal shelving units, covered in matte gray, stacked to the ceiling with boxes well-worn at the corners and resting atop wooden pallets awaiting a forklift rescue that might only be imaginary. Their contents, unknown. Or unorganized, the list likely locked in a computer file somewhere around the office.

But today, there are drapes. Fabric lipstick on an industrial pig, the smoothed surfaces curving, bending the light of flash bulbs to aesthetically pleasing effect. It is the Nets’ 2011 “Media Day,” and the compressed preseason means there’s no … media. Only the NBA’s official photographers and a YES Network production team have sojourned to the PNY Center, joined in its depths by the team employees commissioned to capture a “behind-the-scenes” experience.

Wearing a No. 30 Nets uniform, JamesOn Curry dutifully rotates 1/8th of a turn between photos, rotoscoped for a video game he might never appear in. He smiles. He offers his game face. He provides a closeup of each tattoo.

But JamesOn needs more than a jersey. More than the glamour moment of a photo shoot to remind him what the NBA feels like. Four years after being drafted by the Bulls (2007, 2nd Round, No. 51 overall), the shooting guard with all of the skill but none of the height (he stands “6-foot-4”) knows this doesn’t mean he’s back.

“I’m not going to lie,” Curry says. “It don’t. I’m not even going to sugarcoat it. Until I sign on the dotted line, until you know I’m here, then we’ll know. It’s just another part of the process of being a pro, coming here on time and getting all that stuff done.”

JamesOn, unfortunately, is right. Five days and three minutes of preseason playing time later, he will be cut. Waived by the Nets, Curry will return whence he came – Springfield, Mass., home to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and the Nets’ NBA D-League affiliate Springfield Armor. He will hold no grudges, and he will be motivated.

“I’m not that far away from my dream,” he’ll say. “I feel like I’m right there. I’ll continue to work and develop under Coach (Bob MacKinnon) and I’ll be right back to where I want to be.”

The 2011-12 season marks the first in which the Armor will serve as a one-to-one “hybrid affiliate” of the Nets. The structure, similar to the familiar system employed by Major and Minor League Baseball, offers the Nets control of the Armor’s basketball operations while local ownership runs the business in Springfield.

The parent club first named Milton Lee general manager of minor league operations. Lee then joined Nets general manager Billy King and head coach Avery Johnson in assembling a coaching staff, hiring Bob MacKinnon into the lead spot and Chris Carrawell as his assistant, also bringing athletic trainer Mark Mahoney into the fold.

After running open tryouts, conducting the draft and finalizing the roster (e.g. convincing Curry to return, rather than play in Argentina) during training camp, the Armor began prepping its charges for the D-League season. As the NBA lockout came to a close, three players were tabbed to provide bodies during Nets camp: Curry, fellow guard Jerry Smith and forward Dennis Horner.

“I hope one to three of them makes this team,” Lee says. “We’ll see whether or not that happens. But I think it’s been a tremendous experience for them. From the Springfield point of view, we’ve been able to bring in four other players that we can get a closer look at in game situations, so we view it as a positive up there.

“And the experience for a guy like Dennis Horner, who spent last year in Europe and is now banging against NBA players, is tremendous. His confidence level’s going to rise, his knowledge of the game is going to rise. Same with Jerry. And JamesOn, it’ll just sharpen who he was already. From Springfield’s point of view, if let’s say, all three of them were to come back, it’d be nothing but positive from our point of view: the experience while they were away, (that) we got to look at and develop some other players, and we’ll get these players back in better condition and better shape if and when we get them back. On all fronts, it’s been a very positive experience for everyone involved.”

While Curry was brought in for his scoring ability, Smith is an athletic, hard-nosed defender who racked up six steals in a game four times last season. Drafted by Springfield in the fifth round (No. 69 overall) of the 2010 NBA D-League Draft, the Milwaukee native had played four years at Louisville under Rick Pitino, starting for his final three seasons.

Smith knows his mandate is to be the player he is, hanging his hat on defensive intensity while trying to pick up what he can offensively from the veteran point guards. The transition has been easy, he says, since the calls are the same and he’s feeding off Johnson’s energy, showing up ready to work and ready to learn – exactly the kind of “no-maintenance” player Lee said the team is expecting him to be.

“You don't have to do anything,” Smith explains. “You don't have to, but guys have chosen to. I definitely want to be one of the last guys in there getting work and just trying to improve every day.”

The focus is there, even in an abbreviated camp and even with an audition mindset, because this is basketball, a game Smith loves and a game he has played for more than a decade. He seeks only improvement, seeing the possibilities in everything, from the excitement of his first NBA camp to his eventual reassignment to Springfield.

Yes, Smith too gets sent down. This is not the fun part. This is where it becomes practical, where Avery says Jerry and JamesOn played well and provided a boost in practice and have room for improvement and that he wants everyone to know that they did some “really good things for us” and (more importantly?) are “really good kids.” It’s where Jerry says it’s tough, but he understands, because there were three point guards with guaranteed contracts, and even if he were “unbelievable” all week, guarantees remain exactly that.

Avery explains that the idea is for the Armor to serve as a true minor league franchise for the Nets: that if they need a point guard, Smith will come to mind first; if they need a shooter, JamesOn. Same with the coaching staff. The catch with the player pool is that other teams have the ability to pluck talent the Nets have developed.

“We think that developing is kind of an absolute process,” Lee says. “It’s not like you’re developing him to a D-League player – we think we want to develop players to reach their potential. And hopefully that potential, for some of the players, is making the NBA.

“For Coach MacKinnon and myself and Billy King and Avery, everyone has the same viewpoint: if we’re developing players at Springfield that make it to the NBA, then we’re doing a tremendous job in Springfield. That’s why we took on the hybrid relationship, and we think we have a few players who can develop into NBA players right now. It’s our job to get the most out of them. We would view it as a positive if they went on to the NBA. Hopefully it will be with the Nets.”

It could be Dennis Horner. Or so he hopes. Today is the day before the day. Regular-season rosters have to be finalized Saturday at 6 p.m., and the Nets have just traded for Mehmet Okur to fill in for and fit alongside Brook Lopez, who recently suffered a stress fracture. Horner is trying not to think about it, because nothing is definite and anything can happen. Three days from the start of the season, he’s allowed nothing to sink in, focusing only on the practice in front of him and making sure his effort isn’t going to be what earns him a trip to the chopping block.

Even if he refuses to voice the thought, that Horner has made it this far is a win. In a year’s time, he went from N.C. State to VOO Verviers-Pepinster (Belgium’s First Division) to Hasapis Omonia Nicosia (Cyprus’ Division A) to the D-League’s 2011 National Tryout in Louisville, Ky. Horner’s performance at that showcase earned him a D-League player contract, and the Springfield Armor tabbed Horner in the third round (No. 47 overall) of the November 3 Draft.

In three games with Springfield, Horner averaged 15.0 points, 7.7 rebounds and 1.7 steals while shooting .412 overall and an impressive .938 (15-16) on free throws. The numbers do not let you know that Dennis Horner has a high basketball IQ. You find that out first from other players: Deron Williams, fielding a question about the four point guards, goes out of his way to mention Smith’s D-League compatriot, praising Horner for making hustle plays and rebounding well, calling him “the kind of player you like to have on your team.” And you also find it out when you watch Horner play, first getting that chance against the Knicks on December 17, when Shelden Williams and Johan Petro combine for five fouls in eight minutes during the first quarter.

Horner enters the game with 1 minute, 13 seconds remaining in the opening quarter, tying his shorts tighter. He picks up a foul eight seconds after that, sending Jared Jeffries to the line. This is foreshadowing. Dennis runs a give-and-go with Stephen Graham, finds the open spot on the floor, catches, shoots and hits a 14-foot jumper. It’s over Jeffries. That’s not the payoff. That’s a good start.

The second quarter opens with Horner joining Graham, Deron Williams, Shelden Williams and MarShon Brooks. Two minutes in, Horner finds Shelden Williams on a backdoor cut; Williams hits a reverse layup. Two minutes after that, Horner makes his own move backdoor and Deron Williams finds him, and Horner hits a reverse. Horner soon returns the favor, setting up Deron for a catch-and-shoot 3 that splashes through.

The block comes in the fourth. Horner sits the entire third quarter, but Johnson rewarded his early success with 9 ½ minutes in the final period. Everything pays off about halfway through, and the sequence starts with Horner’s lone turnover: a pass from Brook Lopez bounces off Horner’s hands, and the Knicks race upcourt. Jeffries (remember him?) catches a pass on the right wing, and pump fakes to clear the help defender. Horner doesn’t bite, and swats him so hard everyone mentions it after the game.

“Dennis was fantastic, he was everywhere,” says Lopez. “Defensively, he had my back; picked up that one fantastic block. And on that 50 cut in the post, when I missed him, he told me to throw that up, so I've got to remember that - I've got to put that up for a lob. It should be exciting playing with him.”

Horner’s final line totals four points (2-3 FGs), four rebounds (two offensive), three assists and a block in 18 ½ minutes. It is fuller than the one he produces four days later, after the team re-signs Kris Humphries, when Horner plays 3 minutes, 45 seconds and joins “Club Trillion” – all zeros following his minutes total in the stat book. He says he was nervous, but quickly got into the flow and realized he could hold his own. Hitting his first shot helped, and the block felt good, justifying Horner’s belief in “short memorization” and refusing to let the turnover cloud his thoughts.

“My mindset is: I have nothing to lose, so why don't I just get out here and give it my all?” Horner says. “If I don't make it, at least I got my foot in the door the first time, and I'm going to try again.”

Committed to playing even harder with every acquisition the Nets make, Horner knows that even now, the Nets need a power forward to fill in. He has been their man, and he will finds out soon if he shall remain or rejoin Curry and Smith in Springfield (though he would first need to pass unclaimed through NBA waivers).

All three players believe they’ve had ample opportunity to prove themselves during the preseason, though each – obviously – would love a longer audition. Smith and Curry say they’re committing to building on the experience gained, and they immediately impact the Armor upon their victorious return: Beating the Dakota Wizards, 98-94, JamesOn puts up 23 points, 11 assists and six rebounds; Jerry adds 23 points, eight rebounds and five steals.

Curry, convinced he made the right call coming back from Argentina, feels like he’s close. Feels like “Coach Mac” can help him get there, right where he wants to be. Where he’s always wanted to be.

“I had actually took a flight to Argentina and came all the way back,” Curry explains. “Forty-something hours I was on a plane, there and back. I had my (work) visa. And Coach Mac called me. When he called me, it was like, ‘Should I get this for-sure money, or be an opportunist?’ and I feel like I’m an opportunist.

“This is my dream, since when I was a kid. Kids say they want to be the President, want to be in the NBA, want to be in the NFL; this is my dream. I was like, ‘No matter what.’ People were telling me, ‘You should go make money, you should go do this.’ And I was thinking, ‘I’m an NBA player, man. I want to be here. I’ma do it. Okay.’

“Even when it seemed like, ‘Yeah right, dude – you can’t go back there; you ain’t gon’ make it.’ It’s just having that focus, and believing. That was the main thing: my focus and my belief that I am that person. That’s the main thing that brought me back.”



UPDATE: The Nets announced Friday afternoon that they waived veteran forward Ime Udoka, leaving the team under the 15-player roster limit and essentially signalling Dennis Horner has earned a spot on the opening night roster.!


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