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November 26th, 2010

Humphries Doubling Down on Opportunity

Late in the second quarter of Tuesdays 107-101 overtime victory against the Hawks, Nets forward Kris Humphries was hustling back in transition with Josh Smith hurtling toward him on the fast break, primed to posterize. But Smith never saw a clear path to the basket Humphries remained in the way.

Both players rose, and Humphries committed no foul, leaving Smith out of options. The Hawks forward hooked an artless pass attempt into the hands of Nets point guard Devin Harris, who transitioned his team back to offense. He flipped a pass ahead to the first man down the floor (guess who?), and Jason Collins was forced to wrap Humphries from behind to prevent a dunk. He hit both free throws.

Joe Johnson attempted to respond with a running bank shot, but it bounced off the rim, and Humphries twice tapped the ball to himself while spinning, grabbing control and flinging it ahead to Harris, who went end-to-end for a layup.

28-second total: 1 altered shot, 2 transition free throws, 1 transition-igniting rebound and outlet pass

Its a sequence of a type increasingly familiar to Nets fans, as Humphries has recently entrenched himself as the team's starting power forward. In the eight games since Troy Murphy went down with a sore foot in Cleveland, Humphries has averaged a double-double (10.0 points, 11.9 rebounds) while shooting .559 in 30.9 minutes per game. Even with depressed minutes in seven other appearances (14.3 MPG), Humphries is still averaging overall career-highs of 7.7 PPG, 8.0 RPG and .633 shooting.

Obviously, our games are very complementary, says Nets center Brook Lopez. Hes very rough, does a lot of the dirty work. Hes great off the dive, crashing the boards. Ive been a streaky shooter, but I feel like Im capable of hitting that outside 15-18 foot jump shot. And Hump will clean up a miss! I know on the defensive end, I can count on him. If I make a mistake, he can pick up the slack, pick up my guy or block his shot if I get beat.

Humphries, solidly built at 6-foot-9 and 235 pounds, is muscular enough to play minutes at center, as he did while backing up Lopez before Murphys injury. And that strength, combined with his natural athleticism, has led to particular prowess as a rebounder. This season, according to the Web site, Humphries Total Rebounding Rate (19.9) ranks tied for eighth among players who average at least 20 minutes per game.

The seven players in front of him? Reggie Evans, Kevin Love, Marcus Camby, Dwight Howard, Ben Wallace, DeJuan Blair and Joakim Noah. He is tied with Samuel Dalembert. Just behind lie the names Tim Duncan and Zach Randolph.

Humphries place among those rebounding luminaries has been the result of commitment to coach Avery Johnsons clearly outlined role: I just try to play off (Brook), Humphries says. If hes out on the floor, I just try to duck in, get O-boards, keep the ball alive, look for him; hes trying to look for me. Its one of those things where I know Im not the No. 1 option, or the No. 2 option, ha. Im down the list, so Ive got to do things to get easy buckets and do things to keep the ball alive for our team.

Johnson says that Humphries has shortened up his offensive game or perhaps had the coach do so for him a notable alteration in his fourth NBA stop. Drafted out of Minnesota by the Jazz with the No. 14 overall pick in 2004, coming off a season in which he proved the first freshman able to lead the Big 10 in both scoring and rebounding, Humphries was limited to only 13.0 minutes per game because the Jazz unexpectedly found themselves able to sign power forward Carlos Boozer and center Mehmet Okur.

The next season, Humphries minutes dropped (10.0 MPG) and he was shipped to the Raptors in the offseason. Behind All-Star power forward Chris Bosh and 2006-07 No. 1 overall pick Andrea Bargnani, Humphries couldnt find consistent time in Toronto (high of 13.2 MPG in 2007-08) and was included in a 2009 four-team trade prominently involving Hedo Turkoglu, Shawn Marion and Jerry Stackhouse. Humphries spent a half-season in Dallas, backing up Dirk Nowitzki, before the Nets acquired him, along with Shawne Williams, in January 2010 for Eduardo Najera. At the time, Humphries had a reputation for rebounding and solid defense, but a penchant for poor shots that kept his field-goal percentage below average for a big man.

Kris was able to go up the basketball chain in a rapid manner because he was such a hard worker and he was physically ready to move up, says his college coach, Dan Monson, now at Long Beach State. But when he got to the NBA, I think his game had to develop a little bit more, because in the NBA they take away just being physically stronger than somebody and outworking them is more difficult.

I knew it was going to take a little bit of an adjustment to get his game figured out, but I knew he would work hard enough to eventually get that to happen. And that's been the case. You have to remember he came out as a Freshman. Hes still relatively young as it all pertains to basketball, and in that regard I think it was just a matter of time.

Monsons relationship with Humphries dates back to the late 1990s, when William Humphries a Minnesota alumni who played on the football teams offensive line introduced the coach to his son, a state swimming prodigy, at a football game. Yes, swimming. Humphries was nationally competitive through age 12, challenged most by an Olympian you might have heard of: Michael Phelps.

But with basketball entrenched in the Jordan era, Humphries realized his passion for pursuing an NBA career proved more enticing than the demanding rigors of early mornings in the pool. Humphries initially committed to Duke, but reconsidered for family reasons and stayed in-state to play for the Golden Gophers, crediting Monson with a strong recruiting pitch.

The coach said Humphries proved one of the hardest workers hes coached, noting Humphries would be shooting before practice in the gym at 6 a.m. and again late at night. It quickly became apparent that Humphries would likely not stay long at school he earned Conference Player of the Week honors twice within the seasons first three weeks and by seasons end, his averages of 21.7 points and 10.1 rebounds propelled him to Big 10 Player of the Year, with All-Big Ten First Team and Honorable Mention All-America recognition.

Advised by his father and fellow Minnesota alum Trent Tucker, Humphries realized his NBA dream could become a reality: I had a lot of success from an individual standpoint, Humphries says. When people are telling you you'll be a first-round pick, how can you pass that up? It's the opportunity of a lifetime and you have to go for it.

He did, but was blindsided by the Jazzs pair of free-agent acquisitions. And then the Raptors trade, and a minutes yo-yo (2006-07: 11.2 MPG; 07-08: 13.2; 08-09: 9.1) and another trade. And another.

I think every player wants to be on one team for a while and have success individually and success as a team, Humphries says. So I think anyone being in that situation, its frustrating, but youve got to keep working. Not every guy in the NBA is drafted to a team and is the face of the franchise gets to be there forever. The reality is: people bounce around, and youve got to find a home and make the best out of every situation.

With the Nets last season, Humphries finally found an opening, averaging 8.1 points, 6.4 rebounds and 20.6 minutes in 44 games. But he shot only .433, and posted a 5.74 assist rate that ranked among the bottom 10 power forwards.

Johnson came aboard in the offseason, preaching a defense-first philosophy while holding everyone from Harris and Lopez on down accountable in a way that has the team ranked among the leagues 10 stingiest outfits (allowing 95.9 PPG and .446 FG%, though they rank 18th in defensive efficiency, which is pace-adjusted). Humphries bought in from the beginning, determined to find a role, and staying ready to contribute even after his preseason starting spot slipped away by the season opener.

Though the persistent double-doubles have kept Humphries name in the news, the reason his minutes have remained consistent are best appreciated by watching him off the ball, on both ends of the floor.

He brings energy to one facet of the NBA game thats really popular right now, and thats pick and roll defense, Johnson says. Boy, he knows how to play it! And then the tougher post offensive players, hes normally matched up with them at certain points, and he does a good job of battling those guys without us double teaming. And if we can play those guys 1-on-1 inside, that helps keeps us out of rotations. He helps keep us out of rotations, great pick and roll defender, and not only that, but when we do get stops hes one of the first big guys first guys down the floor, which then sucks in defense, which can open things up for our shooters.

Humphries knows hes received an opportunity with the Nets (that assist rate? A career-high 8.61), but shunts any discussion of individual goals aside, instead focusing on contributing to a team he hopes to help push over .500 for the first time in five seasons. But as Murphy becomes healthy, regaining the game shape Johnson feels he has yet to see from the expected starter, available minutes could dwindle due to the teams focus on developing rookie forward Derrick Favors, the No. 3 overall pick in Junes draft. So how does Humphries stake his claim to time going forward?

Thats tricky, Humphries admits. If you look at a team, there may be only one or two guys who think theyre getting enough minutes or shots or whatnot its a reality of basketball. Being that, youve got to put yourself in the position where you can get the most opportunity, try to perform and help the team do well when youre out there. And hopefully you get the opportunity and the minutes. Other than trying to be ready and play hard and do what they ask you to do, theres not much you can do. Thats up to the coach.

Do not envy Avery this decision. Humphries is not allowing it to be easy. Not anymore.

What to Watch This Weekend

The Nets are challenging the Sixers in Philadelphia tomorrow (7:30 p.m., YES, WFAN 660 AM), before returning home to challenge the Trail Blazers on Sunday at 7 p.m. (Buy Tickets). Sunday's game will also be broadcast on YES and WFAN 660 AM. Here are two things to keep an eye on:

  1. Can the Nets build on their recent run of strong play?

    Even though the Nets are 3-6 in their last nine games, each of the losses has been winnable down to the final minutes, even against top-flight competition like the Magic, Jazz, Nuggets and Celtics. Based on those performances, a strong showing should be expected against the 3-12 Sixers.

  2. Will Morrow continue emerging as Option 3?

    After a slow start to the season, Anthony Morrow has begun to emerge as the Nets' third offensive option, behind Devin Harris and Brook Lopez. "Ammo" has scored in double-digits five straight games, averaging 16.8 PPG and swishing at least one three in each game (8-21 total). Also, he hit his 250th career trey against the Hawks on Tuesday, which qualified him for the NBA's career three-point percentage leaderboard. Morrow shooting .382 for this season and .451 for his career, trails Steve Kerr (.454) for the top spot.

--Posted by Ben Couch at 1:00 p.m.

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