If there’s a checklist of goals for the 2017-18 Brooklyn Nets season, the development of rookie Jarrett Allen is up near the top.
Allen is the second-youngest player ever to wear a Nets uniform, and his progress is of paramount importance to the organization and profound interest to the fan base. With a 6-foot-11 frame, the athletic ability to get up and down the floor, and a wingspan that stretches from here to his home state of Texas, Allen fits the profile of the type of big man coach Kenny Atkinson was nudging general manager Sean Marks for in the offseason.
Marks obliged when he selected Allen with the 22nd overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft, right here at Barclays Center.
“He does everything you want in a big player,” said Atkinson the day after the draft. “Runs the court. Defends the rim. Has great timing. Great feel for the game. I was really impressed with his passing. We got a heck of a player.”
Nothing has tempered Atkinson’s enthusiasm since. The coach has said that by the end of training camp he knew the 19-year-old would have a place on the court this season, not just learning from the sidelines.
After a DNP on opening night in Indiana, Allen scored nine points in his NBA debut in the Nets’ home opener two nights later and has been a steady part of the rotation since, save for seven games missed following a foot injury.
“Happy with him,” said Atkinson. “Happy with how he fits our system. Happy with his competitiveness. Happy that he gives us a 7-foot rim protector and rim roller. We’re very good defensively when he’s on the court. The analytics back that up. He’s what we thought. I just can’t wait for him to start accumulating more time on the court, because he’s just going to get better and better.”
For everything that Allen has shown so far, the Nets are anticipating that there is so much more to come.
“He’s 19 years old, just learning how to play basketball,” said Tyler Zeller. “I think back to 19, I was barely playing in college, let alone in the NBA. He’s a great athlete. Long wingspan. He’s got a lot of things that I kind of wish I had that make the game easy. He’s a very smart guy, hopefully over time he’ll continue learning the game, continue to get better.”
At age 27 on a team with nine players 25 or under on its 15-man roster, Zeller is a respected veteran voice who quickly became a resource for the talented rookie.
“He’s really been helpful trying to teach me on and off the court stuff,” said Allen, “showing me what it takes to be an NBA player.”
Zeller was signed in September, bringing some frontcourt depth to a team that had only two players – Allen and Timofey Mozgov – measuring 6-11 or taller before his signing. Zeller arrived after five steady and solid seasons with Cleveland and Boston. By the start of December, the pair formed the core of Brooklyn’s rotation at the center spot, with Zeller in a starting role and averaging 8.5 points while shooting 62.5 percent from the field.
The off-the-court connection began somewhat coincidentally; Allen and Zeller found themselves seated next to each other on a team flight and got to talking.
“He really wants to learn,” said Zeller. “He really wants to figure it out. He does a great job asking questions; ‘if this happens, what do I need to do’ kind of thing. The biggest thing I could do is more playing against guys. The first time playing against anybody, everybody’s got tendencies, and knowing them goes a long ways.”
That curiosity is part of Allen’s makeup. His father is a manager for Dell and there was always a computer in the house. Jarrett took an interest at a young age and eventually did some investigating into the hardware before ordering parts online and eventually building one himself.
“Once you start playing, you want to figure out how it works,” said Allen. “My dad, he opened his computer, I didn’t really know about the insides. Oh, there’s all that stuff. About two years later I decided to make one and that’s what I did.”
In basketball, there’s also some things that can’t be learned, or taught. Plenty of those impressive skills have been on display so far.
“Just his length and his ability to protect the rim, rebound,” said Zeller. “There’s a lot of plays he’ll catch the ball under the rim and I’m like, ‘he’s got no chance to finish that.’ And all of a sudden those arms just go up. He’s really learning. That’s the biggest thing, learning what you’re really good at. He’s quickly learning that he can dunk the ball, he can do those kinds of things at this level.”
Allen has kept his offensive game to the basics so far, taking 74 percent of his shots inside of five feet from the rim through the middle of December, shooting 54 percent. What’s most impressive are the moments, and there seem to be a few every game, from a big block to a ferocious finish.
After scoring nine points in that debut back in October, Allen had four blocks in his second appearance. At the start of December, he had his first two double-figure scoring games in back-to-back games against Atlanta.
If the Nets are looking forward to what comes next, so is Allen.
“Just keep learning,” said Allen. “Just keep doing what I’m doing. Talking to coaches, talking to other players, people even outside of the Nets, they say I’m doing fine. I’m on the right track to being a good player.”