When the Brooklyn Nets began to ramp up practice a week ago, head coach Jacque Vaughn forecast a new look on the court. With the personnel the Nets have added in the interim, it’s pointing towards pushing the Nets even further toward wide-open, positionless basketball.
“We’ll be very creative, I’ll say that,” said Vaughn on Thursday after Brooklyn’s first workout in Orlando. “Whether it’s challenging guys to play multiple positions and maybe do a few things they haven’t done in the past. I look at guys as basketball players. Rodi (Kurucs) and Jarrett Allen were working out pre-practice and I walked over to them and said, ‘When Tiago Splitter was playing, you called him a center, a big, a 5 man. You guys are just basketball players, so we’re going to put you in position to make basketball plays.’ So we’re going be creative with our lineups, we’re going to be creative with our concepts, we’re going to challenge guys and get the most out of them.”
The Nets are short on big men as the NBA season resumes. Forward Wilson Chandler opted out, and center DeAndre Jordan and forward Taurean Prince — along with guard Spencer Dinwiddie — will not be competing after positive tests for COVID-19. Rookie center Nic Claxton is also out of the mix after undergoing shoulder surgery.
That left the Nets down to one center with four available roster spots to fill. They started with forward Michael Beasley and guard Jamal Crawford. In late June, they had already added offensive minded combo guard Tyler Johnson while letting go of Theo Pinson.
Brooklyn picked up a big man on Friday morning with the signing of rookie Donta Hall, who had spent most of the season in the G League with the Grand Rapids Drive, the affiliate of the Detroit Pistons. He was on his second 10-day contract with Detroit when the season was suspended in March.
“Donta presents a big who plays with an extreme amount of energy who’s improved since the first time we saw him as an organization,” said Vaughn. “A guy that can play above the rim and a guy that hopefully we can get better while he's here and be able to contribute. We'll need his minutes and we'll need to get him up to speed pretty quickly.”
A 6-foot-9 forward/center, Hall was named to the All-NBA G League Second Team and All-Rookie Team for the G League after averaging 15.4 points and 10.5 rebounds in 38 games. He played four seasons at Alabama, twice earning SEC All-Defensive Team honors, before going undrafted in 2019.
It leaves 6-foot-11 Jarrett Allen as the only available player taller than 6-9, pending one more addition. Allen started 58 of Brooklyn’s 64 games this season, with Jordan moving into a regular starting position just before the season was suspended. Allen is averaging 10.6 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks in 25.7 minutes per game.
“I wouldn’t say extra pressure,” said Allen of being Brooklyn’s only true center. “I’m not really a feel the pressure type of guy. It gives me some more freedom. During the season all the options in front of me are sitting out. I really hope they get better. All the health stuff aside, now is almost a time for me to go out there and explore my game.”
But even when the Nets had Allen and Jordan combining to average 48 minutes per game, they already ran the fewest post-ups in the league, just 0.4 per game. The next-fewest came from the Washington Wizards, who ran five times as many.
“We are going to be a little bit undersized but I think for us, you try to use it to your advantage, especially on the offensive end: spread guys out, make bigs guard,” said Joe Harris. “And then on the other end, it’s all five flying to the ball. Boxing out is one of the areas where you really miss a big. We’re fortunate to have (Jarrett Allen), but JA can’t play 48 minutes, so when he’s not in the game, we’ve got to make an emphasis on gang rebounding, everybody doing their job, watching their man and doing it by committee. We’re shorthanded from a big perspective, so it’s all the little stuff that amount up to account for what you might be missing.”
Opportunity is also arising for Kurucs, the second-year forward. Kurucs closed his rookie season as Brooklyn’s starter at the 4 spot. But he got off to a shaky start to this season and found himself behind Prince and Chandler. With neither available in Orlando, a path is open.
In their second Orlando practice on Friday morning, the Nets were able to play 5-on-5 for the first time since the season was stopped in March, and Vaughn slotted Kurucs in with the starting group.
“We haven't decided what that starting unit is going to look like,” said Vaughn. “Today he started at the 4 position but I think we'll see him play multiple positions. We'll continue to get this roster together and see what units fit together and what combinations fit together but really envision his role of running the floor for us, rebounding the basketball for us, guarding multiple positions for us, offensive rebounding, I think his energy we'll need to take advantage of. He had a good practice today, he's done a good job of being in drills with wings and with bigs. Kind of reiterated what I said the other day, we're trying to make him the best basketball player that he can be. So far he's accepted that challenge and is willing to play any position for us.”