The Brooklyn Nets embarked on their return to basketball in this unprecedented campus setting Orlando, Florida last week. In our weekly notebook, we’ll take a look back on what life is like for the team and how they’re progressing on the road to their July 31 restart opener against the Orlando Magic.
The Nets traveled to Orlando on Tuesday, July 7, and when they emerged from quarantine on Thursday, July 9 they went directly to practice.
“It's been a little weird, obviously kind of being locked in the hotel room,” said Caris LeVert after that first practice session, “but like I said it was good to get out in the gym today, be able to run around a bit, get a little sweat in, but you know it's a different experience for everyone so we're kind of taking it day by day now.”
After a week of practice sessions in Brooklyn, the first few days in Orlando sent the Nets back to the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, with Zoom sessions and in-room yoga and exercises.
“Really the travel down has been smooth, being able to get inside the hotel,” said head coach Jacque Vaughn. “The day went by really fast. I didn’t turn on the TV, got a chance to do a couple of Zoom calls with coaches, with our front office staff and with our performance team just to make sure we were all aligned and ready to go for today. Practice plan, went over with the coaches, and then got a chance to get through quarantine and make it out to the other side. We went with the strategy we’re going to complete, not complain. Complete it, didn’t complain partner. On to the next day.”
You can include the practice settings to Disney’s unique setup. Ballrooms across the property have been converted into practice courts, with multiple courts laid out side-by-side. Occasionally, other teams will be practicing simultaneously just a few courts away from one another.
“This is I believe our third ballroom,” said Jacque Vaughn on Saturday after Brooklyn’s third practice session since arriving in Orlando. “We’ve kind of rotated. I think overall they’re changing up the times and the location to give a fair playing field for everyone. Third location, Contemporary Hotel, it’s a convention center. I think one of our assistant coaches, Bret Brielmaier, he’s keeping notes of the surroundings and which one he likes best. This one had high marks today because of the periphery design, very aquaish. We’re just taking this all in. Enjoying it. We’ve got a court. We’re playing. I think yesterday we were able to hear a team probably two courts over. But we’ve been locked in. You’ve got music playing in the background. Just good to hear the ball bouncing again.”
CARIS AND CRAWFORD
With the addition of veteran guard Jamal Crawford, the Nets brought in another Michigan man, who shares that connection with Caris LeVert. Crawford played one season for Michigan, in 1999-2000, before opting for the NBA and being selected eighth overall. LeVert played four seasons for the Wolverines before being drafted in 2016.
“When I was kid he was like my favorite player,” said LeVert. “And then obviously when I went to Michigan he reached out to me and we've kind of been big brother-little brother ever since. I think he'll definitely add some dynamics to the team. He's a veteran in this league, he's played for a lot of teams. I spoke to him yesterday actually. Can't wait to get him out here.”
Centers DeAndre Jordan and Nic Claxton are not available for the resumption of the NBA season, leaving 6-foot-11 Jarrett Allen as the only Net taller than 6-9. Allen won’t be playing 48 minutes per game — he averaged 25.7 over the first 64 games — so the Nets will likely have some unorthodox lineups for some significant minutes.
They have added another center in 6-9 rookie Donta Hall, but the other options lean towards perimeter-oriented forwards like Rodions Kurucs if they choose to really spread the floor with a small-ball attack. Kurucs has played the 4 with the first unit but also seen minutes in lineups at the 5.
“It’s me and (Jarrett Allen) as a big man right now,” said Kurucs on Saturday. “It’s tough to be honest, but I’m getting used to it and getting good at the 5 position too. Because I’m sure I’m gonna have to play some minutes at that position.”
“It’s been a little adjustment for him but he’s handling it well,” said guard Chris Chiozza. “Signing Hall will allow him to play his natural position more, something he’s more comfortable with. But he’s looking good and battling hard, rebounding and looking for his shot a lot. He’s aggressive and it helps us spread the floor more and he can playmake as well. He knows how to play basketball. He’s smart. With him being at the 5, if he’s at the 5, with us being smaller, I think it’s an advantage because he can get out and run too.”
INTEGRATING NEW ADDITIONS
Players who arrived in Orlando separately from the team have to quarantine for six days. That includes Jamal Crawford, Donta Hall, Tyler Johnson, and Lance Thomas.
“We’ll have a couple guys who a month ago — four months ago — weren’t playing competitive basketball in the NBA,” said Jacque Vaughn. “We understood that going in, I think overall we’ve liked those players at different stages in our organization, so this opportunity presented itself to get them around us and get them in the fold and how they can help us.”
As the Nets begin their second week of practice sessions in Orlando, they’ll be adding those players into the mix. In the meantime, they’re sharing practice video to help the new arrivals get up to speed.
“We will transition with being as simple as possible to integrate those guys,” said Vaughn. “I did challenge the group that’s here right now; knowing our stuff to help facilitate teaching those guys. So if Donta Hall goes to Jarrett Allen and asks him whether these two plays Jarrett Allen has a complete grasp of what we’re trying to do. Putting responsibility, accountability into the hands of the players as well.”
CHIOZZA’S INSIDER LOOK AT HALL
In addition to some G League meetings, guard Chris Chiozza played against newly signed forward/center Donta Hall for several years in the SEC. Both players played four years in college, Chiozza at Florida and Hall at Alabama, with Chiozza a year ahead of Hall.
“I’ve always liked his game,” said Chiozza. “He has always been a guy I’d like to play with because he’s so athletic, great defender and rim protector, rebounder. His athleticism is off the charts. He has stuff you can’t teach. He was really raw when I first saw him play. I played him this year in the G League and he was one of the best bigs in the G League. He can really go and has a great motor. He has some skills people probably don’t really know about. He can playmake a little bit. But his athleticism will be huge for us; great rim protector and energy.”
BACK TO BASKETBALL, BUT NOT FORGETTING
As the Nets gather in Orlando with a renewed emphasis on basketball, they are determined not to let the focus on the social justice movement in the wake of the killing of George Floyd cede into the background.
“As a team, we're just trying to keep the conversations alive, make sure they're candid, make sure everyone's voice is heard,” said Caris LeVert. “We've had several conversations as a team leading up to here. I guess here has been a lot about basketball and trying to get everybody on the same page. But we definitely had conversations, and they won't stop. They'll keep going, for sure.”
“That’s the challenge,” said Jacque Vaughn. “I was actually part of a small group in our organization, reinforcing our thoughts of continuing to educate our team, whether that is going to be through movies as we are here, through books as we are here, so we will organize that in a meeting yesterday, because that is really the true challenge. The basketball part will be easy, but to continue to invest in the bigger picture and the broader message to our entire group, and that comes through education. We’ll continue to push that as an organization. It is definitely on the forethought of our coaching staff, our GM, our ownership. It will not be removed because the ball is bouncing again.”
IMPRESSED BY JEREMIAH MARTIN
The Nets turned over both their two-way contracts back in January, first signing Chris Chiozza and then Jeremiah Martin. While Chiozza broke into the rotation just before the season was suspended in March, Martin played primarily in the G League since the Nets signed him, averaging 16.8 points, 4.3 assists, 4.0 rebounds and 2.3 steals in 16 games for Long Island.
But as the Nets have gotten back underway in Orlando, the rookie guard out of Memphis has made a strong impression.
“I'd say Jeremiah Martin has been a surprise for us,” said Jacque Vaughn. “His ability to compete. That's all we ask at his beginning stage is to compete. Whether that's knowing the plays, knowing different implementation, or having yourself ready every day. I give him a pat on the back as well.”
“He’s very quick with the basketball, makes great decisions, very good shooter, too,” said Caris LeVert. “I liked him when he was in college in Memphis. It’s been cool to be on the same team with him and learn some things from him as well.”
OFF THE COURT
After going right at it with practices for five consecutive days after getting out of their Orlando quarantine last Thursday, the Nets were off on Tuesday.
“They deserve their day off tomorrow,” said Jacque Vaughn after Monday’s practice. “Told them to get away from basketball, go book a golf outing or a fishing outing and we’ll get back after it after the day off.”
Golf is what Joe Harris had planned, along with Garrett Temple. As the days add up in Orlando, the Nets are getting a feel for the campus and what’s available during their downtime.
“I went into the players’ lounge yesterday,” said Joe Harris after Sunday’s practice. “They did a great job of setting up sort of a hospitality area for all of the players. We ordered in food last night as a team. We were able to watch some of the UFC fights. I’m planning on going golfing with Garrett on Tuesday, our day off. There’s a lot of stuff we have at our disposal here in the bubble. The NBA has done a good job of just making sure to accommodate everybody and give us options to do in our free time.”
Caris LeVert was looking forward to a relaxing day off, and Rodions Kurucs said he’s mostly been sleeping during his down time. Except maybe for jumping in the pool to race Temple the other day. At Sunday’s practice, the team took part in a little competition seeing who could roll a ball closest to the wall.
“You still want guys to enjoy what they're doing, and they do need mental breaks, whether that is a pool recovery, whether that is having games to play at the beginning of practice, whether that is a comical video at the beginning of practice,” said Vaughn. “All those things come into play when you're in an environment like this. You're not really worried about the physical, but the mental aspect of guys every day as well.”