Brooklyn Nets Training Camp: Steve Nash Pushes Defense on Day 1

In rapid fashion, the NBA is checking off the boxes on the road to the start of the 2020-21 season. Transaction window opened. NBA Draft held. Free agency launched. Individual workouts commenced.

On Sunday, the latest step, as the Brooklyn Nets held their first full practice for a season that will unfold like no other.

“It was a great first day,” said head coach Steve Nash after his first full session in the job. “First of all, guys played really hard, were attentive, buying in and working hard. Doing all the things as coaches that we ask for. Great energy and spirit. As far as the flow of practice, pretty standard NBA practice. You have your template, you have your assistant coaches that take responsibilities for segments of practice and I guess it’s pretty standard. I don’t know how I can dress it up any better for you. We got down to business on some details. We also played and started to implement those details and worked to get in shape and to find a rhythm and connectivity.”

On the court, everything else can slip away into the background, but the reality is a compressed preseason calendar, with 16 days between Sunday’s initial practice and the season opener against the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday, Dec. 22.

In between, the Nets will play just two preseason games, against the Washington Wizards on Dec. 13 and the Boston Celtics on Dec. 18.

“I think it’s tough. You can’t practice hours on end,” said Joe Harris. “The schedule is going to be pretty tough just with how condensed it is. So you can’t beat guys up in this early period, but you’re still trying to get the teaching stuff in, get a chance to get everybody established in their rhythm, and play without breaking guys down. So it is a difficult task, just because it is such a quick turnaround, but I think that’s what these early games are for, our games Dec. 13, Dec. 18, those preseason games are also sort of, we’re looking at them like organized practices as well, where you can iron out some of the kinks in more of an exhibition setting.”

“I think there does have to be an adaptation there, everybody's going to have to adjust and have a different approach to this kind of shortened camp and everything,” said Landry Shamet. “But we're doing what we think’s best and how we want to approach it and we're focused on us and what we can do to come together and start gelling collectively as soon as possible. From a film perspective, in the locker room, onto the floor, how we play, all those things. So it's definitely different, and again I'm only year three, so I haven't seen as many offseasons and training camps but I think we're doing a really good job and have great leadership and leading us in the right direction.”

To get to this point, Nets players have navigated a different type of offseason, which for some was longer than others. Those who didn’t participate in Orlando had their last NBA practice or game in March. Kyrie Irving’s 2019-20 season ended at the start of February. Kevin Durant last played the 2019 NBA Finals.

Durant and Irving led Los Angeles-based pickup games that included multiple Nets, while others stayed closer to home, opting not to travel amidst a pandemic. But overall, Nash was pleased with the readiness with which players arrived as individual workouts began last week leading up to Sunday’s practice.

“The veterans of this group have come in in very good shape, rhythm, they look very good,” said Nash. “I think conditioning is more of finalizing their condition and transferring and adapting to the demands of the game at the highest level. Practice is a step towards that and then obviously exhibition games and the real thing. So they still have to adapt to the demands that the game presents there. Almost impossible to replicate in a pickup environment. I would just say that the guys came in in great shape and I’m incredibly impressed with many of them.”

After the first practice, Nash, as he has since taking the job in September, put an emphasis on defense on day one as a team with no shortage of offensive talent begins a season with high expectations.

“We have to be an excellent defensive team to compete for a championship,” said Nash. “And then the broad strokes are really a competitive spirit and connectivity, you know? That's something that we need to hammer in. It's just such a competitive landscape, you know? So many teams capable of winning a championship is such fine margins, so you have to continually build, you have to continually find a deeper buy-in. And that connectivity and spirit of competition is the end of the day is a non-negotiable.”

Last season, the Nets were 10th in the NBA in defensive rating. Nash has said that Jacque Vaughn, who returns from last season’s staff and took over as head coach in March and led the team through the resumption of the season on the NBA Campus in Orlando, will take a lead role with the team’s defensive schemes.

“Defensively, we’re kind of changing up things a little bit,” said Harris. “It’s a little bit more comparable to the defense that we did, the difference in philosophy that we had in the bubble, where it’s not so much of a 2-on-2 schematic, centerfield, it’s a little bit more aggressive. We’re trying to make the offense play unbalanced and out of rhythm and play a little bit more aggressive, use the length and athleticism that we have and the good rim protectors that we have too allows the guards to put more pressure on the offensive ball-handlers. And then offensively, a lot of the same stuff, just allowing guys the freedom to play. We have so many talented players, smart players, where if you just kind of put guys in the right position and let them read and react from there.”

That wealth of offensive talent starts with Durant and Irving, whose presence reshapes a Brooklyn lineup overflowing with options. Beyond that pair, Spencer Dinwiddie averaged 20.7 points per game last season, and Caris LeVert starred in a lead role in Orlando over the summer. Harris and Shamet are career 40-percent 3-point shooters. Centers Jarrett Allen and DeAndre Jordan both have career field goal percentages over 60 percent.

With the Nets devoting a significant part of Sunday’s session to scrimmage time, Harris called it “probably the highest-level instrasquad scrimmaging I’ve ever been a part of.”

“I feel excited and happy for Kevin, who has had the longest layoff and the biggest challenge to overcome,” said Nash. “Career-threatening injury. He’s done everything that could have been asked. He shows that hunger and desire, how much he loves the sport and wants to compete. So that’s been fantastic. And Kyrie’s just been unbelievable with his ability. His ability is off the charts and to see him sharp and executing today, the way we all know he’s capable of, but it’s still sometimes a shock to see how beautiful the game is when the ball is in his hands. All the guys have worked hard. The vets are leading the way, showing what it takes to be a pro in this league. To come in prepared, that’s beautiful.”