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Brooklyn Nets' Rookies Are Rising to the Occasion

Edwards, Sharpe, Thomas, Duke have delivered under pressure

They’re in it now.

Back during the summer, Brooklyn’s rookie class was deep with five draft picks plus free agent David Duke Jr., who eventually earned one of the Nets’ two-way contracts. But with a superstar core and a roster filled out with proven veterans, a path to playing time seemed a bit away.

At the midpoint of the season, with the Nets about to begin a road-heavy stretch of the schedule, that’s all changed. It isn’t the first time in the Sean Marks era that Brooklyn’s draft picks have earned spots in the rotation seemingly ahead of schedule, whether it was Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, or Rodions Kurucs.

Now that’s true again with the first-rounders Cam Thomas and Day’Ron Sharpe, plus Duke and second-rounder Kessler Edwards on the two-way contracts.

Going back to when the Nets first found themselves shorthanded due to health and safety protocols a month ago, the four haven’t just been picking up spare minutes — they’ve been delivering production that the Nets need.

“They’ve been great,” said Nets head coach Steve Nash after Saturday night’s 120-105 win over the New Orleans Pelicans. “That’s why they’ve gotten an opportunity. We liked them in the preseason, but we felt like there was a process to them getting, to earning and to developing into an opportunity and it came. It came during COVID. They kind of proved to us what we thought, that they could handle it, and then every time they’ve gotten an opportunity they’ve handled it, and some performances have been outstanding along the way, so really proud of those guys and the energy and the attentiveness they’re applying to their development, their growth and our game plans.”

Edwards and Sharpe have started Brooklyn’s last three games, with Edwards scoring 16 points with six rebounds against New Orleans, making 4-of-5 3-pointers. Sharpe had his first career double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds.

“They're getting better,” said James Harden. “Every game they're learning and I think one thing that they bring consistently is their effort. That's all that matters. Obviously Day'Ron is very skilled, got really good hands at finishing and rebounding the basketball and then Kess defensively on the wing is active and him knocking down the 3 is huge for us. But they bring that energy and that effort for us every single night. It's contagious and it rubs off on each and every individual on the team.”

Edwards, a 6-foot-8 forward, had played a total of 12 NBA minutes in two games before he was pressed into action against Toronto on Dec. 14 and delivered 17 points and 10 rebounds in 43 minutes, averaging 38 minutes per game over three games before ending up in protocols himself.

After shooting 39.5 percent from 3-point range over three years in Pepperdine, Edwards is up to 41.7 percent with the Nets. His original profile fit a 3-and-D role, and Nash has liked what he’s seen on the ‘D’ part.

“I think Kessler’s been great,” said Nash. “Natural defensive instincts. He seems to understand the game plan and has the resolve to stay with it, to chase, to have the discipline. Largely stays down on pump fakes. Largely knows what route to take and uses his length and athleticism at both ends of the floor to add to our team. He really knows his role. He’s played his role for a young guy in the opportunity very, very well.”

In his first career start in Portland last Monday, Sharpe had 14 points and seven rebounds, making all six of his field goal attempts. Two nights later, with he and Edwards back in the starting lineup again along with Harden, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Durant, the 6-foot-9, 264-pound big man had 20 points on 10-of-14 shooting with seven rebounds in just 22 minutes as the Nets blitzed the conference-leading Bulls in Chicago.

“I feel like I’m more poised than I was during the summer,” said Sharpe. “During the summer I felt I was just grabbing rebounds and I was rolling hard, but I wasn’t in shape during the summer. I didn’t feel like my body was good during the summer, but I feel like as I watch the other guys play I can learn more from them while I’m watching the things they do and they teach me as I’ve been going.”

Sharpe followed up with Saturday night’s double-double. He’s shooting 59.2 percent from the field and over his 17 NBA games is averaging 14.2 rebounds per 36 minutes. That’s a per-36 rate that puts him up in the area of the league’s top overall rebounders such as Rudy Gobert, Clint Capela, Nikola Jokic, and Jonas Valanciunas.

“He’s got some natural gifts,” sad Nash. “He has a nose for the ball around the basket and on the boards. He’s physical, he loves to throw his weight around underneath the basket, which is a positive for us. So that rebounding, physicality, he has great hands, he has a real knack for finishing around the basket as well. For a young player, he’s an excellent passer for a center. So a lot of skills we can use and a great piece for our team to develop.”

Duke got his first significant minutes during that mid-December stretch as well, putting up two double-doubles in a three-game stretch, with the 6-4 guard putting up a 13-rebound and a 14-rebound game, later getting a four-game run in the starting lineup in early January.

Thomas was the first of the group to get the call and has played regularly since Thanksgiving. The 6-3 guard is coming off a big week of his own. After hitting the game-winner against San Antonio last Sunday, he’s scored 20 points in three of Brooklyn’s last four games, including 20 points on 9-of-13 shooting with six rebounds against New Orleans on Saturday night.

Now he has company with the group he entered the league with.

“We all played Summer League together and we played two games in G together, so we all have a little bit of a relationship together,” said Thomas. “We all feel comfortable playing with each other of course and that’s a big thing for us – just us being comfortable with each other is big for now and down the road. So, that’s just a big plus for us as rookies coming in.”

“Feels like we’re stuck together since Summer League,” said Edwards. “Been on Long Island. Been everywhere together. I’m just proud of all of us and it’s good to see all of us being successful, having an impact on this team.”

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