The upending of the NBA calendar has shed the symmetry of some events, so it was actually 11 months ago, not 12, that Cam Thomas, Day’Ron Sharpe and the rest of Brooklyn’s bountiful rookie class for the 2021-22 season was navigating the final days before the NBA Draft, as this year’s prospects are as they wait to hear their names called from the stage at Barclays Center on Thursday night.
It ended up being a deep draft class indeed for Brooklyn. General manager Sean Marks used all four picks he had going in — a first-rounder and three seconds — then traded back in to grab another first-round pick and added the undrafted David Duke Jr. as a rookie free agent. Duke and second-round pick Kessler Edwards would eventually earn two-way contracts and see their share of NBA court time as rookies.
The Nets sent Thomas, Sharpe, Edwards, Duke, and second-rounders Marcus Zegarowski and Raiquan Gray to Las Vegas for Summer League last August, where Thomas in particular made a big first impression with high scoring, clutch shots, and co-MVP honors.
“It was a great start to my professional career basically,” said Thomas. “Just me having the opportunity to show off my skills and show that I could at least play at that level at some point to start off with was big for me. I just wanted to prove myself. Being a later draft pick, you always want to prove yourself to everybody. I just played with a chip on my shoulder and a lot of good things came out of it.”
In September, Nets head coach Steve Nash discussed the prospects for the rookie class shortly before the team departed for training camp in San Diego.
“They guys have been in the gym a lot for a few weeks now, and that’s the positive,” said Nash. “They worked hard. I think we see NBA players in them, and it’s just a matter of developing them all. It’s a tough team to break into, so some of these rookies have their work cut out for them if they’re going to get in the rotation for sure. But that’s a great challenge for them.
“I was a 15th pick who only played my rookie year when KJ (Suns star Kevin Johnson) was injured. It’s not how you start, it’s how you get there. That’s what I definitely have preached to some of our rookies already. You’ve got to play the long game, and whether you crash the rotation or not, whether you don’t play a minute or spend some time in the G League, it’s important to think long-term and not give away days. If you have that mentality and attitude, this will be a very productive year for you whether you play or don’t play.”
As the NBA prepares to welcome a new rookie class and Brooklyn’s Class of ’21 looks forward to another round of Summer League and taking the next step in their NBA careers, let’s take a look back at year one with the Nets.
Four days after the draft, the Nets introduced Thomas and Sharpe at HSS Training Center, joined by Marks and Nash.
“We love what they do from a competitive standpoint,” said Marks. “They’ll fit right in. I know they both own the fact that there’s a big development curve. We’re fortunate to have these guys and watch them develop.”
“These are young, young guys coming into this league, and they both have the potential to play in this league,” said Nash. “They’ve got to earn it and prove it on a contending team. They both may very well earn minutes but they both may not, and that doesn’t mean that we’re discouraged in any way. We want to develop these guys regardless of whether they play or don’t play. So this is a long-term play that may happen quicker than we think and they may earn minutes right away, but if not, we’re just as excited about their long-term development. They’ll have to stay the course and work on the intangibles and all the things that they need to do on the court. So we’re just excited that they’re talented young guys and come into our program, can bring energy, life spirit and hopefully contribute on the floor, but if not, we’re just as excited about their long-term future.”
The full class was on hand as the Long Island Nets opened up the G League season with Duke, Edwards, Sharpe, and Thomas all in the starting lineup. Sharpe had a double-double with 12 points and 13 rebounds, while Thomas showed off the same scoring touch from Summer League with 33 points. Thomas would make just one more G League appearance during his rookie year, putting up 46 points on 17-of-32 shooting with seven rebounds and five assists in a 114-110 win over Raptors 905 on Nov. 20. Two days later, opportunity knocked at the NBA level.
With the Nets looking for a little extra scoring punch in the wake of Joe Harris’ ankle injury, Thomas became the first Nets rookie to get significant rotation minutes, and he made an impact right away. In a 117-112 win at Cleveland, Thomas contributed 11 points in just 15 minutes on 4-of-7 shooting.
“Cam was great,” said Nash afterwards. “He stepped up with confidence to take shots. I think he is a kid who we all love and think has a bright future, but sometimes these early stages of the season you’re in tight games. It’s difficult, just some of the mistakes that are inevitable with these young guys. But tonight he really hung in there. Made some big shots for us and I thought was really aware defensively. I was proud of him tonight.”
“It just gives you more confidence that the coach actually believes in you to come in in games like this to spark a run for the team,” said Thomas. “I played great defense, sparked a run like that, hit open shots when KD kicked it to me, and Patty, when they kicked it to me in the corner, both corner 3s. I feel like everything’s a building block for me to keep it going from here on out.”
Nets fans also got their first sense of the confidence that fuels Thomas, as well as the growing connection between the rookie and Kevin Durant. In the postgame media session, Thomas put himself in the same category as Durant as a scorer at a similar age and declared he was the winner of a one-on-one matchup with the NBA’s active leader in scoring average.
Durant shot that all down when it was his turn at the mic but discussed what he had seen from Thomas so far.
“We just talk the game,” said Durant. “I wouldn’t call it mentoring. We’re just exchanging information. He’s seeing my game from a different vantage point coming off the bench, I’m seeing his game, so we just exchange information and go over stuff that we see and try to sharpen our skills and out tools and our IQ as mental basketball players first. It’s good to see a young dude like Cam who is into it like that. You can tell he’s a student. We need him to build on this. We don’t need him to be comfortable because he had a little 11-point game, because he made a couple shots. I’m always on him, and he’s always on me, too, but I’m going to be on him even more now.”
With the season behind him as he did his summer workouts and looked forward to year two, Thomas looked back on Durant’s impact through his rookie year.
“It’s good to have a relationship with a guy like that,” said Thomas. “You just always want to pick his brain, have fun. Just ask him little stuff even when you’re out there playing together, just have fun. I really enjoyed the time that we was out there playing together. He let me play my game and obviously he’s going to do his thing, so you just want to sit back, watch, pick his brain, and help in any way you can, honestly.”
It was the week nobody could see coming. As the Nets and the NBA were hit by the wave that forced huge numbers of players into health and safety protocols, the rookie class took center stage for two inspiring wins. Duke, Edwards, and Thomas all made their first career starts that week, while Sharpe saw his first significant playing time as the Nets rang up wins against Toronto on Dec. 14 and Philadelphia on Dec. 16.
“It definitely is a bit of an unknown when you throw them in like that, when you throw all of them in like that,” said Nash after the win over the Sixers. “That’s one thing. I think you’ve got to tip your hat to the rookies and you’ve got to tip your hat to our G League coaching staff. They’ve done a great job of presenting them with our system, and developing them, teaching them. That’s a huge component, too, they deserve a lot of credit. That’s I think the quality system that we have in place here, to put these four guys out there to play and our team hasn’t missed a beat. They’re playing the right way, they’re playing for each other and they’re being physical. I think the expectations were unknown, but I think the belief was there. We believe in these guys. We think that they are good players and have a future in this league. But you never know. Like I said, when you throw them all in there together, there’s an experience gap. But these guys come to play.”
Duke started three straight games that week, played 30-plus minutes each night, and posted a pair of double-doubles — 10 points and 13 rebounds against the Raptors and 18 points and 14 rebounds against the Magic.
“He does a lot of things on the basketball floor,” said Nash after the Dec. 14 overtime win against the Raptors. “He's a physical, athletic, strong defender. Like you saw he can get his hands on the ball, deflections, steals, offensive rebounds. He's also a pretty good playmaker. He can get in the paint and make good decisions. So he does a lot of things. We've always liked him and we see a great future for him. But to see him get out there tonight in his first kind of extended action — or second I guess, with the Houston game, but tonight was really extended — and to see him respond that way was obviously kind of reinforcing what we what we see as an organization.”
Edwards went 44 minutes in the overtime win against Toronto with 17 points and 10 rebounds, while Thomas played 45 minutes against the Sixers and scored 11 points with four rebounds and four assists.
“Thankfully we had been with the team through training camp and stuff and for me I was going back and forth with the team and to the G League,” said Edwards. “Before that happened, I was actually playing with the G League team which I think personally kept me ready because I was playing heavy minutes over there so when I came and had to play a lot I was used to it. I was kind of ready as opposed to just having been sitting on the bench.”
“They've played hard, they've been physical, they've not been afraid,” said Nash in summing up the group’s performance in the two wins. “You know, the most important thing that we've tried to instill in them is we want you to develop, we want to teach we want to give you an opportunity to make mistakes, but also be you, be free out there, play good basketball, and we believe in you. So, you know, watching them kind of accept that challenge and go for it physically mentally has been outstanding.”
The big man’s turn came back around in January. After scoring 14 points on perfect 6-of-6 shooting with seven rebounds in Portland, Sharpe had a big encore two nights later in Chicago on Jan. 12 in a 138-112 win.
Making his first career start, Sharpe had 20 points on 10-of-14 shooting with seven rebounds.
“Day’Ron gives us something different,” said Nash after the game. “He’s got great hands. He’s physical. He’s got a knack for a few things out there on the floor for a 20-year-old. We have confidence in him. Probably not going to be like that every night for a rookie, but that’s the player we know is in there. It’s just a matter of how quickly can he develop and what kind of role does he have long-term.”
The Chicago game was the first of eight straight stars for Sharpe and he saw regular rotation minutes for much of the next month, averaging 7.3 rebounds in just 18.7 minutes per game — a per-36 rebounding rate of 14.1 — over 15 games.
There were 10 seconds to go and the Nets had put the ball and the game in the hands of Cam Thomas. After trailing the Knicks by as many as 28 points at Madison Square Garden, they were up by three when Thomas side-stepped into a top-of-the-key 3-pointer with 7.7 seconds remaining that locked up a historic comeback win.
Thomas had already scored seven straight points to turn a 97-92 deficit into a 99-97 lead when he knocked down a 19-footer with 3:58 to go.
“I think he has a deep belief in his ability,” said Nash. “I think he seeks those moments, so that’s something that’s inside him that is rare. That’s an innate talent. I think his teammates have belief in him, so that allows his belief to be fortified. I thought the way he played down the stretch, he made the game-winner and all that, but he made a bunch of plays down the stretch. We went to him, a rookie carrying the load in a rivalry game like this in the Garden, it shows you what’s inside of Cam.”
Thomas finished up with 21 points, part of string of nine consecutive double-figure scoring games during which he averaged 20.1 points per game. It began with a career-high 30-point night in Utah 12 days earlier.
“I'm not surprised by what he's doing at all,” said Durant in the middle of that run. “He's a gamer and he loves to play. I think the other aspects of his game are starting to grow and that comes with just experience and understanding the game plan and just being a true pro. He's building his routine, he's figuring out what works for him as a pro and that usually takes time for 19, 20-year-olds coming into the league, it's about that routine. So when you see consistent games like that, behind the scenes you can get an idea of how he's working or how he's figuring out how to move as a professional, so it's cool to see in real time.”
On the final day of the regular season, Edwards got a promotion.
While working on a two-way contract, Edwards had earned a regular spot in the Brooklyn rotation over the final month of the season. But two-way deals come with limitations, so in order for Edwards to be eligible for the playoffs, he was signed to a standard contract. It was a nice way to cap the season for the previous summer’s 44th overall pick.
“He comes in every day with a focus and a work ethic and a willingness to learn,” said Nash before the Nets closed out the regular season that afternoon against the Indiana Pacers. “What’s so important to a player’s development is their mindset. So, he has a great mindset. He has some skills and talents with his length and athleticism to build on as far as a defender. And we know he’s a capable three-point shooter. He shot the ball very well for us. The mindset, allowing him to improve and develop in the first half of the season, get his chance and take it. Second half, he had a little bit of a rough patch. To rebound from that and play good basketball on this stretch just shows that he has a great mindset.”
Now it’s on to the next stage for the whole group. Unlike a year ago, the 2021 draft class has a full summer to work on their games and benefit from the guidance of Brooklyn’s coaching and performance teams. Their return to Las Vegas for Summer League in early July will mark the unofficial start of year two in the NBA: rookies no more.
“I just think that I’ll be a little more confident and comfortable this time around having been through it before especially with some NBA games under my belt,” said Edwards. “I know the work that it takes and we’re working hard this whole month. I think we’ll be ready for Summer League and be more confident heading into it.”