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Nets bulk up their talent base

Jahlil Okafor follows D'Angelo Russell as top 2015 draft picks in Brooklyn

It’s the kind of talent haul that would have made June 26, 2015 feel like Christmas morning.

D’Angelo Russell was the guard from Ohio State who vaulted up the draft boards during a dynamic freshman season for the Buckeyes. Jahlil Okafor had gone from being one of the most highly sought after high school players in the country to the ACC player of the year and NCAA champion with the Duke Blue Devils in the space of a year.

At the 2015 NBA Draft, Russell was the second player to have his name called at Barclays Center, selected by the Los Angeles Lakers. Okafor went next, to the Philadelphia 76ers. Less than three years later, both players are Brooklyn Nets, with Okafor acquired Thursday along with guard Nik Stauskas and a 2019 second-round pick.

“This is about bringing in talent,” said Nets general manager Sean Marks before Thursday night’s win over Oklahoma City in Mexico City. “We’re going to do that and we’re going to try to do that. As I’ve said before, we’re in that talent-acquisition mode. At the same time, I’m going to bet on (coach) Kenny (Atkinson) and his staff. I think they’ve done a terrific job.

“Historically, if you look at what they’ve done over the course of the last 18 months with a lot of the guys, the guys have bought in, they’ve loved the environment they’ve been around, they’ve loved the culture and that starts with the coaching staff. The staff’s done a heck of a job. I expect nothing less with the two new guys we’ve brought in.”

Player development was at the core of Marks’ hiring of Atkinson as coach after the 2015-16 season. And Atkinson and his staff have largely delivered.

Spencer Dinwiddie had played 46 NBA games before the Nets signed him out the NBA G League a year ago. With injuries to guards Jeremy Lin and D’Angelo Russell, Dinwiddie has flourished this season, averaging 12.2 points and a team-leading 6.3 assists against just 1.1 turnovers per game while shooting 38.8 percent from 3-point range. Joe Harris was waived midway through his second NBA season in January 2016. He’s currently averaging 10.2 points and shooting 39.7 percent from 3-point range. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, in his third NBA season and second under Atkinson, has dramatically improved his shooting and scoring, nearly doubling his average to 14.2 points per game.

In Russell and Okafor, two 21-year-olds, Marks has elevated the baseline level of talent he’s giving Atkinson and the development team to work with, bringing in two recent top-three draft picks.

Both players were just 19 years old and produced numbers that match up historically well for their ages. Russell averaged 14.8 points and 4.1 assists over two years with the Lakers. Okafor was an NBA All-Rookie First Team selection after averaging 17.5 points and 7.0 rebounds in his first season.

Neither player would be in Brooklyn if things had worked out as planned with their original team. Okafor had played in just two games this season for the Sixers. In both cases, Marks pounced to take advantage of their availability, confident that his coaching staff can bring out their best.

“We’re going to try and be systematic where we make these decisions and how we make these decisions,” said Marks. “If it means other teams need to move off different players because it doesn’t suit them and where they’re at and I think Philadelphia and Bryan (Colangelo) have been quite vocal in saying that this is the trajectory that we’re going in and notably Jahlil doesn’t fit.”

Russell is currently sidelined following arthroscopic surgery on his left knee, but over his first 12 games with the Nets was averaging 20.9 points, 5.7 assists and 4.7 rebounds per game. Atkinson promised a clean slate for Russell over the summer, and the same applies here.

“We don’t prejudge them,” said Atkinson. “We’re going to welcome both of those players with open arms and any misconceptions or ideas that people have of these guys whether it’s their work ethic or character, we judge them on our terms. That’s how we do it with everybody. I think they’re coming into a strong locker room. I think they’re coming into a program with a staff that really cares, a front office that is top notch and I’m really excited about this.”

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