As the season winds down, the Brooklyn Nets will turn their focus towards the draft. Brooklyn will have two first-round picks in the mid-20's in the 2017 draft — the Boston Celtics selection (after their pick swap) as well as the pick from the Washington Wizards. Although they will be adding more young players in this upcoming draft, the Nets already have a stable of young prospects on the roster.
Brooklyn has six players age 24 or younger on the team. They range from recent D-League pickups on 10-day contracts to current starters and key future building blocks. Some of these players may not be on the next playoff team in Brooklyn, but all of them will get a chance to showcase their skills as the season winds down.
Sean Marks acquired K.J. McDaniels from the Rockets in a salary dump hoping that he could replicate the success of his rookie year in Philadelphia. McDaniels, the oldest of the Nets' young players after turning 24 earlier this season, is a hyper-athletic wing player with the potential to be a lockdown defender. He burst onto the scene as a shot-blocking sensation, and can still provide rim protection on the wing:
Any player that can protect the rim is a benefit to their team's defense. That rim protection is particularly useful in units like the Nets group in this play. There are no traditional centers on the floor and Trevor Booker is the biggest Net on the floor at 6'8". As the league trends more towards small ball and spacing the floor, wings that can protect the rim will become more and more valuable.
The sample size is small, but McDaniels has allowed 0.846 points per possession in his 11 games in Brooklyn. That ranks in the 77th percentile among defenders league-wide. He fights through screens more aggressively than most young players and seems to be aware of the fact that defense will be his path to future minutes.
His offensive game is somewhat less polished. While his defensive skill set is right in line with current league trends, his lack of a three-point shot is not. K.J. has made 15 of his 45 shots from beyond the arc this season, below the league average and well below the mark for an ideal wing in Kenny Atkinson's three-point heavy offense. However, that number is still well above his career 29.4% mark from deep.
K.J. McDaniels is still worthy of a bench role even if he cannot manage to improve his shooting from deep. If he can improve to around 37% from deep, he may well be able to leverage his defensive prowess into a starting role. Either way, he can be a key contributor going forward for a Nets team that struggles on the defensive end.
Spencer Dinwiddie is next in the age order of Brooklyn's young prospects but has played the fewest games of the non-rookies in the group. Dinwiddie filled in capably as the starting point guard with Jeremy Lin out and has the length at 6'6" to slot in across the perimeter on defense. After two years of miserable shooting in Detroit, he has bumped his True Shooting Percentage to a solid 56.4% this season. He is also shooting 37.3% from deep, a noticeable improvement over his career mark. That shooting touch allows him to be effective with or without the ball in his hands:
Dinwiddie's newfound shooting efficiency is coupled with his ball-handling efficiency, something he did display in Detroit. Dinwiddie is second on the team with 3.2 assists per game but averages just 1.1 turnovers per game. His career Assist/Turnover Ratio is an excellent 2.94.
His greatest weakness as a lead guard, however, is his inability to effectively drive to the basket. Despite shooting 52.9% from mid-range in addition to his solid shooting from deep, Dinwiddie shoots just 50.6% in the restricted area per NBA.com, well below league average. If he can maintain his shooting from deep and continue to be efficient with the ball, Dinwiddie can be a solid backup option at either guard position. However, he will need to improve his finishing ability near the basket to be able to be more than the fourth guard in any team's rotation going forward.
Although he will not turn 23 until August 17, Archie Goodwin has already played in more games than any of the other Nets youngsters. Goodwin is in his fourth NBA season after declaring for the draft following his freshman season at Kentucky. The mercurial guard spent three up and down seasons with the Phoenix Suns before being surprisingly waived prior to the start of the 2016-2017 season. Goodwin has only played in three games with the Nets so far. He may not be with the team next season, as he is still on his first 10-day contract in Brooklyn. He is a top-tier athlete, as he showed with his game-winning dunk against the Jazz in Summer League:
Goodwin's main offensive skill is his ability to drive to the basket, as he showed in his revenge game against the Suns on Thursday with a couple of nice drives to the hoop. He took 57.1% of his shot attempts in the restricted area last season, a remarkable percentage for a 6'5" guard. However, his complete lack of a jump shot really limits his offensive game. Although he has made three of his seven shots from deep this season, he is a career 23.1% shooter from deep, a number so bad that it almost defies description. Goodwin will have to make massive strides with his jump shot to prevent defenses from daring him to shoot and shutting off his lanes to the basket. If he does remain with the Nets beyond this season (or beyond this 10-day contract), Kenny Atkinson may have to lock him in the gym with a shooting coach if he has any hope of fitting in with Brooklyn's 3-point heavy offense.
Caris LeVert might be a rookie, but he is only eight days younger than Archie Goodwin. That being said, both have started 15 games in their NBA careers despite LeVert having only played in 45 games total. LeVert was considered a lottery-level talent before being derailed by injury, but he has already shown promising signs. He has arguably already surpassed Rondae Hollis-Jefferson as the most important prospect on Brooklyn's roster.
LeVert has spent time at both guard positions for the Nets this season. However, he has been at his best so far as a small forward. Caris is a bit too skinny to defend bulkier wings but has the height at 6'7" to play the position going forward. He has a smooth jump shot, a solid handle, and the speed to pose a problem to all but the quickest forwards in the NBA:
Since the All-Star break, LeVert has been in the starting lineup and has improved on an already stellar rookie season. He has started all 14 games and is averaging 9.4 points per game, 3.9 rebounds per game, and 2.1 assists per game in just 24.1 minutes per game. He is shooting a solid 35.7% from deep and a fantastic 51.6% from the field.
LeVert has struggled on the defensive end, especially after his move to small forward. His slender frame was less problematic when defending opposing guards, and his height advantage as a guard has been negated as he has moved into the frontcourt. Although his issues on the defensive end are certainly not uncommon on a Nets team that allows more points per game than any other team in the league, he will need to bulk up to avoid getting trapped on screens going forward.
If Caris LeVert had been healthy and in the starting lineup at the beginning of the season, he might be in the race for Rookie of the Year. While that award seems out of the question now, it would be hard to see him not making the First Team All-Rookie, and an absolute travesty if he did not make either All-Rookie team. LeVert might not end up reaching All-Star status, but he has the potential to be that type of player if he hits his absolute ceiling. Even if he never quite makes it to that level, he already has the tools to be a solid starter for many years to come. Either way, Caris LeVert is looking like a steal with the 20th overall pick, and he has been the first major success story of what will hopefully be a long line of great draft choices by Sean Marks and the new Nets front office.
After struggling to start the season, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has gotten back on track in recent weeks. His jump shot has not improved noticeably, but he has taken strides on the offensive end this year. He has improved his ball-handling and his vision over the course of this season, but he will still frequently stumble into wild shots or turnovers on his drives to the rim.
Hollis-Jefferson has also played far better since the All-Star break. He is shooting 47.3% from the floor since the break even after a 2-10 showing against the Phoenix Suns, a marked improvement over his 42.1% mark from the floor through the first stretch of the season. Hollis-Jefferson is averaging 9.5 points and 6.7 rebounds per game since the break, better than his averages of 8.2 points and 5.5 rebounds per game on the season as a whole.
A major part of Rondae's post-break surge is due to his new role. Hollis-Jefferson has been starting at power forward recently, despite spending just 12% of his minutes at the four last season per Basketball-Reference. His lack of three-point shooting is less of an issue at power forward. While he is somewhat undersized for the position at 6'7" he makes up for that with his 7'2" wingspan. Rondae is also stronger than most players his age. He is harder to muscle away from the rim on either end of the floor than many undersized fours, a major disadvantage that prevents many combo forward from starting there full time. Hollis-Jefferson also has a speed advantage over most forwards, something that becomes even more pronounced against larger opponents:
Rondae's offensive game has clearly benefitted from sliding to the power forward, but his defense has not unduly suffered as a result. His Defensive Real Plus-Minus of 1.24 is solid--especially for a second-year player who is essentially playing across two new positions after spending 60% of his rookie year minutes at shooting guard per Basketball-Reference.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has once again found his way into the starting lineup for the Nets, and he will probably remain there for the foreseeable future. He does not have the same offensive upside as LeVert (especially if he cannot fix his shaky jump shot), but he is already very good on the defensive end and could potentially be an elite defender that could cover anyone from point guards to power forwards. Rondae may not be a potential star like Caris, but he will nonetheless be an important piece in Brooklyn's future.
The youngest of the Nets' young cadre, Isaiah Whitehead recently turned 22 and is exceeding all expectations. Despite being taken in the second round of the 2016 draft, Whitehead has not only avoided the D-League fate endured by most rookies but has played in 62 games for the Nets this season.
Whitehead has also started 26 games this season, but he was overmatched as a starter and struggled to score with any kind of efficiency. His True Shooting Percentage of 45.4% in his starts indicates his inability to score effectively when pitted against elite-level point guards on a nightly basis. However, he has been much more effective as a combo guard off the bench. Despite averaging more minutes in his starts (24.1 per game as a starter versus 21.2 per game off the bench), Whitehead has averaged more points per game as a sub (8.3 versus 6.8 per game as a starter). His True Shooting Percentage as a bench player is a more manageable 51.2%, and he has shot a near league-average 54.4% True Shooting since the All-Star break.
Whitehead is mainly focused on getting to the rim on offense. He has taken 45.1% of his shots from less than five feet from the basket per NBA.com, and will usually opt to go to the hole above all else with the ball in his hands. He has a pretty solid handle overall, and his lightning-fast spin move is already one of the best of its kind in the NBA:
Although he has been in the starting lineup for much of this season, Whitehead's explosive scoring potential and combo guard skill set project him as a super-sub going forward. He could potentially start at either guard spot if he can improve his three-point jump shot, but his play thus far this year shows that he can be far more effective as an offensive hub off the bench when he does not have to match up with the elite point guards in the modern NBA. While his success thus far as a rookie indicates that he may become a solid starter with some additional time to develop, he is far more effective with the ball in his hands. That type of skill set would make him a great scoring threat off the bench, and Whitehead may have a sixth Man of the Year award in his future.
Since the Nets have been eliminated from playoff contention, the young players on the Nets will have ample opportunity to showcase their skills as the season winds down. While some of these players will get more playing time than others, all six have valuable skill sets and the potential to be key contributors to Brooklyn's future. With at least two new rookies joining the fray after the 2017 draft, the Nets will be able to add to a core group of young players with the potential to be impact players for Brooklyn's next playoff run.