Nets turn to rookies as starters, and not just when they have to

When a Nets veteran asks Day’Ron Sharpe do something, most of the time he has to say yes. That could mean making a plate of food for J...


When a Nets veteran asks Day’Ron Sharpe do something, most of the time he has to say yes. That could mean making a plate of food for James Harden after a game or getting donuts ahead of time. Other times, he has to open the showers in the locker rooms or carry veterans’ bags.

“Rookies, we’re not getting anything compared to what they had to do,” Sharpe, 20, said.

He added: “Just because you start doesn’t mean they stop.”

When Sharpe arrived at training camp, he expected to be on the sidelines for much of the season. He was a late first-round pick on a team that was, at least on paper, one of the best in NBA history. It was filled with veterans and big stars and was favored to win the championship. Instead, Sharpe, a bulky center absorbing the most comfortable hits in the paint, has been a crucial player for the Nets more than halfway through the season. He was transferred to the starting line-up a few weeks ago and average 9.3 points and 6.8 rebounds on 58.8% shooting in January.

“It’s crazy for me to be able to contribute,” Sharpe said.

It’s not just Sharpe. Cam Thomas (another late first-round pick), Kessler Edwards (second-round) and David Duke Jr. (undrafted) also received significant game time. All four spent part of the year with the Nets’ G League affiliate, the Long Island Nets. It’s unusual for a championship contender to give such large roles in the rotation to so many first-year players, especially those who weren’t highly touted. The Nets are one of two teams to have four rookies who average at least 10 minutes per game and have appeared in more than 10 games. The other is the Oklahoma City Thunder – a rebuilding franchise ranked near the bottom of the league.

Rookies have put in stellar performances en route to a championship, like Magic Johnson, who led the Los Angeles Lakers to a title in 1980and Bill Russell, who did the same for the Boston Celtics in 1957. But Johnson, who was drafted first overall, and Russell (No. 2) were top draft picks who immediately became the faces of their teams.

The Nets have successfully trusted rookies before. In the 2001-2 season, they relied on four: Richard Jefferson, Jason Collins, Brandon Armstrong and Brian Scalabrine. Jefferson and Collins each started nine times and spoke nearly every game, while Armstrong (35 games) and Scalabrine (28) were also significant contributors. The team qualified for the final.

This year’s Nets hope to repeat and surpass that success by using players who would typically only be stretched so hard in an “emergency glass break” situation.

The glass broke. Between Covid-related absences, including that of Kyrie Irving, and injuries to key players like Kevin Durant, the Nets have needed bodies — sometimes, almost anyone — to speak up. Irving was not eligible to play in home games because he refuses to be vaccinated against the coronavirusand for much of the season the team also banned him from playing on the road.

But coach Steve Nash turned to rookies even when it wasn’t an emergency. It experienced near full power lineups. Duke, 22, has started seven games, including some alongside Harden and Durant. On January 12 against the Chicago Bulls, the Nets pitched Edwards, Sharpe, Harden, Durant and Irving.

Before a recent road game against the Washington Wizards, Nash said the roster tinkering was a result of wanting to “look at all the new guys.” The Nets rarely practice, which is common for veteran teams. As of Thursday, the Nets had used 24 starting lineups, tied with the Philadelphia 76ers for most in the NBA. But Nash also said the reshuffle was a matter of “necessity”.

“How many guys are available?” When we land on a stretch where there are a lot of guys available, which stretch did we just come out of? Nash said. “Who plays well? Who matches? So a lot of it is trying to use common sense. And if there doesn’t seem to be any common sense on the outside, there’s probably something on the inside that’s causing us to make these decisions that are a private matter.

Nets rookies received playing time at the expense of veterans. Blake Griffin, a six-time All-Star who appeared to be slated for a primary rotation spot, was dropped from the roster early on, only resurfacing there when the Nets were otherwise depleted. He is playing a career-low 18.1 minutes per game, and his overall performance is poor, only shooting 38% from the field. Paul Millsapp, four-time All-Star, was signed in free agency to be a replacement, an addition considered a coup at the time. But the 36-year-old hasn’t found his footing, and Nash told reporters this month the team was trying to find him a new home.

“You add it all up, and there just isn’t enough space for everyone,” Nash said.

Thomas, a 20-year-old who spent a year at Louisiana State University, was the most impactful rookie of the four, consistently receiving minutes as a skilled scorer. He hit a game-winning floater against the San Antonio Spurs earlier this month. Thomas said in an interview that the best advice he received came from Rajon Rondo, the Cleveland Cavaliers point guard who won a championship as a starter for the Celtics in just his second year.

“He said, ‘No matter how you came, high school, college and all that, keep doing that, because that’s how you got here,'” Thomas said.

For a team like the Nets, finding steals at the end of the draft (or in Duke’s case, after the draft) is a must, general manager Sean Marks said. The Nets have minimal cap space, as much of it is tied to Harden, Irving and Durant. Getting free agents to take pay cuts and finding overlooked talent translates to cheaper contracts. And there’s an added benefit to giving rookies game time: Showcasing them can increase their trade value and give the Nets another avenue to add better players.

“We had to adjust the way we build a team from six years ago, didn’t we?” Marks said, adding, “It’s fun when you’re in a war room, when you’re on draft day and the room is blowing up because of who you drafted in the 30s, 40s and 50s..”

But there are also disadvantages when the queues are constantly changing.

“It makes it a little more difficult, I think, but that’s the way it is with everything we’ve been through,” Patty Mills, a 33-year-old Nets guard, told reporters. “But to be a professional, especially in this league, you have to learn to adapt on the fly.”

And as can be typical for young players thrust into unexpected roles, the four rookies have been inconsistent. Duke is back out of rotation. nets are 6-9 years old in January and just the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference, well below pre-season expectations. Much of the offensive load fell on Harden, given Durant’s knee injury that will keep him out for several weeks and Irving’s scattered unavailability. Sharpe and Edwards, who start now, aren’t point guards – although Edwards is a reliable shooter (39 percent of 3). This forces Harden to do more to keep the Nets afloat.

It’s probably unsustainable. Nash will likely have to keep switching rotations, giving bigger roles to Mills, Griffin and veteran center LaMarcus Aldridge as the playoffs approach. But with Nash’s Nets, nothing ever goes to plan, and these rookies have shown they’re more than just stunt doubles in a Broadway production.

When asked what he would have said in the fall if he had been told he would start mid-season, Sharpe replied, “Man, I don’t even know. Because at training camp, it was the first time I was with the guys and all that. I see how they’re bouncing and stuff, thinking ‘I probably won’t even touch the court this year.’



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Newsrust - US Top News: Nets turn to rookies as starters, and not just when they have to
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