New set of eyes on Nets

frank_250_092509.jpgMoney has been an issue for the Nets the last several years, but that seems to be changing with Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov set to sign the checks for the team.

That could be a good thing next summer when the Nets will have the salary cap room and now, seemingly, the ability to spend on some of the biggest names in basketball, namely LeBron James.

It’s all well and good, but they still have to play basketball this season and truthfully it’s hard to know what kind of team the Nets will be. Bad is one word that has been linked to the Nets this season. Awful is another. Of course, they say they’re going to be better than the masses think.

“We don’t look that strong on paper,” Nets president Rod Thorn said. “But we will be better than a lot of the pundits think we will be, and we’ll be very competitive.”

The proving ground comes in the regular season, which is still a month away. But training camp opens next week, the first one since 2000 that hasn’t featured Jason Kidd or Vince Carter. It’s no wonder outside expectations are low.

But the Nets have talent, depth and players who can play an exciting style of basketball. Whether they can come together and play as a team, and buy into coach Lawrence Frank’s system, will be known over the long haul that begins on Tuesday. Remember, this is a big season for everyone affiliated with the Nets because with new ownership comes major change. The Big Russian will be watching, so the evaluation process is about to start.

On the Spot
1. Yi Jianlian: Nets’ pin-cushion returns after an offseason of working on his body, mind and game in California, Vegas, East Rutherford and China. His confidence and skills are said to be improved as Yi added strength and the ability to finish. We’ll see.

2. Devin Harris: Increased workload last year resulted in his first All-Star berth, but this year Harris will have the ultimate responsibility: The Nets are his team. He has to show he can lead them in good times and bad. Harris is excited about the challenge.

3. RFK (Rod; Frank; Kiki): The Nets’ brass has to make all the right moves with the roster and on the court. All three men are in the last year of their contracts so they need to impress Prokhorov, who could decide to bring in his own guys anyway.

Keep an eye on
1. Brook Lopez: Worked with Team USA over the summer and impressed at the mini-camp. Lopez will see the ball more this year as the Nets plan to run the offense through the second-year center more.

2. Courtney Lee: All eyes will be on Carter’s replacement, but Lee showed tremendous poise when the bright lights were on him last year. The rookie started in the Finals. Now he gets the chance to show what he can do with greater opportunity.

3. Chris Douglas-Roberts: Received pep-talk from Carter about taking advantage of his opportunity and then worked tirelessly to make sure he’s ready to contribute this season.

Don’t overlook
1. Terrence Williams: Rookie can play multiple positions, including some point forward, which will allow the Nets to use many different lineups. Williams’ defensive tenacity will allow the Nets to press and should improve their transition game.

2. Rafer Alston: Provides depth as Keyon Dooling rehabs from hip surgery. Alston can light it up but also set up his teammates and will allow Harris to play shooting guard.

3. Jarvis Hayes: Had a strong season as a backup last year and is expected to take on more of a leadership role this year. Hayes also could be the starting small forward.

Important campers
1. Sean Williams: Could increase his trade value if he focuses on basketball.

2. Josh Boone: Has some admirers and a good camp could raise his stock or show the Nets he wants to stick around and can be a productive backup center behind Lopez.

3. Eduardo Najera: His defensive toughness was missed last season, but if healthy he should have an impact on how the Nets practice and play.

Major questions
1. How do the Nets make up for Carter’s loss?
You don’t replace a future Hall of Fame player easily. It will take a group of guys to make up for the points, but that will happen. The hard part will be the scoring opportunities Carter created for everyone, his ability to take over games and be the fourth-quarter assassin. Harris showed he can do some of those things, but will need help.

2. Will the Nets commit and stay together?
That really is the biggest concern because this could be a turbulent season on so many levels. The players have to commit and follow Frank’s vision. One thing in the Nets’ favor are four regulars have fewer than two years experience in the league, so they should be hungry and looking to make names for themselves. Also, six players are in contract years – and three more have team options that may not be picked up – so they should be thinking a big year means more money.

3. Will the Nets defend?
They better. That’s the only chance they have at being successful since Harris is the only proven scorer, so they’ll need Harris, Lee and Terrence Williams to deny up top and stop the dribble. It starts there and it has to be contagious. If they defend, it should lead to a more run outs, too.

Al Iannazzone covers the Nets for The Record (Bergen County, N.J.).

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