Douglas-Roberts, Lopez impress early

lopez250.jpgThe Nets have played three preseason games and lost all three. Some might consider it a look into the near future, but there are two important factors that can’t be underestimated: They haven’t played with Devin Harris, Courtney Lee and Brook Lopez together in the lineup yet, and the young guys keep getting better.
 
That doesn’t mean the Nets will definitely be playing into May, but if they stay healthy and the young guys continue to improve and the veterans play their role well, this season could turn out better than expected.
 
A lot has to happen, we know. But the truth is that no one knows what to expect yet because there are so many new parts, guys playing bigger roles and youth. With youth comes mistakes, but also a lot of exuberance and passion that could lead to some interesting, exciting things.
 
“We understand we’re a very young team and with a young team you have to have patience,” Nets general manager Kiki Vandeweghe said. “But every game, what should come with a young team is really high energy and a lot of hard work. We have enough guys that we can do that.”
 
Three games into preseason, the most impressive players have been second-year guys Lopez and Chris Douglas-Roberts, who is making a strong case for starting at small forward. Douglas-Roberts might be the biggest surprise of the preseason, but with everything he did and said last year and given how competitive he has been, it was easy to see him working his way into the lineup. Douglas-Roberts didn’t want to sit and watch, so he spent the summer working out, working on his game and making sure he wouldn’t be left out this season.
 
Douglas-Roberts’ emergence means it’s very possible Harris, at 26, will be the oldest starter on opening night. The other four could read like this: Lee (24), Douglas-Roberts (22), Lopez (21) and Yi Jianlian (22-ish — there’s still some question about Yi’s date of birth).
 
Nothing has been decided yet because Terrence Williams and Jarvis Hayes are in the mix for the small forward job, but Douglas-Roberts has stood out in the three games as the second-best offensive player behind Lopez.
 
As expected, Lopez is handling his increased workload well. He’s a mature 21-year-old and really wants to be great, so he’s embracing the challenge. The Nets have run the offense through him in each game and he has responded, looking very comfortable in this role.
 
The 7-footer has played 78 minutes, taken 31 shots and scored 58 points. He’s being efficient, effective and getting to the foul line. And he’s done that with Harris and Lee on the floor with him a total of zero minutes to this point. That will change tomorrow when Harris and Lee are expected to be available for the game against the Celtics at The Rock in Newark.
 
Lee still has missed a bunch of practices lately because of issues with both feet, but when he’s healthy the Nets expect him to play big roles on both ends of the floor. Harris has looked good and done a good job of directing the team before tweaking his ankle Friday in Philadelphia. When the season rolls around, he’ll pick his spots to take over games like he did last year.
 
Of course, none of this means that the Nets will finish .500-or-better and challenge for a playoff spot. But you can’t judge them off of three preseason games either.

Williams, Douglas-Roberts give hope for Nets offense

williams250.jpgPHILADELPHIA — The game didn’t get interesting until late in the fourth period, but rookie Terrence Williams and second-year player Chris Douglas-Roberts gave reasons to believe the Nets could be fun to watch this season.

Fun doesn’t always equate to wins, though, as the Nets wasted a 16-point fourth-quarter lead and fell 93-92 in a preseason game here last night. But the young guys forced turnovers, ran the floor, scored in transition and showed their athleticism and versatility, driving and dunking against the Sixers’ defense.

Williams and Douglas-Roberts will be in the Nets’ rotation, and it’s possible one of them could start. The small forward job seems to be the only one up for grabs, figuring Courtney Lee is the starting shooting guard.

Lee has missed both preseason games with injuries to each foot. He sat tonight for precautionary reasons. When Lee is healthy, he will be a big part of what the Nets do on both ends of the floor. So obviously, the Nets will look much different than what we’ve seen.

Williams and Douglas-Roberts led a spirited effort and combined on an impressive defensive stretch in the second period. The Nets had three steals in a row, leading to two fastbreak buckets by Douglas-Roberts, one that Williams fed. They nearly had a third, but Douglas-Roberts’ lob to Lopez was knocked away. Williams and Douglas-Roberts each had one steal in that span.

Douglas-Roberts led the Nets with 20 points, including a go-ahead score inside with 12.7 seconds to go. Williams had 12 points, five boards, four assists and three steals. Their contributions were needed because Devin Harris left the game with a sprained left ankle in the third period and didn’t return. He said he’s fine. Yi Jianlian fouled out with just seven points, further depleting the Nets’ core.

Whether Douglas-Roberts and Williams can do it every night is the question that still needs to be answered. At least Douglas-Roberts backed up his 21-point night against the Knicks with another good offensive performance.

Williams knocked down a few baseline jumpers and had an impressive driving lefty dunk. He also showed his great vision with a bullet pass from near the three-point arc inside to Yi for a slam.

“It was good,” coach Lawrence Frank said. “The experience was tremendous. There are lot things you teach that they’ll learn and get.”

Frank was referring to some defensive mistakes that he probably wouldn’t have been so blasť about if it were the regular season. The Nets’ youngsters fouled shooters and left Jason Kapono alone for a game-tying three in the final minute.

It was important that they experienced this type of game. That was especially true for center Brook Lopez, who was having a quiet night until the fourth period when the game got tight. The Nets saw a mismatch with Lopez’s size against Marreese Speights and Elton Brand and ran the offense through him more. Lopez scored 11 of his 18 points in the final 5:42.

“He was great down the stretch,” Eduardo Najera said. “Now that Devin was out, I think we did a great job going to Brook and he responded.”

Frank changed up the starting lineup and the rotation that he used Sunday against the Knicks as expected. He said he would be auditioning players at multiple spots.

Williams started and Jarvis Hayes came off the bench. Tony Battie and Eduardo Najera were the first two bigs off the bench. It was the first time Najera appeared in a Nets’ game since Jan. 31 against the Sixers.

One interesting lineup featured Harris, Trenton Hassell, Battie, Najera and Jarvis Hayes. Don’t know how much run that group will get in the real season — our guess is not much — but they outscored the Sixers 10-6 with Najera scoring five and Battie three.

Najera was solid and showed what he can do for this team. But the play of the three young guys has to give the Nets hope, especially since two other cornerstones either didn’t play or sat most of the second half with ankle injuries.

Nets go small by necessity, not design

nets250.jpgEAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The Nets’ roster is loaded with backcourt or wing players that will allow coach Lawrence Frank to play numerous lineups. Their best one may prove to be one with three guards, as it was last year when Devin Harris, Keyon Dooling and Vince Carter played together. Not sure what it will be yet, but you can see Frank playing Harris, Courtney Lee and Chris Douglas-Roberts together or Dooling, Harris and Lee in what would be a small group.
 
“McDonald’s supersizes,” Frank said today. “The league has downsized.”
 
The theory is that the more guys who are 6-foot-7, 6-8 and interchangeable, the better. Most of the Nets’ talent, however, is in the 6-2 to 6-6 range. If there are holes and questions at this point, they seem to be up front, particularly at the forward spots.

It was the same last year when the Nets didn’t get consistent production from either forward position. Their starting smalls totaled 594 points, 114 of those scored by Vince Carter during a seven-game stretch late in the season. Take Carter out of the equation and the Nets starting small forwards last year — Bobby Simmons and Trenton Hassell — combined to score 480 points in 75 games, an average of 6.4 points. Yi Jianlian and Ryan Anderson were a little better, totaling 734 points or about 9.0 points total. Still not enough. It’s a team effort, but it isn’t a stretch to say those numbers are not going to get it done this season, not with this team.
 
The Nets will be fine in the backcourt with Harris, Lee, Douglas-Roberts, Rafer Alston, Terrence Williams and Dooling when he’s healthy. They have Brook Lopez at center. The backup hasn’t been determined from the group of Josh Boone, Sean Williams and Tony Battie, but provided Lopez can stay healthy and out of foul trouble, the Nets should be fine.
 
Then come the questions and concerns.
 
Yi will start at power forward. His potential backups are Eduardo Najera, Simmons, Boone, Sean Williams and Battie. Each of them brings different things — and the Nets are hoping for an injury-free productive year from Yi. But Yi, Najera, Boone and Battie have been injury-prone, and Sean Williams hasn’t been reliable. Simmons is more of a small forward, but when the Nets go small, he can play power forward and probably will see more time there. After Yi, he’s the best scorer of the bunch.
 
At small forward, the depth chart reads something like this: Jarvis Hayes, Terrence Williams, Douglas-Roberts, Simmons and Hassell. Hayes looked like the frontrunner to start when camp opened, but you have to wonder if he’s better suited for providing an offensive lift off the bench. Williams is strong enough to guard some of the bigger small forwards. But it’s hard to know what you’re going to get from young players like Williams and Douglas-Roberts on a nightly basis. Douglas-Roberts can score, but he may not be strong enough to guard the big smalls.
 
“You figure it out and you see what works,” Frank said.
 
The Nets are expecting more production all around because they’re not going to be able to rely on Carter this year.
 
“That’s going to be more opportunity right there in itself,” Hayes said. “If we can get better effort from not only the forward positions but also everybody on the defensive end, that will pick up everybody on the offensive end.”
 
The Nets have had just one preseason game and less than a dozen practices, so it might be too early to judge. But it’s not too early to wonder whether last year will repeat itself.

Energy, effort requried at all times

naterobinson_250_100609.jpgEAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The Nets’ first preseason game came after about seven practices, so you can’t expect too much from them so soon. But we’re going to bring up the energy and effort factors again.

It’s not that the Nets didn’t play with either, because they did Sunday against the Knicks, but it has been troublesome in the past. Too often the Nets go through lulls that seem to last all game. When you see what Nate Robinson does every time he enters a game – and every time he does so against the Nets – it makes you appreciate what he does for a team.

Robinson may not take the best shots or make the best decisions, but the guy just comes in the game and plays. He lifts the energy level of the team and the crowd. You never question his effort or energy.

The amazing dunks for someone his size notwithstanding, the fact that Robinson is always bouncing around and running all over the court non-stop are valuable traits. It helps that he can play, but still, there is something for having players whose motor is always going.

The Nets haven’t had guys like that in years and it’s something they can’t be without this season.

“We can’t be an average-intensity team,” coach Lawrence Frank said after practice today. “We have to be a high-intensity, high-effort team that plays with a great deal of oomph every single day.”

Look at the Nets’ roster: They do have some players who can play similarly, some guys that have to be like Robinson and give the team a jolt every time they come into the game, which they will need. Too often in recent years, the Nets have gone through lulls.

Assuming the starting five is Devin Harris, Courtney Lee, Brook Lopez, Jarvis Hayes and Yi Jianlian, the Nets have second-year wing Chris Douglas-Roberts and rookie Terrence Williams coming off the bench. Their job has to be to lift the team. Third-year big man Sean Williams has the ability, but he hasn’t proven to be reliable or consistent enough.

The Nets have other players, particularly when veterans Keyon Dooling and Eduardo Najera are healthy, but the two young swingmen who are trying to make their names in the NBA can come off the bench with Nate-like fire.

“He’s a constant ball of energy,” Harris said. “I think Terrence can be that type of guy for us. He’s constantly firing those guys up and we need that kind of kick off the bench. We need our bench to take the game to another level when the starters come out.”

Douglas-Roberts will play a big role this season. He’s showing he’s fearless, can get into the paint and create shots, and can score a variety of ways. It looks as if he’s going to pick up some of the scoring lost when Vince Carter was traded to Orlando.

Frank called Douglas-Roberts “very, very determined” last week and you can see it. You also see how ultra competitive Douglas-Roberts is. That’s the type of player you want on your team.

All we’ve heard about Terrence Williams is his defensive presence and you can see that. He is going to help the Nets immensely on that end, pressuring the ball and getting into his man. But one of the things that stood out in the Knicks’ game was Williams chasing down Robinson and not letting him get an easy layup or dunk.

That’s the energy the Nets are going to need, the never-give-up-on-a-play mentality that is vital.

“He can be that for us,” Harris said. “He needs to look at ways to get on the floor and I think that’s one way, bringing that energy every day.”

Williams, who is from Seattle and good friends with Robinson, should have that Nate-like hop in his game and help give the Nets something they sorely need.

_______________________

Williams took out Harris and Courtney Lee in practice today on different plays. Harris tweaked his left ankle, but expects to return to practice tomorrow. Lee hurt his right. There was swelling so he went for X-rays. They were negative. Lee has a sprained ankle and will be re-evaluated tomorrow.

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

Defense lacking in preseason opener

nets275.jpgALBANY — The Nets’ first preseason game showed what you would expect: the future is bright with Devin Harris and Brook Lopez, but overall, this team is a work in progress and will be for sometime.

Probably the most disappointing thing, especially after all the talk the first five days of practice about defense, was how the Nets didn’t play any here Sunday in a 115-107 loss to the Knicks.
 
It is the preseason and the scores tend to be on the high side in the exhibition season, but after all the talk and coach Lawrence Frank’s bluster about the defense, the Nets should have stepped up on that end. Now he has something to show them over and over and over.
 
“We got a lot of good footage there,” Frank said.
 
The Knicks are a tough team to guard because of Mike D’Antoni’s offense, the amount of shooters and scorers they have and the random pick-and-rolls they run. But it’s good that the Nets saw that they have a long, long way to go.
 
The perimeter defense was bad. The interior defense was bad. The Nets allowed 49 points over a 17-minute stretch between the first and second periods and 79 in a 29-minute span over the first three periods. The Knicks shot 13-of-31 from three overall.
 
The Knicks are no defensive stalwarts, but they were more active and talking much more than the Nets after the first period.
 
“I’m disappointed defensively,” Frank said. “This is a little bit of a litmus test in terms of seeing where we’re at defensively.
 
They have a long way to go.

Some other observations:
 

  • Harris, the Nets’ best player, performed like he did last year, only with more of an air that this is his team. He got in the lane and scored when he wanted and worked the two-man game with Lopez well. Harris also pulled guys aside and guided them on where they should be in certain situations.
  • Lopez was impressive. The Nets tried to establish him early, which we like, and the second-year center showed he’s ready to be more involved. In the first half, he took 11 foul shots, one less than the Knicks as a team. Lopez had 19 points at the break and finished with 19. He and Harris didn’t play in the fourth.
  • Yi Jianlian was assertive at times and showed improved confidence. After missing inside, Yi drove to the basket on the next position, was fouled and scored. He needs to continue to be aggressive, but he can’t forget about the other end.
  • Don’t jump off the bridge yet, but the first game looked like many last year where the other team’s starting forwards outplayed the Nets. Between Yi and Jarvis Hayes, the Nets scored 16 points. The Knicks got 34 combined from Al Harrington and Jared Jeffries.
  • Chris Douglas-Roberts created for himself and got to the line repeatedly. He led with 21 points and was 11-of-15 from the line. It may not always look pretty, but the guy is a shotmaker inside. Figuring Courtney Lee is the starting shooting guard, Douglas-Roberts should be one of the first guys off the bench unless he continues to play this way and Frank decides to start him at small forward. But because of the size and strength of other threes in the Atlantic (Paul Pierce, Caron Butler, Andre Iguodala and Al Harrington) that may be tough.
  • Rafer Alston ran the team well, setting up his teammates for open shots and baskets inside. The Nets will be able to play him with Harris the way they did last year with Keyon Dooling. When Dooling returns from rehabbing from hip surgery, someone will be unhappy and on the trading block, and it won’t be Harris.
  • Rookie Terrence Williams missed his first six shots and was rejected twice, but one play that stood out was after a bad Sean Williams pass led to a Nate Robinson run-out. Williams caught up to his speedy Seattle buddy and prevented the dunk by fouling Robinson, who missed one of the free throws.

Preseason game No. 2 is Friday at the Sixers. The Nets expect a better defensive performance. It will be the focus of practice this week for sure. Then again, it was last week, too.

Sunday begins feeling-out process

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The Nets open the preseason on Sunday in what is a meaningless game, but at least you can start to get a feel for how the team is going to play or what it’s going to look like.

We’ve been hearing so much about defense and scoring off the defense, and you wonder what’s going to happen if the Nets trail 28-12 after the first quarter against the Knicks on Sunday in Albany

Anyway, whatever we see Sunday will look much different as the preseason and regular season goes on because first of all, likely starting shooting guard Courtney Lee won’t be in the lineup due to an inflamed left foot. Lee is expected back next week.

But it will look much different because the players will get used to playing with each other and get into more of a rhythm, and coach Lawrence Frank will have a better understanding of what lineups and rotations work best.

That’s what will be interesting about this preseason, perhaps more than any in recent years, starting to see who fits where.

nets275_100209.jpgIn the past, you knew Jason Kidd, Kerry Kittles, Kenyon Martin, Richard Jefferson and Jason Collins would be the starting team with Lucious Harris, Aaron Williams, Rodney Rogers, Anthony Johnson and whomever coming off the bench. Then it was Kidd, Vince Carter, Jefferson, Collins and Nenad Krstic with assorted bench players.

Last season, it was somewhat up in the air, but you could guess that Devin Harris and Carter would start with Yi Jianlian, Bobby Simmons and Josh Boone, who eventually would be replaced by Brook Lopez, and then Jarvis Hayes, Keyon Dooling, Eduardo Najera and Ryan Anderson would be in the mix off the bench.

This season, you can guess that Harris, Lee and Lopez are pretty much locks and that Yi will get another shot as the starting power forward. Hayes might be the frontrunner as the starting small forward right now, but things could change.

Then off the bench, Rafer Alston is the backup point guard with Chris Douglas-Roberts and Terrence Williams the reserve swingmen, but Simmons is back there still and can play both forward positions especially if the Nets go small.

Boone has been practicing at power forward, so Frank is working on having a big unit with Lopez and Boone together, which the Nets hope will help their defensive rebounding.

You can’t overlook or forget three injured players in Dooling, Eduardo Najera and Tony Battie, and what they can provide and do to the overall rotation.

“I think the thing that’s going to benefit us the most is our numbers,” Lee said today. “We got a lot of guys that play similar positions. Therefore when we’re playing in a game, and we send that first five out there to attack and when that five get tired we got another five that’s going to go out there and attack them again. So I think our strength is going to be in numbers.”

Of course it’s up to Frank to determine which groups work best together.

Last year, at end of games, it often was Harris, Dooling, Carter, Hayes and Lopez. Some would say the Nets went small too much but it was due to lack of consistent production at power forward. That’s probably another reason why Boone has been working back there. He didn’t play alongside Lopez at all last year.

The most interesting is what happens in the backcourt and small forward, though. There will be times when the Nets can play Williams at point with Lee or Harris or Douglas-Roberts and then Hayes at small forward or they can play Harris, with Lee and then Williams and have a quick athletic team, a trapping unit and one that’s good in transition.

“We have a lot of different combinations,” Frank said. “There are a lot of intriguing possibilities we have to evaluate. And the thing you want to do at a certain point is have a firm grasp. But you have a lot of different parts.”

That doesn’t mean the Nets will be good because we don’t really know how these parts fit. But Frank said before camp that the Nets are going to come at teams in waves to be successful. It certainly looks they will and they can.

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

Prokhorov looming, but business as usual for Nets

prokhorov_250_100109.jpgEAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – A little more than a week has passed since Mikhail Prokhorov signed off to buy 80 percent of the Nets and help Bruce Ratner finance the building of the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. But the Russian billionaire’s influence hasn’t been seen or felt yet.

The only outward change at the Nets’ practice facility is PNY Center appears everywhere, but it doesn’t stand for “Prokhorov Never Yields.” It’s for the Parsippany-based flash-drive maker that bought the naming rights for the practice facility before Prokhorov agreed to purchase the Nets.

The truth is it probably will be some time before Prokhorov’s fingerprints are on the team and organization. He doesn’t officially own the team.

First, the league needs to do background checks on Prokhorov, which it already has started. It should be extensive since little is known about this man. If you talk to anyone within the Nets or other NBA circles most of the information they have on Prokhorov comes from a Google search and a click on Wikipedia.

Then the Board of Governors has to approve the sale. They’re meeting later this month and it’s possible Prokhorov will be there. If so he probably will check out the facility and meet some of his potential employees.

But the sale is contingent upon the Nets going to Brooklyn, so Ratner has to win another court appeal later this month. It won’t be surprising if Brooklyn project “Develop Don’t Destroy” tries to put up more resistance.

If everything goes well it’s expected Prokhorov will be in charge in early 2010. They won’t wait until Brooklyn is built because that’s at least another 26 months from the time a shovel is put in the ground.

From Google and Wikipedia and other stories written about Prokhorov you know he’s a metals magnate and is close with Russian president Vladimir Putin. When Prokhorov owned CSKA Moscow the Russian power won two European titles. If/when the sale goes through he wants to use this to help develop Russian basketball using NBA practices and techniques, and plans to place the country’s leading coaches and managers here.

That may not bode well for Nets’ president Rod Thorn, GM Kiki Vandeweghe and coach Lawrence Frank. All are in the last year of their contracts.

You also can gather Prokhorov is a playboy, a man who lives a lavish lifestyle and goes after and gets what he wants. Hey, if your riches were the $9.5 billion Forbes reported you would travel, have multiple homes and live it up too.

Last week, Congressman Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-N.J.) sent a letter to NBA commissioner David Stern urging him to “thoroughly investigate” Prokhorov. In the letter, Pascrell wrote, “Mr. Prokhorov’s background raises questions about his fitness to be the owner of a high-profile NBA franchise. Both Mr. Prokhorov’s business and personal history have come under intense scrutiny in his home country and abroad.”

One major thing hanging over his head and that has been brought up since the sale was Prokhorov’s arrest in 2007 for allegedly arranging prostitutes for guests at a Christmas party in France. Prokhorov wasn’t convicted though, and earlier this week was cleared of all charges and the case was dismissed. This could help him when the NBA investigates his past.

Right now and for the time being it has no effect on the Nets. They’re operating business as usual. Frank is preparing them for this season, stressing defense and trying to get everyone to buy in to how if everyone commits this could be an unexpectedly positive season.

“I don’t think it affects us as far as how we go about our daily business as far as what we have to do in between the lines,” veteran guard Keyon Dooling said.

The Nets haven’t been told to sell off assets or go out and get the best players yet. Team officials are planning to maintain the flexibility they’ve created for the summer of 2010. It’s believed that flexibility and potential to sign new players is one of the things that made the Nets attractive to Prokhorov.

He’s a sportsman, a former basketball player who stands 6-foot-9. He likes winning and will spend to win from everything we’ve read.

“From a resource perspective,” Dooling said, “he has the resources to turn this organization from the bottom of the pack to really being able to dish out some dough.”

Ratner originally wouldn’t and the Nets were forced to trade Kenyon Martin in 2004, then would and they were able to trade for Vince Carter. Then Ratner wouldn’t again because of all the monetary losses and he knew he would eventually have to sell. 

So the Nets are in this position where little is expected of them this year. But the belief is Prokhorov will be a Mark Cuban-type owner and will pay to improve his team. That is, if/when Prokhorov clears all the necessary hurdles.

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