NEW JERSEY NETS
By Matt Gelfand
The Nets are a team in turmoil. Now six seasons removed from its run of consecutive NBA Finals appearances in 2002 and 2003, New Jersey finds itself in rebuilding mode. After a dismal 34-48 season, the team jettisoned aging superstar Vince Carter to Orlando for some spare parts (Courtney Lee, Rafer Alston, and Tony Battie) to free up cap space for next offseason's impressive class of upcoming free agents, also known as "Lebron-a-thon 2010."
A youth movement is in full effect in 2010, and the face of the franchise strictly by default is soft-spoken, under-appreciated yet immensely talented point guard Devin Harris. Harris will be dishing the rock to a core group of young talent headed by 21-year-old second-year center Brook Lopez, aforementioned postseason darling/draft-day steal Courtney Lee, and stat-stuffing rookie from Louisville, Terrence Williams. Unfortunately, beyond those young guns there isn't much to get excited about. Notables include "Chairman" Yi Jianlian, who hasn't been deserving of a nickname, let alone a starting spot in an NBA rotation; shoot-first PG Rafer Allston, who is a capable backup to Harris; and third-year shot-blocker extraordinaire Sean Williams, who has the potential to be a significant presence in the paint.
Despite some intriguing young talent, the Nets are still very raw, and it's hard to envision this current squad competing for anything but ping-pong balls this season.
Coach Lawrence Frank will have a lot of lineup options to toy with this season, and don't be surprised to see significant tweaks in minutes as the year progresses, given the upside of youngsters Terrence Williams and Chris Douglas-Roberts, who may slide past veterans in the pecking order if the Nets season turns out to be as dismal as expected. Devin Harris, Brook Lopez, and Courtney Lee should all see the court for at least 35 minutes. Harris averaged 36.1 minutes per game last season, and without Vince Carter around to pick up the scoring slack, he may actually be forced to log even more minutes this season. Expect Rafer Alston to see around 20 minutes a night backing up Harris, and he could see increased minutes if the Nets decide to go small with a Harris-Alston backcourt. Keyon Dooling provides depth and can play both guard positions if needed, so he'll figure into the mix as well, but will lose minutes to Alston and should see about 15 per game. At small forward, role players Jarvis Hayes and Bobby Simmons will begin the season fighting for starter's minutes, with each seeing anywhere from 20-30 per game. Hayes should also see some time backing up Lee at SG, while Simmons may lose time to both Douglas-Roberts and Williams as the Nets begin to focus on their future. Eduardo Najera thrives in the token gritty, gutsy, "will sacrifice his body for the ball" role, and he'll get his 10-12 minutes off the bench. Trenton Hassell continues to hang around because of his defense, but is buried on the Nets' depth chart and should struggle to get on the court. Because of his height and ability to hit the three, Yi will get 25 minutes at the four and occasionally the three to create mismatches. Josh Boone should see a slight uptick in his minutes this season as Lopez's primary backup, and a bounce-back season could be in order, especially if Yi's struggles continue. Don't expect Tony Battie or Sean Williams to see more than 10 minutes per game unless Lopez goes down.
Brook Lopez: In Lopez and Courtney Lee, the Nets' 2009 starting lineup sports the two biggest steals of the 2008 draft class. Drafted 10th overall, Lopez finished third in Rookie of the Year voting, but was everything the Nets could've asked for and then some. He posted 18 double-doubles, swatted four or more shots 10 times, and shot nearly 80 percent from the charity stripe (79.3%), which is almost unheard of from a rookie center - or any center for that matter. He showed excellent composure and a basketball IQ well beyond his years last season, and should emerge as a top-five fantasy center this year.
Josh Boone: Boone brings high energy and athleticism to the table, but saw his minutes plunge last season due to the emergence of Brook Lopez. He reached double-digit rebounds just twice all season and will have to challenge Sean Williams, Yi Jianlian, and newly acquired Tony Battie for frontcourt minutes. He has mediocre post moves and must improve his mid-range shooting ability if he plans on returning to his '07-'08 form.
Tony Battie: New Jersey will be the veteran center's fifth NBA team, and unless injuries hit the Nets' young bigs, Battie's role will mainly be relegated to towel-waiving from the bench. Battie has been consistently mediocre over the course of his 12-year career, yet always finds a way to contribute.
Sean Williams: At only 23 years old, we already seem to know the drill with Williams: If he gets minutes, draft him for blocks. He's an athletic freak and still has the highest ceiling among Nets bigs not named Lopez. But injuries and off-court issues continue to stunt his progress. He spent time in the D-League last season, and his passion for the game has been questioned.
Yi Jianlian: Yi was maddeningly inconsistent last season, displaying glimpses of potential (15.6 points, 8 rebounds when given 30-plus minutes) before getting injured in January and fizzling out over the final three months of the season. He has yet to make the proverbial "leap," to justify being the sixth pick in the 2007 draft, and it's painfully clear the Nets need him for financial reasons as well, given the revenue he generates because of his popularity in China. Needless to say, Yi must improve this season or he's well on his way to becoming the Chinese Robert Horry.
Terrence Williams: There seems to be strange buzz surrounding the 11th overall pick in this year's NBA draft. Williams is definitely raw, athletic, versatile, and has a freaky-good skill set. It's rare to find a player with Williams' tweener height (6-6) who can dish (5.0 assists), be a lockdown defender (2.3 steals), yet also rebound at such a high rate (8.6 rebounds). It remains to be seen if his all-around skills translate to the NBA game, but with the lottery-bound Nets already rail thin at small forward, it looks as if Williams will get his chance to shine fairly early out of the gate.
Bobby Simmons: Simmons was as mediocre as they come last season, did nothing to justify his hefty contract, and stands to lose playing time to both Jarvis Hayes and rookie Terrence Williams. He is a capable three-point shooter though, draining treys at nearly a 45 percent clip.
Trenton Hassell: A leftover from the Harris-Kidd trade, Hassell is a homeless man's Bruce Bowen. He'll continue to stay on NBA rosters because of his defense, but is extremely limited offensively and will struggle for consistent minutes all season.
Jarvis Hayes: Hayes will enter the season as a potential starter after serving as the sixth man for the Pistons in 2008, and the Nets behind Bobby Simmons last year, although many times he was the more reliable option of the two, recording his highest scoring average since 2005. Bottom line remains the same - Hayes has a job because he's a solid perimeter scorer and three-point threat, and he'll continue to use that to his advantage if given extended minutes this season.
Eduardo Najera: Najera will never fill the stat sheet, but is a hustle player who thrives on doing all the intangibles. Thus, he's about as useful as a punter for fantasy purposes.
Rafer Alston: No doubt Alston will now be one top backup PG's in the league, yet it's hard to envision Skip To My Lou being content riding the pine as Devin Harris' backup one season removed from running the show for the Magic in the NBA Finals. Alston has always been a shoot-first point guard (which is mind-boggling considering he's shot over 40 percent only three times in his 11-year career), and his decision-making skills are suspect. He'll provide the Nets with veteran leadership off the bench, but look for his stats to take a major hit across the board this season.
Devin Harris: Harris broke out in a big way last season, staying healthy for 70 games, making his first All-Star team, and shocking many a fantasy owner with his scoring ability (21.3 points, up from 15.4 a year ago), while breaking the 30-point barrier 12 times. He's lightning-quick, gets to the line at a surprisingly high rate (8.8 attempts in '09), and is a proficient free-throw shooter (83%). Now he's the centerpiece of an unproven, Vince Carter-less offense. That being said, Harris is still a stud, just be wary of his already high turnover rate and low field-goal percentage, neither of which are bound to improve due to the lack of talent surrounding him.
Courtney Lee: While trading VC may have squandered the Nets' chances of returning from mediocrity this season, Lee stands to benefit greatly from a fantasy perspective. He'll be New Jersey's starting two-guard, already has postseason miles on him, and carries himself with Shane Battier-esque professionalism. He's a balanced, versatile scorer, and while his modest 8.4 points don't look like much on paper (remember he only played 25 minutes per game), it translates to 13.3 points per 40 minutes.
Chris Douglas Roberts: CDR had an excellent college career at Memphis, but has yet to see that collegiate success carry over to NBA productivity. He's versatile and can play the 1, 2 or 3. Lawrence Frank is notoriously conservative with his young players (sans Brook Lopez), so it remains to be seen how many minutes Douglas-Roberts will see early on.
Keyon Dooling: A perennial role player who provides instant offense off the bench, he'll be used to backup both Devin Harris and Courtney Lee. However, the addition of Rafer Alston should slide Dooling down a seat on the Nets' crowded bench this season. He's also still recovering from offseason hip surgery.
Chris Douglas-Roberts: There's a lot of hype swirling around Douglas-Roberts this offseason, and for good reason. Entering his second season, CDR stands to be one of the main beneficiaries of Vince Carter's departure. After seeing sporadic playing time throughout most of last season, Coach Frank finally gave him some run in April (26.5 minutes per game, starting the final three games of the season), and he responded by averaging 10.7 points, 2.5 rebounds and 2.1 assists. He's worked exceptionally hard on his game this offseason, his confidence is up, and he is already becoming a vocal leader on a franchise desperately searching for direction.
Yi Jianlian: A lot of writers are surprisingly bullish on Yi coming into this season, if only because he has nowhere to go but up. His rebounding (5.3) and blocked shots (0.6) are laughable for a seven-footer. And he's almost undraftable based on his shooting percentage (38%) alone. He won't collect offensive boards either because many times he's perched outside the three-point arc, where he was actually the most efficient last season. In deeper leagues, Yi may get drafted on name recognition alone, but the stats don't lie.
Article first appeared on 9/24/09