Three Nets to Watch in the NBA's Bubble Scrimmages

Steve Lichtenstein
July 22, 2020 - 9:16 am
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With a decimated roster due to injuries, COVID-19 infections, and one player who opted out for personal reasons, the Nets will hardly be recognizable when they take the court on Wednesday to face the Pelicans in the first of their three scrimmages inside the bubble at Walt Disney World in Orlando.

Three of Brooklyn’s five starters (plus sixth man Taurean Prince) from its last contest before the league-wide shutdown – a thrilling 104-102 victory at the championship-contending Lakers – will be missing in action for the resumption, and that doesn’t even include out-for-the-season superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. The Nets submitted a roster of 14 players, and among the 21 other teams in the bubble, only Portland (13) has less.

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Nets interim coach Jacque Vaughn has a host of problems to solve in order for his shorthanded club to not only hang onto its miniscule half-game lead over the Magic for the seventh seed, but also maintain more than a four-game margin in the standings over the ninth-seeded Wizards, thereby avoiding a play-in round.

Like many of the configurations in the era of Nets general manager Sean Marks, this group’s lack of size looms largest. It is ridiculously guard-heavy, with Jarrett Allen the only center remaining with NBA experience. Donta Hall, the 6-foot-9 presumed backup, was signed out of the G League as a substitute and has not yet even exited the quarantine period to practice with the team. Power forward will also prove troublesome, with the rotation there likely to be big man Rodions Kurucs and wings Joe Harris, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, and Dzanan Musa.

The scrimmages will provide time for Vaughn to experiment, so you’ll see plenty of funky lineups with guys who will have unusual opportunities to showcase their games for when they count.

Here, then, are three most intriguing players I will be focusing on over the next week of scrimmages (Note: I’m not including regulars like Caris LeVert, Allen, and Harris, or a veteran like Jamal Crawford, since these affairs are strictly for their conditioning).

Chris Chiozza
Do the Nets have something here, or was Chiozza’s five-game sample prior to the shutdown a flash in the pan?

In that stretch, Chiozza, who was called up from his two-way contract, averaged about 19 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 assists per 36 minutes while shooting 56/53/100 from the field, three-point range, and the foul line, respectively. He was especially effective playing alongside LeVert – the duo had a net rating of plus-15 over those five games, in which the Nets went 4-1.

Again, a small sample size disclaimer is needed, and much of Chiozza’s solid work came against opposing bench units – but per media reports, he has been working with the Nets starters in recent practices. Will his stellar shooting and passing prove just as dependable in a more prominent role? At 5-foot 11, will he get exposed on the defensive end?

We may not get definitive answers in meaningless scrimmages, but they may provide hints.

Rodions Kurucs
Rodi’s short NBA career trajectory has been enigmatic. A second-round pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, he snuck up the depth chart last season to the point where former coach Kenny Atkinson had no choice but to start him. Kurucs’ energy was that infectious, and the competition at the four was that putrid.

Then, a troubling offseason ensued. Kurucs, a happy-go-lucky sort in the locker room, was arrested after allegedly choking his girlfriend last June. With his legal situation pending, Kurucs’ game fell off a cliff this season. He seemed hesitant to shoot, and then would compound the errant decisions by turning the ball over at alarming rates off driving close-outs. Only Atlanta’s Dewayne Dedmon has a higher turnover ratio this season than Kurucs’ 16.3 (minimum 25 games played with 12 minutes per-game average), per NBA.com. That’s actually an improvement – after Kurucs’ first 17 games on December 31, his ratio was an ungodly 25.7.

Confidence is crucial to Kurucs’ success. The pandemic may have worked in his favor, since he missed his last 11 three-point attempts going back to February 5 (he’s still shooting a more-than-respectable 38.5 percent on the season) and was DNP’d by Vaughn in the two games following Atkinson’s departure.

Like last season, Vaughn now has no choice but to use Kurucs, even if it’s just as a small-ball backup center.

Dzanan Musa
Like Kurucs, Musa is a 6-foot-9 2018 Nets draft pick (first round, 29th overall) with prior experience as a European professional.

That’s where the similarities end.

Musa’s energy is concentrated on the offensive end, where, as ESPN’s Zach Lowe aptly put it, he “has the largest ambition-to-talent ratio of any current player” in the NBA. Musa thinks nothing of taking off-the-dribble three-pointers from almost 30 feet out despite limited success (he shot 23 percent from deep this season). Or, he’ll drive into the trees in the paint to throw up garbage (just 50 percent at the rim, with 11 of 60 attempts blocked, per NBA.com).

It may have worked for the G-League Long Island Nets (52/41/75 shooting split in 12 games), but he has to play smarter at this level.  

I’d like to see growth from him in Orlando. He squandered an opportunity earlier in the season when the Nets were hit by a deluge of injuries. He’ll have another one in the scrimmages, but a subsequent rotation spot is far from guaranteed, even if he’s 6-foot-9.  

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Devils and Jets, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.

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