John Jenkins of the Phoenix Suns turned 25 years old in March, but you’d never know it from talking to him or his close friends. That’s because he exudes maturity and professionalism. While it’s become cliché to say, Jenkins is truly wise beyond his years and admits that he “feels like I’m in my 30s” rather than his 20s.
It’s rare for such a young player to be considered a veteran leader in the locker room, but Jenkins’ teammates – current and former – view him as an elder statesman even though he’s still just 25 and fighting for job security like many up-and-coming players.
Because Jenkins is a consummate professional, he has become a mentor for a number of former teammates despite the fact that he’s not much older than them.
Jenkins started his NBA career with the Atlanta Hawks and, in his second season, he took point guard Dennis Schroder under his wing. When the two met, Schroder was a 19-year-old rookie who was not only adjusting to the NBA, but also getting acclimated to America since he was born and raised in Germany. Even though Jenkins is only two and a half years older than Schroder and still had a lot to learn about the league himself, he did everything he could to help Schroder with his transition. Jenkins left the Hawks in 2015 to sign with the Dallas Mavericks, but the two players have stayed in contact and Schroder remains extremely grateful for everything that Jenkins did for him.
“My man John Jenkins! He was my guy from the beginning,” Schroder told Basketball Insiders. “He helped me with everything, basically. He showed me where to go out to eat in Atlanta, how you take care of your body and that you have to give 110 percent whenever you step on the court. The biggest thing [he taught me] was how to be a professional and be a good teammate. I hope he’s going to get his minutes this year because he’s going to kill it [in Phoenix]! He’s family for life.”
Upon hearing Schroder’s quote, Jenkins smiles and responds, “That’s my little brother, man.”
Schroder isn’t the only young player Jenkins has befriended and mentored. Last season, Dallas Mavericks rookie Justin Anderson, who is also 22 years old, viewed Jenkins as a big brother type. Even though they only spent half a season together because Jenkins was waived by the Mavs, they remain close. In fact, Anderson stayed at Jenkins’ house this week so that they could work out together and the mentee could continue to pick his mentor’s brain.
“Being with John as a rookie allowed me to not only see what it takes to just be in the NBA, but what it takes to stay in the NBA,” Anderson said. “Being around him daily at the start of last season showed me different elements that are key to staying in the NBA – from being professional to being patient to being a relentless worker. I tell him daily that he has a sickness, but it’s one that I’m hoping is contagious; I want to catch it because his work ethic is second to very few.”
“It’s funny to me because in college, I was always that same guy,” Jenkins said with a laugh. “I’d help recruit guys and then once they’d get here, I’d show them how to work hard, plan their days out and how to recover. I’m like a maniac when it comes to that stuff. That’s a big reason why Justin Anderson is staying at my place for this whole week. He wants to get right for Tim Grgurich’s camp in Vegas. My fiancée and his girlfriend are cool, so it’s fun. We’re working out and even though I was only with him for half of the year in Dallas, I made sure to help him because he was a rookie. I told him, ‘Look, I’m not the oldest guy on the team, but I know what it takes to keep your body fresh and how to handle an 82-game season.’ I just told him, like I tell all the young guys, ‘How bad do you want this? You’ll get 20 years, max, at this. You might as well go all out.’ That means working as hard as you can, eating right, taking care of your body and having a strong belief system. I try to pass that on to all of the guys I encounter because it’s helped me a lot so far.”
It’s easy to see why Phoenix would want Jenkins around their young, impressionable players.
The Mavs cut Jenkins on Feb. 22 of this year due to a logjam on the wing, and two days later the Suns claimed his contract off of waivers. He has two years remaining on his deal with Phoenix ($1,050,961 for the 2016-27 season, and $1,178,992 for 2017-18) although both salaries are non-guaranteed. Still, it’s hard to imagine the Suns letting him go on such a bargain deal, especially if he continues to produce and be a positive influence.
Last season, Jenkins did his best to help some of the Suns’ younger players, but making those connections wasn’t as easy since he joined the team midseason. Even still, he had a number of good conversations with Devin Booker, who was 18 years old when he made his NBA debut and finished fourth in Rookie of the Year voting.
Now, Phoenix will enter the 2016-17 season with three teenagers on their roster (Booker, Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss) and a total of eight players who are 23 years old or younger. The Suns have brought in a number of veteran free agents to lead – such as Tyson Chandler (last summer), Jared Dudley and Leandro Barbosa among others – but Jenkins will try to do his part to help too in his first full season with the squad.
This side of Jenkins is rarely discussed outside of NBA circles. He acknowledges that it’s likely due to the fact that he’s typically reserved. However, he opens up around teammates because he loves sharing lessons he has learned and passing on any information that he feels can help his peers. In recent months, Jenkins was thrilled to see his friends experiencing success – with Anderson playing very well for Dallas in the playoffs and Schroder emerging as Atlanta’s starting point guard.
What’s next for Jenkins could be a breakout season of his own. He has bounced around the NBA a bit since being selected 23rd overall in the 2012 NBA Draft, suiting up for his third team in five years.
The fit with the Suns seems very good, though, and he played well after the team claimed him off of waivers in February. Last season, he averaged five points in 13 minutes per game while shooting an impressive 46.7 percent from the field and 40.6 percent from three-point range. In his two starts with Phoenix, he averaged 14 points, seven rebounds and 2.5 assists, while shooting 46.2 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from three.
Over the course of his career, he has averaged 5.2 points on 44.9 percent shooting from the field and 36.3 percent from three-point range. He has appeared in 141 regular-season games, but started in just eight games. He has also been to the playoffs twice, appearing in eight postseason games during his time with the Hawks. In his second postseason run with Atlanta, he shot 66.7 percent from the field and 50 percent from three-point range.
Jenkins’ career per-100-possession stats – 20.2 points, 5.9 rebounds, 3.2 assists and one steal – show how much he can impact the game when he’s given minutes.
In the last two months of last season, when Earl Watson was at the helm for the Suns, Jenkins’ minutes increased – Watson’s interim coaching tag has now been removed.
Jenkins fits Watson’s style of play, and there’s no question that he provides value when on the court. Last year, he led Phoenix in three-point percentage (40.6 percent) and elbow shooting percentage (50 percent). This skill set is a perfect fit for today’s NBA with the way shooting and spacing are valued, especially on a team like the Suns that likes to shoot from long distance – ranking 10th in the NBA in made threes per game last season.
Jenkins is also efficient, ranking second on the Suns in True Shooting Percentage (56.4) behind only Chandler, who obviously does his damage at the basket. Jenkins’ career True Shooting Percentage is an impressive 56.2 percent. He also ranked second on the Suns in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.13) last season, which likely helped earned Coach Watson’s trust down the stretch of the campaign.
Dudley, who re-joined the Suns on a three-year deal worth $30 million, is a fan of Jenkins’ game and believes the sharpshooter could be a difference-maker for Phoenix.
“Anytime you have a player like John who has a good basketball IQ and is a knockdown shooter, all you need to have is confidence and an opportunity,” Dudley said of Jenkins. “John will get his chance and when he does, he has to make the most of it.”
Basketball Insiders recently talked with Jenkins about how he joined the Suns, expectations for next season, Phoenix’s offseason moves, embracing a leadership role on the young team and much more.
Alex Kennedy: Being claimed off of waivers is a strange thing. Most people can’t relate to that process at all. There aren’t many other jobs where you’re let go and then a day or two later, an organization on the other side of the country can claim your contract and you have to relocate there immediately. What was it like going through that process and how did you ultimately land in Phoenix?
John Jenkins: “It was tough. It was my first time being in a situation like that and I loved Dallas. Being with them was great, but I was in a logjam playing behind two great players in Chandler Parsons and Wesley Matthews along with other veterans like J.J. Barea and Devin Harris. It was kind of like in Atlanta, where I was behind a veteran group of guys. I kind of expected [to be waived] when that time came because we were so guard heavy, and my contract likely meant that I was going to be the one to get cut. I had gotten some heads up, maybe three days before, but even still I wasn’t completely ready for that to happen. After my last game with the Mavericks, Coach Rick Carlisle told me to stand up and said a bunch of great things about me in front of the team. That was really cool of him. Then, a day later, I was waiting for the waiver period to pass to see if my contract would be cleared and if I’d become a free agent. Then, I was told by my agent that Coach Carlisle called the Phoenix Suns on my behalf and spoke highly of me. He looked out for me big time and I really appreciate that. I guess Phoenix liked what they saw from me when we played them in the preseason. [Editor’s Note: Jenkins averaged 19.7 points in 28.4 minutes for Dallas in the preseason]. They saw what I could do and they gave me a chance. That’s how I got here and I’m happy to be with the Suns now.”
Kennedy: That’s really interesting. Coach Carlisle is extremely respected around the NBA and is known for being one of the best coaches in the league. What did it mean to you to have that kind of backing from him, to have him looking out for you?
Jenkins: “It definitely wasn’t expected. I didn’t think he’d do what he did and go to those lengths to help me. I mean, it was in the middle of the season so he was worried about his guys, game-planning and what he had to do to get wins. For him to take time out of his busy schedule during the season to call another team about a player of his who was there for half the year, that meant the world to me. It gave me another chance to play in the NBA and keep my dream alive.”
Kennedy: You joined Phoenix in February, so you’ve been in the franchise for some time now. They have a very good reputation when it comes to their training staff and development program. What’s been your early impression of the organization?
Jenkins: “It’s been great. I love the direction that we’re heading in. We’re a very young team. I’m actually considered old compared to the guys on our team, even though I’m only 25. I thought that was pretty young, but I guess not (laughs). I’m pretty old compared to most of the guys in this group. The direction is great and I think they have the right people in place, from Coach [Earl] Watson all the way up to the front office to the owner Mr. [Robert] Sarver. I like the system that Coach Watson is putting in – it’s going to be great. I just like Coach Watson and what he’s about too. While I was in Las Vegas supporting the Summer League team, I was working out with a lot of the guys and it was great to get to know them even more. I just can’t say enough good things about the organization. The weight coach is incredible. The training staff always makes sure your body is feeling good at all times. Before every game, you’re on the table for at least 30 minutes so they can work on you and they can make sure your body is good. There are just a lot of things here that I wasn’t used to. I’ve been a part of two organizations that were big time in Atlanta and Dallas, but Phoenix is just one step [ahead] in terms of training and how they take care of their guys and all of that. They’re known for that and well respected when it comes to training and skill development and all of that.”
Kennedy: How much have you grown as a player and as a person from your first day in the NBA to right now?
Jenkins: “As a player, I’ve improved so much. It’s crazy. I’d say I’ve done a complete 180-degree turnaround, but it sucks because I haven’t really been able to play the minutes to show everybody just how much I have improved. I’ve gotten so much better and I’m a totally different player. When I first got into the league, I think I was known just as a shooter. While I still have the shooting ability, now I can take it off the dribble, finish at the rim, create for others – since I played some point guard in Dallas and a tiny, tiny bit in Phoenix – thrive in pick-and-rolls and things like that. There are just so many little things that I’ve added to my game. I’m looking forward to showing those thing off more. As a person, I’ve grown a lot too. As I mentioned, I’m getting married. My life has just been great. I’ve learned a lot of life lessons from basketball, like always staying patient, never getting down on yourself, how to handle money and how to deal with everything life throws at you. I feel like I’m 30 years old, not 25. I’ve been through a lot. I’ve had to change locations three times. Things like that force you to mature faster, because you have to. You don’t have a choice. My parents didn’t come out and live with me, I was alone and grew up. And now, having a wife, that’s definitely life-changing. Then, you’re making this money and you have to know how to manage it and be smart with it, so automatically you’re forced to act three or four years older than you really are. I’d definitely say I’m more like a 30-year-old than a 25-year-old.”
Kennedy: You had the chance to play for Earl Watson last season as he was adjusting to his first coaching job and learning the ropes. What did you think of the job he did?
Jenkins: “I thought he did a great job, man. When I got there, we were in a tough situation. We were losing a ton of games. Soon after I got there, we were able to pick it up a little bit, going on a couple two- and three-game win streaks. We were staying competitive against teams that were supposed to kill us, playing them really tough. Our confidence just kept rising and rising like, ‘Yo, we could be really good if we just keep trusting the process.’ That’s one thing that Coach Watson really preaches – trusting the process. I love everything that he’s about and he knows what he’s doing. He’s brought the same principles he learned from San Antonio and the other teams he’s been around and instilled them here. He’s a young coach [at 37 years old], but he’s wise beyond his years. He went to UCLA and as a teenager became close with John Wooden, who’s one of the best coaches ever. The things he says to us make you just think, ‘Wow, he’s ready for this job.’ I think he’s going to do a great job and he earned that job. They didn’t just give it to him. He earned it. When there were 20 games left in the season, he had us wanting to play every game and battle for him. Guys weren’t thinking about their vacations or anything like that, they were wanting to play hard for him. For him to be able to do that as a young coach, on a team that wasn’t going to the playoffs, in a frustrating season due to injuries and things like that, he kept us playing the whole year. That’s huge.”
Kennedy: The Suns added a number of players this summer, including veterans Jared Dudley and Leandro Barbosa and rookies Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss. What do you think of those moves and how much better can this team be after making those additions?
Jenkins: “I thought Ryan [McDonough] and the front office did a fantastic job in everything they did. I watched the draft picks in Summer League and they looked great. They’re so young, man! Bender is 18 and Chriss is 19, yet they’re already doing things on the court where you’re like, ‘Okay, they have a chance to be special.’ I think they’ll play a lot. As far as the veteran presences, they brought in two guys who are like legends in Phoenix in Jared Dudley and Leandro Barbosa. They’ve been on the great teams that Phoenix has had, back when they played with Steve Nash and those guys. They know what it takes to win. Barbosa even has a championship ring now after playing for the Warriors. I think he’ll be able to take what he learned from Golden State and from his 13 years in the NBA and pass it on to us. We’re a young team, so we’re all ears. We’re a very hungry team. That’s one thing I’ve noticed about this group. We all want to get better and we strive for that every day.”
Kennedy: What are your expectations for next year? The playoffs have been discussed in Phoenix for the last few years. Is that a goal that’s being discussed?
Jenkins: “Yeah, that’s the goal and nobody should count us out as long as we stay healthy. Like I said, we’re so hungry. And we have a coach who is really hungry too. The organization as a whole just really wants to get back to that level again. We’re going to do the best we can. I had no idea what to expect when Coach Watson became the coach, but I’ve just been so impressed by him. What he’s already started to do has been great and I think everybody is just going to latch on and give it all that we’ve got. Health was a big issue last year. But we want to make sure that you have to respect Phoenix every time you play us. For anyone who thinks, ‘Oh, it’s going to be an easy win,’ it’s not going to be like that all. We have a good mix of veteran and young pieces, and we can be scary.”
For more exclusive interviews from Alex Kennedy (with players such as Indiana’s Jeff Teague, New York’s Courtney Lee, Oklahoma City’s Victor Oladipo, Philadelphia’s Jahlil Okafor, Atlanta’s Kent Bazemore, Los Angeles’ Jamal Crawford, Sacramento’ Garrett Temple, Portland’s Moe Harkless), click here.
NBA DAILY: Lou Williams Stepping Up For Injured Clippers
The Clippers have been hit by injuries again, but Lou Williams is doing everything he can to keep the team afloat.
The Los Angeles Clippers have been decimated by injuries this season. Blake Griffin is sidelined until approximately February of next year. Danilo Gallinari has been sidelined for an extended period of time with a glute injury and will continue to be out of action for some time after suffering a second glute injury recently. Patrick Beverley underwent season ending microfracture surgery in November. Milos Teodosic suffered a foot injury in just the second game of the season and only recently returned to the lineup. Austin Rivers just suffered a concussion and could miss some time as well.
With so many injuries, the Clippers currently find themselves in the 10th seed in the Western Conference with an 11-15 record. This isn’t what the Clippers had in mind when they brought back a solid haul of players last offseason in exchange for Chris Paul.
Competing with the top teams in the Western Conference was always going to be difficult for this Clippers team. Los Angeles has plenty of talent on the roster and added a few younger prospects to develop. However, key players like Griffin and Gallinari are injury prone and both needed to stay on the court for the Clippers to have any hope of staying in range of the West’s top teams. The Clippers lost 9 games straight in the middle of November and it looked as though they were on course to be competing for a top lottery pick in next season’s draft.
However, despite all of the injuries and setbacks, Lou Williams, along with iron man DeAndre Jordan, has picked up the slack and has done more than his fair share to keep the Clippers’ playoff hopes alive. This season, Williams is averaging 20 points, 4.8 assists and 2.7 rebounds per game, while shooting 45.2 percent from the field and 40 percent from three-point range (on 6.2 attempts per game). Williams is sporting a healthy 21.2 Player Efficiency Rating, which is a near career best rating (Williams posted a 21.4 PER last season). His True Shooting percentage (59.3) is tied with his career high rating, which Williams posted last season as well. Williams’s free throw rate has taken a dip this season, but his ability to draw timely (and often questionable) fouls has been a valuable asset to his team once again. Simply put, Williams has been particularly efficient on offense this season for the Clippers – a team that has lost its most reliable scorers and playmakers.
“We’ve had some guys go down with injuries and somebody has to step in and fill that scoring void,” Williams said after helping the Clippers defeat the Magic. “I’ve been able to do it.”
Williams has also hit plenty of big shots for the Clippers this season. Most recently, Williams knocked down a go-ahead three-pointer in the final seconds against the Washington Wizards that sealed the win for the Clippers. The Clippers are used to having a natural born scorer coming off the bench to act as a sparkplug as they had Jamal Crawford on the roster for the last five seasons. Similar to Crawford, Williams struggles to hold his own on the defensive side of the ball. But Williams has been more effective defensively so far this season for the Clippers than Crawford was for the majority of his time in Los Angeles. Williams isn’t going to lock down the Russell Westbrooks of the world, but he isn’t giving back the majority of the points he scores either.
In addition to his scoring, Williams is a solid playmaker and has managed to facilitate the Clippers’ offense at various points of the season. Williams isn’t exactly Chris Paul in terms of setting up his teammates for easy baskets, but he has been notably effective in this role, which is very important considering how many playmakers have falled to injury this season. Williams is now, arguably, the team’s best offensive weapon and one of its most effective floor generals. Now that we are nearly two months into the NBA season, it seems as though Williams and his teammates are starting to find a little more chemistry with one another.
“I think these guys are just starting to be more comfortable. They understand we’re going to have some injuries and guys are going to be down,” Williams said recently. “So they’re just playing with a lot of confidence. I think at first you’re kind of getting your feet wet and guys don’t want to make mistakes. Now guys are just going out there and playing as hard as they can.”
Williams will need to continue building chemistry with his teammates if they are to keep pace until players like Gallinari and Griffin make it back onto the court.
The Clippers have won six of their last 10 games and are starting to steady what had becoming a sinking ship. Smart gamblers and predictive algorithms would caution against betting on the Clippers making the playoffs this season, but they are in much better shape now than they were in the middle of November — an accomplishment that Williams deserves plenty of credit for.
Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 12/15/17
Spencer Davies checks in on the race for DPOY with his top six candidates.
It’s mid-December and candidates for individual awards are starting to really garner attention. On Basketball Insiders, we’ve been taking a close look at players who should be in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year in a unique fashion.
As the numbers begin to even out and the noise lessens with larger sample sizes, the picture becomes clearer. There is no clear-cut favorite, and the return of Kawhi Leonard will likely complicate things more in the future, but right now there are six players who have stood out from the rest.
Luc Richard Mbah a Moute
It’s a shame that a right shoulder injury is going to keep Mbah a Moute out of action for the next few weeks. He’s done everything that the Houston Rockets have asked of him and more. It’s been his versatility defensively that’s made him a headache for any opponent he’s guarded. He’s able to seamlessly switch onto assignments coming off screens and create turnovers from forcing extra pressure.
The Rockets have the fourth-best defensive rating in the NBA (103.7) as it is, but when the veteran forward is on the floor, they allow just 99.8 points per 100 possessions per Cleaning The Glass.
There’s not a lot of good going on with the Oklahoma City Thunder right now, though you can pick out a bright spot when it comes to the defensive side of the ball. As a team, they are first in the league in turnover percentage and second in defensive rating. This is due in part to Roberson’s ability to force his matchups to make errant decisions with the ball, which usually results in a steal for one of his teammates.
Currently, the 26-year-old is the top guard in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus ranking system and 10th in Basketball Reference’s Defensive Box Plus-Minus. According to CTG, Oklahoma City is worse when Roberson isn’t playing (97.9 on/10.5 off) and his impact using those figures ranks in the 94th percentile.
Here’s a case where the numbers don’t exactly tell the real story. The Golden State Warriors are technically a better team defensively by 6.4 points per 100 possessions with Durant off the court. But when you go deeper into things, things get clarified. Let’s start simple: He’s tied for most total blocks in the league (51) and the second-most blocks per game (2.1). The Warriors have the third-best defensive rating in the NBA at 102.9.
How about we go further into individual defense? Durant is contesting nearly 13 field goals per game and only 38.4 percent of those attempts have been successful, a mark that is the second-lowest for opponent percentage among those defending at least 10 tries per game. Diving deeper, the reigning Finals MVP is stifling in the fourth quarter, yielding a league-low 30 percent conversion rate (min. three attempts) to his competition.
Trusting the Process has gone mainstream, and for good reason. Everybody is focused on the beautiful footwork, the sensational euro steps and the dream shakes, but Embiid’s got a suit just as strong on the other side of the ball. The Philadelphia 76ers are barely on the outside looking in as a top-10 defense, and they’ve been a team improving as they’ve grown together over the course of the season. The entire trio of Robert Covington, Ben Simmons, and Embiid has been the stronghold of the Sixers’ defense, but it’s been the sophomore center who has assumed the most responsibility to anchor down the paint and take on individual challenges against quality big men.
Embiid ranks third in DRPM among those playing at least 30 minutes per game and has the highest defended field goal percentage differential (-8.7) in the NBA for players seeing at least eight attempts per game. Philadelphia is also allowing 112.4 points per 100 possessions with him sitting, which is a 12-point difference that puts his impact in the 97th percentile.
Since Bledsoe’s arrival, the Milwaukee Bucks have been on the upswing regarding their defensive principles. The combination of Giannis Antetokounmpo—who could be a candidate for DPOY in his own right—and the strong guard has created havoc for opposing teams. There’s a ton of pressure being applied and it’s worked well. Due to a less-than-ideal stretch a month ago, work still has to be done in order to rid the Bucks out of that bottom-10 stigma in that specific area, but they’re on their way.
Bledsoe’s reputation as an in your face, stick-like-glue defender precedes itself. He’s doing an excellent job with one-on-one matchups. Already hesitant to attack him as it is, opponents don’t try to take him much, but when they do, it doesn’t usually turn out in their favor. In isolation situations, Bledsoe is allowing just 0.44 points per possession and is tied for the second-highest turnover frequency on those plays, ranking in the 97th percentile according to NBA.com. Using CTG, the Bucks’ defensive rating dips by 13 points when he’s off the floor. That discrepancy is also highly regarded and ranks in the 98th percentile.
Where would the New Orleans Pelicans be without Davis? There’s a special talent about The Brow that can’t really be put into words. He takes on the brunt of the defensive load and has for years now. DeMarcus Cousins started off as the physical presence of the duo on that end of the court, but it’s been Davis who has remained the most consistent force.
Answering the question posed in the first paragraph, the Pelicans are giving up 117.5 points per 100 possessions when Davis is not present. That is a ridiculous figure, and given that New Orleans isn’t the best team defensively in the first place, it shows his true importance to that group. Including Cousins, he is one of 13 players defending at least 14 field goals per game. The difference between them, however, is that he is allowing just 40.5 percent of those attempts to be successful. It’s the lowest conversion rate among that list of names. Add in the fact that he’s blocking almost two shots per game and is averaging a steal per game—that’s a convincing case for DPOY.
Jahlil Okafor Being Slowly Incorporated By Nets
The Nets hope Jahlil Okafor can be a franchise player for them, but, of course, only when he’s ready.
It’s incredible that a player selected as highly in a draft and as recently as he could be considered damaged goods by his drafting team, but that’s what the Philadelphia 76ers thought of Jahlil Okafor, and the Brooklyn Nets were the beneficiaries.
Remarkably, behind the genius of general manager Sean Marks, the Nets, with Okafor, suddenly have a roster with two young building blocks in he and D’Angelo Russell. With Allen Crabbe and DeMarre Carroll, Marks has done an incredible job of improving the talent base of the Nets despite having little assets to offer in terms of trade value.
Now, with Okafor in tow, the question everyone in Brooklyn wants to know the answer to is “When?”
After acquiring Okafor and shooting guard Nik Stauskas from the Sixers on December 7, neither of the two played in any of the club’s first three games following the trade.
The idea, said head coach Kenny Atkinson, is to bring both Okafor and Stauskas along slowly.
“I just think it’s going to take time,” Atkinson, according to New York Newsday, said Wednesday after practice.
“I can’t give you a timetable. I think we come to these decisions as a group. We’ll know when he’s ready and we’ll give you the word.”
Selected with the third overall pick in the 2015 draft, Okafor averaged 17 points and 7.5 rebounds per game as a rookie. Since then, a combination of the rise of Joel Embiid, his lack of defensive presence and perceived inability to play in an NBA where traditional back-to-basket centers are considered obsolete dropped his stock dramatically, to the point where he played a total of 25 minutes this season for the Sixers.
Still, it hasn’t impacted the value that Atkinson or Marks sees in him.
“I think he’s been very serious, very focused, and that’s a great start because that’s where it starts,” Atkinson said on Wednesday.
“What’s your demeanor like? What’s your work? I’m looking to get to know him more.”
It’s not every day that a coach will acquire a new player who has impact potential and seat him on the bench, but that’s exactly what Atkinson has done. What it means, though, is probably more important.
When one considers what has transpired with the Nets since their move to Brooklyn, the franchise has been renowned for attempting to take shortcuts to the top. From Gerald Wallace to Joe Johnson to even Deron Williams, the moves made by the franchise were always designed with the thought of tomorrow, not the pragmatic patience and long-sighted view that, at least to this point, Atkinson and Marks seem to have.
In most situations, a franchise which knows that its first round pick is going elsewhere would feel at least some sort of pressure to win as much as possible in the short term, especially after having the first overall pick in the prior year’s draft snatched from their grasp. As a reminder, as a part of the 2013 trade that sent Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn, the Nets sent the Celtics their first round picks in the 2014, 2016 and 2018 drafts, as well as the right to swap picks with them in 2017.
As fate would have it, the Nets’ pick in 2017 ended up being first overall, but, obviously, the Celtics exercised their right to swap.
Since then, the Celtics dealt the Nets’ 2018 pick to the Cavaliers in exchange for Kyrie Irving, but to the front office’s credit, the knowledge of the sins of yesterday have no impact on the brick-by-brick approach that Marks has taken in attempting to rebuild the franchise.
Okafor, unlike his prior life in Philadelphia, isn’t coming to Brooklyn with the pressure of being any sort of franchise savior on his shoulders—he simply needs to fit in, on his own time.
“They know my weaknesses and strengths and I’m working with them every day to get better,” Okafor said on Wednesday.
“They already told me what they want me to work on and like I said, I’m all in.”
Obviously, Atkinson has a plan for Okafor, and with the Nets playing three games in four nights, having another big body to provide some minutes would do the team wonders. But, for a change, there’s no haste in Brooklyn.
“Right now, I’m just getting used to the pace,” Okafor said. “That’s the main thing. Especially with me really not having played at all this year,” he said, alluding to the fact that, despite weighing in about 20 pounds lighter than he was last season, his lack of action has cause him to lose a bit of his wind.
But while he may have lost his place in the rotation and his game readiness, in Brooklyn, Okafor has found something much more valuable—a sense of belonging.
“They’re just really invested in me and that just makes me feel wanted, it makes me feel a part of this team,” he said.
With the final debit of the ill-fated 2013 trade being paid this coming summer, the Nets will turn the page on a new era that they hope Okafor and D’Angelo Russell—two players selected one pick apart—can help to lead.
Behind the scenes, Marks will continue to work diligently to acquire undervalued pieces which can, for him, hopefully become a part of a sum that’s bigger than their individual pieces.
But, of course, like Okafor’s debut with Brooklyn, it’ll take some time.
That’s okay, though. Finally, at Barclays Center, for a change, there’s pragmatic patience. For sure, this time, there’s simply no need to rush.