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Nets Finally Found Their Shooter In Allen Crabbe

Allen Crabbe could be the key to unlocking Kenny Atkinson’s fast-paced offense this season, writes Ben Nadeau.

Ben Nadeau

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After suffering a sprained ankle in training camp, Allen Crabbe was one of the last members of the Brooklyn Nets to make his debut this preseason. If the early indications are any sign, the year-long delay was definitely worth it.

Crabbe exploded for 14 points on 5-for-7 shooting from the floor while adding an assist, rebound and steal in just 11 minutes of play. The 6-foot-6 marksman made three of his four attempts from three-point range, quickly affirming the Nets’ decision to trade for the $75 million dollar man earlier this summer.

Of course, the Nets were the team that signed Crabbe to the massive offer sheet during free agency in 2016, but still, it’s clear how important he is to the franchise’s plan moving forward. Following the Nets’ 117-83 romp of the New York Knicks last night, Crabbe gushed about his new role with Brooklyn.

“Just watching the first two preseason games, watching all the shots, watching how this offense flows, it’s the perfect system for me,” Crabbe said. “I just came in with confidence. Like I said, it’s a different feel here. They’re telling you to do more, to shoot more, it’s like the ultimate green light.”

Crabbe isn’t embellishing about that so-called ultimate green light either as the Nets, a self-proclaimed three-point shooting team, were not particularly great from deep in 2016-17. Brooklyn attempted 33.6 three-pointers per game last season, the fourth-highest mark in the NBA, but converted on a basement-dwelling 33.8 percent of them. Needless to say, Crabbe’s first season with Brooklyn has a very well-defined role already: Shoot, shoot, shoot.

It remains to be seen if Crabbe will join Jeremy Lin and D’Angelo Russell in the starting lineup, but his high-volume efficiency can be a boon to the Nets’ fast-paced offense either way. As a role player for the Portland Trail Blazers, Crabbe put up just 8.2 shots per game in 2016-17, a total that was surpassed by Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic and Evan Turner. But the relegated role didn’t stop Crabbe from achieving one of the league’s most efficient seasons from behind the arc as he finished with a 44.4 percent mark, trailing just Kyle Korver in that regard.

“We targeted Allen and there’s a reason, we said this is a guy that’s really going to fit in our system,” said Kenny Atkinson, the Nets’ head coach. “Tonight is a good start and is exactly what we thought.”

Up to this point, Crabbe has yet to be completely unleashed in his young professional career. Due to his perimeter-based supporting role to the superstar duo of Lillard and McCollum, Crabbe was often limited to catch-and-shoot opportunities. His impressive efficiency from deep proved Crabbe’s worth at that position, but the Nets will likely ask him to carry a much larger responsibility in 2017-18 and beyond.

With Atkinson, however, there’s a precedent for turning an other-worldly three-point shooter into an offensive focal point. Before the Nets hired Atkinson, he was an assistant coach with the Atlanta Hawks, a franchise that shocked the league by winning 60 games in 2014-15 and embracing a team-first philosophy. Between Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague and DeMarre Carroll (now playing for the Nets), the Hawks had plenty of willing scorers, but the offense often revolved around the aforementioned Korver on most possessions.

Through a number of delays and screens, the Hawks would free up Korver to either shoot a three-pointer or pick apart an opposing defense when too much attention was funneled his way. As Zach Lowe deftly wrote back in 2014 for Grantland, Korver’s elite shooting and above average passing often made defenses pick their poison over and over again.

“[Hawks’ head coach Mike] Budenholzer also understands that the very best shooters don’t necessarily maximize their value by standing around. Great shooters have a gravitational pull, and they can shift the range of that force around the floor as they move,” Lowe said. “A defense can go haywire if that force collides with another object — a teammate screening for Korver, or a defensive player suddenly realizing that Korver has drilled him in the back with a nasty pick.”

So, Atkinson, a staunch disciple of Budenholzer, quickly put Crabbe to a work in a similar way.

The Nets’ preseason thumping of the Knicks gave us a sneak-peek at how Atkinson plans to use the newly acquired sharpshooter. Crabbe’s first bucket in black and white came in transition, but he often caught fire like that out in Portland. What’s worth noting was Brooklyn’s coordinated effort to get Crabbe open, even on a minutes restriction.

Take a couple of his three-pointers, seen both here and here, and check out the activity around Crabbe. On the first basket, Crabbe starts in the corner before cutting toward the top of the arc, immediately Doug McDermott is hit with screens from both Quincy Acy and Trevor Booker as he fruitlessly attempts to keep up. The second basket is similar, but the first screen comes from Russell before Booker’s dribble handoff sets Crabbe up with all the space he needs.

In between those baskets, Crabbe earned his sole assist by taking Damyean Dotson, who over commits on the close-out, off the dribble before kicking it out to Joe Harris. Even on three simple preseason plays, that gravitational pull was on full display, which is something the Nets will likely lean on all season.

Last year, Atkinson and the Nets tried to run these types of plays, but at no point did they have a shooter like Crabbe to facilitate through. The early injury that left the Nets without Lin for much of the season didn’t help, but Brook Lopez was the team’s leading three-point shooter with 5.2 attempts per game — obviously, these nuanced, quick-paced play calls weren’t a great fit given the center’s flat-footedness.

Before he was moved at the trade deadline, the Nets also tried to get Bojan Bogdanovic involved with some simpler handoff and screen variations, as seen here, but the Croatian forward was much better suited for catch-and-shoot opportunities. Still, even without the right personnel and an extremely inexperienced roster last season, Atkinson’s days in Atlanta had a clear influence on his first-year offense in Brooklyn.

From that Grantland piece once again, Lowe described the Hawks’ style of play in a way that Nets fans will find oddly familiar.

“The Hawks under Budenholzer are not going to pound the ball with isolations and stagnant pick-and-rolls in the middle of the floor. Budenholzer wants to build a sort of Spurs East, with the ball whipping from side to side in an unguardable blur of passes, handoffs, and picks.”

The Nets finished the 2016-17 season with the NBA’s worst record at 20-62, but they were undeniably playing a better brand of basketball with Atkinson at the helm. Gone were the plodding days of isolations courtesy of Joe Johnson and Deron Williams, replaced by a faster, more modern offense. But even with Lopez’s sudden development as a three-point shooter and the promising emergence of Caris LeVert, the Nets’ gritty performances were often undone by one of the league’s worst defenses and an inability to score late in games.

Other currently rostered players like Sean Kilpatrick, Harris and Acy made worthwhile contributions from three-point range, but the Nets are getting a major boost in offensive firepower this fall thanks to Crabbe, Russell and a healthy Lin. Even without much effort, Atkinson and Nets will start executing on the same plays they couldn’t quite finish off last season. Will opposing defenses help on Crabbe or choose to stay tight on the quick and crafty guards?

Ahead of Crabbe’s debut, Atkinson reflected on the Nets’ attempt to fix a glaring weakness.

“We knew shooting was an issue for us last year,” Atkinson said. “We felt like we got a ton of open shots but didn’t put them down. We knew we had to address shooting.”

So, with Atkinson’s offensive influences from his days with the Hawks, the question to be asked is this: Have the Nets found their version of Kyle Korver?

It’s silly to suggest that Crabbe could hold the same impact as Korver did during Atlanta’s impressive heyday, but his potential appears to have a high ceiling in Brooklyn. Of course, it’s also an extremely small sample size, but the Nets likely envisioned this role for Crabbe over a year ago in free agency. If Atkinson and the Nets truly commit to creating opportunities for Crabbe, the microwavable shooter could be a game-changer moving forward.

Crabbe’s debut finally came fifteen months after the Nets first attempted to lock him down long-term, but if last night was any indication, the delay will have been worth the wait.

Ben Nadeau is a Boston-based writer in his second year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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NBA Daily: What Is The Hurry To Deal Leonard?

The San Antonio Spurs don’t seem any closer to a Kawhi Leonard trade than they were in mid-June. The real question is, what is the rush to make a deal?

Steve Kyler

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What’s The Hurry?

The San Antonio Spurs and disgruntled forward Kawhi Leonard don’t seem any closer to a resolution today than they were back in mid-June when ESPN’s Chris Haynes dropped the bomb that Leonard no longer trusted the Spurs and wanted out.

While it seems fairly clear that Leonard is going to be dealt, the artificial sense of urgency from the outside doesn’t seem to be bothering the Spurs, as word in NBA circles is they continue to listen to offers but don’t seem anywhere close to making a decision. That can always change.

There are a few things that have started to leak out about the situation worth talking about, and some of it shouldn’t be all that surprising.

Kawhi Wants His Own Team

It is a common belief among fans that players should covet the chance to compete for a championship even if it means checking their own egos at the door. What’s become clear in this Leonard saga is that he has way more ego and bigger individual goals than anyone might have thought a year ago.

According to a source close to Leonard for a number of years, Leonard has always coveted his own team. He wants the chance to be the focal point on a group built around him. The idea that Leonard would openly welcome being second or third fiddle seemed unlikely to this source, which brings into question how seriously Leonard would pursue the chance to play with LeBron James in LA as a Laker.

There have been reports already suggesting that Leonard may not want the sidekick role with the Lakers, and that seems to line up with things sources were saying in Las Vegas last week.

If Leonard truly doesn’t want to share the spotlight with a bigger star, that could make this whole process a lot more interesting.

Kawhi Is Leaving A Lot of Guaranteed Money

Leonard became extension-eligible yesterday, reaching the third-year anniversary of his current contract. Because Leonard has made All-NBA in two of the past three seasons, he became eligible for what’s been commonly dubbed the “Supermax” contract extension, which would allow him to jump into the 35 percent of the salary cap max contract tier.

Based on the current cap, that extension could be worth as much as $221 million if he signs this summer. That money is only available to Leonard if he stays with the Spurs and gives him almost $30 million more money than he could receive becoming a free agent in July, even if he is traded to a new team that could obtain his Bird Rights.

While some have suggested that Leonard could make up some of that money being in a bigger market, it’s hard to imagine that he’s gaining $30 million more than his current marketing value, especially given his reclusive personality.

If by some miracle the Spurs and Leonard do reach an extension agreement, he would be untradable for one year from the date of his extension, so the idea of giving it one more year in order to salvage the contract money isn’t out of the question. The question becomes, would the Spurs do it without a full-throated pledged to be a Spur for the duration of the deal?

Lakers And Sixers Seem To Have Lost Interest

ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, on a recent ESPN podcast, suggested that the Lakers and the Sixers may have taken themselves out of the race for Leonard after making what most insiders believe was their best efforts to secure Leonard in trade. According to sources near both situations, the Spurs simply listened and didn’t really openly engage in negotiations sort of ended things where they started.

That’s not to say either team couldn’t jump back into the fray; there is a sense in NBA circles that the Lakers simply won’t give away the farm for Leonard, knowing they could be the favorite to sign him outright next July, so why give up too much?

The 76ers pursuit of Leonard was more about going all in, but only to a point. The 76ers were said to be reluctant to include Markell Fultz in a deal for Leonard, and that they were equally unwilling to let trade talks derail their upcoming season.

Are The Raptors The front Runners?

In the same podcast, Windhorst suggested that with the Lakers and Sixers likely bowing out, the Toronto Raptors may have jumped into the driver’s seat on a Leonard trade.

That would line up with the notion of the Raptors wanting to do something aggressive to better match up with Boston, and potentially clear some cap space should it not work out. It’s unclear exactly what the Raptors would be offering San Antonio to cement a deal, but they have no shortage of young promising players and a few proven All-Stars in DeMar DeRozan and/or Kyle Lowry that could be the centerpiece of a deal.

League sources said as many as eight teams started doing due diligence on Leonard after the NBA draft, and there was a growing sense that teams other than the Lakers were willing to pony up for a shot at Leonard, even in a rental.

The hope on a Leonard trade is similar to what played out in Oklahoma City with Paul George: that Leonard lands in a new environment and falls in love with the situation enough to commit long-term. There is clearly a risk in that thinking, but it seems several teams were at least open to the idea.

Training Camp Is The Real Deadline

While most of the basketball world has “Kawhi Fatigue” and simply wants it over already, the truth is the Spurs have a much longer runway.

The next milestone opens next week when Team USA opens mini-camp in Las Vegas. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is set to coach the men’s Senior Nation Team, and Leonard is among the 35 players selected to compete for a shot at the 2020 Olympic squad.

There has been talk that Leonard may opt not to attend until his situation is resolved, which would make the optics of the situation that much worse. There are many in the NBA that believe the Spurs are waiting to see if time together in Las Vegas might bridge the gaps between Popovich and Leonard, so how both handle the Team USA camp is worth watching.

While the outcome of a few days in Las Vegas likely won’t seal a deal, either way, the real window for a deal is the week of training camp in late September. That’s when things will start to get ugly and real for both the Spurs and Leonard. Neither are going to want to open camp with this situation hanging over their heads, so that’s the real date to watch.

The New York Knicks and Carmelo Anthony had a similar situation last year; it came to a resolution literally the day training camp opened, despite weeks and weeks of trade talks.

It may take exactly that long for the Spurs to finally agree to their own deal, so don’t expect closure quickly. There isn’t anything motivating a decision, beyond everyone being ready for it to be over already.

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NBA Daily: Jaren Jackson Jr. Adapting As He Goes

Memphis Grizzlies rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. has put on a show this summer. Spencer Davies dives into what’s been behind the success and how it bodes well for the future.

Spencer Davies

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Meeting Jaren Jackson Jr. for the first time, you won’t find an ounce of doubt in him.

Instead, you’ll be introduced to a high-spirited man oozing with charisma and an obvious love for the game of basketball, which likely factored into why the Memphis Grizzlies were so keen on taking him with the fourth overall pick in the NBA Draft.

Then there’s the big reason—quite literally—that came into play. Standing at 6-foot-11 with over a 7-foot-5 wingspan and hands that are the size of most people’s heads, Jackson Jr. is the term “matchup problem” personified.

We’re seeing the evidence in front of our very eyes already. In eight summer league games between Utah and Las Vegas, the versatile Jackson Jr. is averaging 12.9 points and seven rebounds. He is shooting 41.3 percent from the field and has knocked down half of his attempts (14-for-28) from beyond the arc.

It didn’t take long for the JJJ bandwagon to get established. In his first taste of NBA action against the Atlanta Hawks in Salt Lake City, he scored 29 points and cashed in on eight triples to kick off July. He hasn’t tried more than four perimeter shots since then, but he’s been plenty busy doing other things just as important on the floor.

“I think I’m surprised by how well I’ve been doing,” a smiling, candid Jackson Jr. said. “You’re surprised at yourself sometimes, especially like the first game.”

You can look at these aforementioned offensive stats and take them with a grain of salt since the level of competition is a step below what the real professional ranks bring to the table. However, seeing the anticipation, reaction time, and natural awareness on the defensive end makes the lengthy forward a true gem of a prospect.

In all but one game thus far, Jackson Jr. has recorded multiple rejections every time he’s stepped foot on the court, including two occasions where he swatted four shots. It’s added up to an average of 3.3 blocks per contest to this point.

So since the outside potential, the athleticism and the rim protection are all there, what else is there to hone in on?

“I think just my aggressiveness,” Jackson Jr. said. “Making sure I play tougher, go harder longer. And my shooting…kind of—make sure I get my form right and all that stuff.”

Adjusting to a new pace at the next level can take some time. It depends on how fast of a learner a player is and how quickly that person can apply that knowledge in a game setting. Jackson Jr. thinks he’s started to pick it up as he’s gone along.

“It’s getting a lot better,” he said. “It’s a lot more spacing so it’s pretty cool. But they’re definitely stronger and faster players, so you have to adapt to that.”

Thanks to contributions from Jackson Jr.—in addition to Jevon Carter and Kobi Simmons—the Grizzlies have had loads of success in Sin City. They are one of the final four teams standing as summer league play wraps up in a day.

Whether the result goes in the favor of Memphis or not, the last couple of weeks in Las Vegas have impacted Jackson Jr. in a positive manner in more ways than one as a student of the game—and he’ll be better off because of it.

“It’s been cool,” Jackson Jr. said. “It’s a lot of stuff going on. It seems like more of an event when you’re here as far as watching it on TV over the years. You get like a new historic player sitting on the sideline every day talking to people. You meet people in your hotel. Bunch of stuff like that. It’s been a good experience just having everybody here before we all leave and go to our own cities.

“I kinda went into it [with a] clear head. I didn’t really didn’t want to put too much into it ‘cause I’m learning everything new. Everything is new. Being a rookie, everything’s gonna be a new thing.”

As the youngest player in his draft class at 18 years old, Jackson Jr. has a ways to go to familiarize himself with the NBA.

But by the looks of things, the NBA had better prepare to familiarize itself with him as well.

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NBA Daily: Antonio Blakeney Hoping For A Big 2nd Year

After an impressive rookie stint, Antonio Blakeney gives us a tale of hope and potential.

David Yapkowitz

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The Chicago Bulls are in the midst of a rebuilding project. This summer, they held on to one of their key young players in Zach LaVine and drafted two guys in Wendell Carter Jr. and Chandler Hutchinson whom they’re hoping can be part of that rebuild.

But there might be one player on the roster already who could play a big role in the team’s future. A year ago, Antonio Blakeney used a big summer league performance in Las Vegas to earn a two-way contract with the Bulls.

This time around, with his NBA future a little more secure, he’s working on becoming more familiar with the team.

“Just learning and getting better,” Blakeney told Basketball Insiders his goals are. “Obviously being able to play through my mistakes, go out here and learn and get familiar with the coaching staff. Keep building our relationship with the coaches and stuff.”

Blakeney went undrafted last summer after declaring for the draft following two years at LSU. He lit up Las Vegas to the tune of 16.8 points in four games before the Bulls signed him. Under the two-way contract, he split time between Chicago and the Windy City Bulls, their G-League affiliate.

His summer success carried over to the G-League where he exploded on the scene averaging 32 points per game and being named the G-League Rookie of the Year. Being shuffled back and forth between leagues was a bit of an adjustment for Blakeney, but it was an experience he ended up learning a lot from.

“It was an up and down roller coaster from the NBA to the G-League and stuff like that. Starting in summer league, going to the big team, going to camp, preseason games and going to the G-League. It was an up and down experience,” Blakeney said.

“Overall, it was great. I think I learned a lot in the G-League. A lot of rookies play in the G-League now. Going down there it’s kind of tough. For some guys, the travel is different. It’s just staying motivated and working hard.”

It’s no secret that Blakeney can put up points in a hurry, as he was the Tigers third-leading scorer his freshman year behind Ben Simmons and Keith Hornsby with 12.6 points per game. His sophomore year, he led the Tigers in scoring with 17.2 points.

He knows though that he’ll have to be able to do other things if he wants to stick in the NBA. While he’s been lighting up the stat sheet scoring wise this summer in Vegas, he’s been working on other aspects of his game. He’s been charged by the Bulls summer league coaching staff with initiating the offense.

“Obviously I got to be a combo. I got to be able to move over to the one and make plays and stuff like that. So just working on making that simple play,” Blakeney said. “Obviously, I’m a natural scorer so I’m not really a pass-first guy, but I’m more when the simple play presents itself, to make it.”

While his future may be more secure, the majority of the guys in summer league don’t have that luxury. The two-way contract Blakeney signed last summer was for two years and based on his play this summer, it would be shocking to see the Bulls let him go.

For his summer teammates who don’t have that security, he understands what they’re going through. Having been in that situation a year ago, he’s got plenty of advice for them.

“Just go work hard, learn from the veteran guys, but compete,” Blakeney said. “Go at the guys that’s supposed to be the best. If you think you’re that good, go at guys. Just compete, that’s the main thing I did, I just competed.”

And although nothing is ever guaranteed in the NBA, especially regular rotation minutes, Blakeney is confident that he can be a regular contributor. The league is filled with guys who come off the bench and provide instant offense. He knows if, given the opportunity, he can do that too.

“I think next season my goal is to try to crack the rotation and just be a guy who brings energy off the bench,” Blakeney said. “I can get buckets fast, get it going, bring energy and get buckets off the bench, just do my thing. That’s something that in my young career I’m trying to get in to.”

He’s certainly off to a good start.

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