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.
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