EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Moments after Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov announced Lionel Hollins’ firing and the reassignment of then-general manager Billy King last month, he sat down in front of a television camera and preached hope to a fan base that had more or less settled on being hopeless.
There was Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, he said, and Markel Brown, and Chris McCullough. Prokhorov said the same three names twice in that interview, unconcerned that the first player had a broken ankle, another had spent the season riding the bench, and the third hadn’t played competitively in more than a year, and had yet to make his NBA debut.
In short, Prokhorov seemed to be overreaching. Except . . .
Monday night’s game against the Nuggets was probably the most exciting thing that’s happened to the Nets this season, and it wasn’t just because of Joe Johnson’s one-legged, buzzer-beating three banked in to win the game. It also included McCullough’s successful debut and Brown’s improving offensive contributions. Even Hollis-Jefferson, who doesn’t look like he’ll be back until March, looked spry jumping off the bench and celebrating when Johnson hit his shot.
In a season full of disappointments — the Nets can’t even benefit by tanking, because they don’t have control of their first-round draft pick until 2019 — Monday was a day when hope didn’t seem quite so outlandish. If the Nets can bank on their youth, in addition to their respectable core of Johnson, Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young, they might be able to lure the big-name free agents their formidable cap space can afford them.
“I liked hearing my name get called and me walking up to get in the game,” said McCullough, whom fans have been eager to see. “I hit my first shot that I ever took — my first career points, so that was a great feeling. Just getting out there again was a great feeling.”
Not bad for a player who previously admitted he thought his career might be over when the Bronx native went down with a torn ACL in only his 16th game at Syracuse. Instead, the Nets took him with their 29th overall pick in 2015.
“My mama said one thing to me,” he said. “She said, think about it like this — 17 games ago you played a high school game, so that kind of messed me up in the head. Seventeen games ago I was in high school. That’s crazy.”
McCullough played 10 minutes, 49 seconds, and although he said he was a little winded by the end, the power forward managed to score two points, grab two rebounds and add a steal and a block. Maybe just as important, he got an ovation from a crowd that’s been looking for something to cheer about.
As for Brown, Monday marked the second game in a row that he scored in double digits — only the second time in his career that he’s strung together double-digit games. After playing limited minutes under Hollins, he’s been given more responsibility off the bench under Tony Brown. The results are good. He scored a career-high 19 points against the Nuggets and averaged 9.6 points over his last five (compared to the 3.4 he’s averaging for the season).
Even when playing time was sporadic, Brown said he sometimes would get to the practice facility at 7 a.m. and take about 500 shots.
“Confidence” is making a difference, he said. “My whole life, I’ve been known as a scorer, and to get here and be known as a defender — I mean, there’s nothing wrong with that — but wanting to get back to that stage.”
He has other motivation, too.
“It’s very frustrating” to be on the bench while the Nets (14-39) are losing another one. “You’re thinking, ‘Dang, if I’m out there, I could probably help the team do this and do that’ . . . It’s a different story when you get out there because you actually have to show what you can do.”
If Prohkorov has his way, Brown, McCullough and Hollis-Jefferson will get to do just that.
Notes & quotes: Tuesday was the Nets’ final day at the East Rutherford practice facility as the team prepares to move to its new Brooklyn facility after the All-Star break . . . Prokhorov, who is heavily involved in a search for a general manager, said Monday that he also would attend Wednesday’s game against Memphis. He and his advisers have been conducting interviews for the position.