When Nets general manager Sean Marks and coach Kenny Atkinson began their rebuilding project two years ago, they were shopping in the bargain bin to fill out their roster. But after locating a couple of keepers and drafting and developing a promising young core group, they were able to attract several talented free agents who should give the Nets more depth than they’ve had in at least three seasons and an opportunity to keep progressing.
It figures to be a chemistry experiment for Atkinson, who must blend young talents such as D’Angelo Russell, Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen with seasoned free agents such as Ed Davis, Shabazz Napier and Jared Dudley, as well as young free agent Treveon Graham, trade acquisition Kenneth Faried and rookies Dzanan Musa and Rodions Kurucs.
“It’s an ongoing challenge to integrate the new guys,” Atkinson said. “I will say the continuity of the guys who have been here is helping those guys along. It’s been quicker than I thought.
“Ed has some experience in the league, Shabazz has experience, Kenneth has experience. They’ve seen a lot of stuff. That helps. Treveon Graham is still a young player, so maybe it’s a little harder for him. But so far, I’m pleased with the adaptation.”
Last season, DeMarre Carroll, who previously played under Atkinson in Atlanta, was the primary veteran presence in the locker room. Now the Nets are noticeably more mature. At the same time, Atkinson said Russell and LeVert have been part of the leadership group in the past and need to grow in that role.
“We sprinkle different age groups in there, and obviously, the point guard position being the quarterback of the team, those guys have a big say in what we do,” Atkinson said.
Russell enjoyed a strong relationship with Carroll last season, and the fourth-year point guard understands how all of the newcomers not only will improve the talent level but also make his life easier. “We’ve got a lot of vets that we added to our core,” Russell said. “That’s what we needed. We have young guys that need that guidance, including myself. Any time you have vets and guys that are established in the league and have a great feel for the league, I think it’s always beneficial.”
From a practical standpoint, the addition of backup center Davis and power forward Faried should bring about much-needed improvement in rebounding and defense. Dudley and Graham provide more three-point shooting and can play multiple positions. Napier provides depth at point guard, which might help the Nets withstand critical injuries to key players better than in the past.
“Defense definitely has to be a focus and rebounding has to be a focus, too,” Carroll said. “We get outrebounded a lot and give up second-chance points. We’ve got a lot of guys that can score the ball. We’ve definitely got to lock in with our defense . . . A guy like Ed Davis does the little things. He’s going to set the great screen and get Caris or ‘DLo’ open. He’s going to grab a big rebound in a big-time game.”
No doubt, the Nets must improve in those critical areas to improve on last season’s 28-54 record. But Russell’s growth is a critical factor, too. He improved his strength over the summer, and he should benefit from a second year in Atkinson’s system and the new weapons around him.
“This is my second year, but it’s a different group of guys,” Russell said. “It’s almost like starting over again. Getting through training camp, getting through summer under your belt, they’re all stepping stones. The sooner we get over those, the better. I think Coach puts guys in the best position to get that chemistry.”
That’s the equation Atkinson must solve.