Do the Nets have a go-to guy?
The answer is yes, but it’s not necessarily the high-profile player you might expect. Point guard D’Angelo Russell may end up leading the Nets in scoring this season, but low-key Allen Crabbe is their best bet to produce from the three-point line night in and night out.
Two years ago, the Nets offered Crabbe, a restricted free agent, what was considered an outrageous deal: four years and $76 million. He was a backup in Portland behind All-Star guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. The Trail Blazers matched the offer, but one year later, they dumped Crabbe’s salary to the Nets and he enjoyed a career year, averaging 13.2 points and shooting 37.8 percent from three-point range.
After a slow start, Crabbe blossomed late, averaging 16.8 points and hitting 41.8 percent from three-point range for his final 24 games, including a 41-point outing against the Bulls in the penultimate game of the season.
Looking back on the adjustment he made, Crabbe said, “I was trying to get a feel for a new team, a new system, new teammates and style of play. I went from a role player to being a starter. So I have to battle with myself and tell myself there are going to be more opportunities and more mistakes for me to make and not have to be worried about making those mistakes.
“Close to the All-Star break and then after that, I just put my head down and was more aggressive and more assertive and started to show what I can really do. For me, my biggest thing is just my mindset. I feel like I’m my biggest enemy. Sometimes I hold myself back from being the type of player that I know I can actually be. That’s always been my biggest knock in the NBA . . . inconsistency.”
Crabbe, who missed the final three preseason games with a sprained left ankle, was a nonentity early last season, scoring in single digits in seven of his first 13 games as a Net. But coach Kenny Atkinson and his teammates encouraged him to keep firing from deep, and he gradually grew more confident in the role.
Spencer Dinwiddie, who is close with Crabbe, said the two shared a running joke. “I say, ‘Am I going to get Allen or AC tonight?’ ” Dinwiddie said. “He likes being called AC versus Allen.
“He’s a good guy, and sometimes it’s hard for good guys to make the selfish decision even though it may be the right decision at the time. They can’t necessarily see that because they’re looking at it from other people’s perspective, like ‘Oh, he took a bad shot.’ But for our team, that was the best shot. That’s his main area of growth.”
The Nets don’t run many set plays in Atkinson’s spread offense, and Crabbe said it’s up to the players to find their shots within the flow of the ball movement. Generally, the ball should find whoever has the hot hand.
Dinwiddie suggested that Crabbe, Russell and Caris LeVert are most likely to be the Nets’ go-to guys this season. “I’m assuming one of those three guys will emerge and be very good for us this season and going forward in the future,” Dinwiddie said. “AC’s an incredibly elite shooter and one of the better three-and-D players we have in this league. I think we’re all expecting an even bigger jump this year.”
Russell and LeVert aren’t on Crabbe’s level from the three-point line, but both are slashers who get to the basket and create for themselves and others. Their ability to draw the defense figures to create space for Crabbe on the perimeter.
“For the defense, it’s going to be pick your poison,” Crabbe said. “Either you’re going to play those guys one-on-one and those guys take advantage of that, or you send help and it will free other people up.”
When Crabbe joined the Nets last season, his high price tag raised questions. It was a burden to him at first, but Crabbe embraced the notion that general manager Sean Marks’ decision to trade for him was evidence of faith in his ability.
“At the end of the day, the money doesn’t help how you play,” Crabbe said. “I don’t want people to think you get complacent or you get comfortable because you already got paid. I always want to continue to get better as a basketball player and do whatever I can to help the team be as successful as we can. I want to live up to that. I want to show people that I am worth what they gave me and it wasn’t a mistake.”