MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The Nets are known as one of the youngest teams in the NBA because of a starting lineup that includes 22-year-old D’Angelo Russell and 20-year-olds Rodions Kurucs and Jarrett Allen. But they also were a young team in the first two years of the general manager Sean Marks-coach Kenny Atkinson regime.
The biggest difference between their first two teams that won 48 games in two seasons and the 18-21 team that faced the Grizzlies on Friday night at FedEx Forum after winning 10 of their previous 13 games is the presence of a cadre of quality veterans, several of whom play major roles on the second-best bench-scoring unit in the NBA. Experienced depth has allowed the Nets to weather injuries to Caris LeVert, Allen Crabbe and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, all of whom have been starters.
It’s not unusual for Atkinson to finish games with several veterans on the floor, and he has done that with barely a ripple of dissent. What’s the key?
“Find good guys with great character,” Atkinson said. “It’s signing the guys with the right mentality. I think it helps that we have younger guys that also accept that, as the season evolves, we’ll go with veterans at the end of games, especially when we’ve struggled.”
Atkinson cited Jared Dudley, who has returned to the starting lineup since Hollis-Jefferson went down with a right adductor strain, backup center Ed Davis, who is playing a critical role on defense and rebounding, where he leads the league in offensive rebound percentage (.166) and overall rebounding percentage (.224), and DeMarre Carroll, who started last season.
“I think the young guys understand that. There’s no pushback, like, ‘Hey, man, I should be in there.’ It’s great that Jared Dudley helped us or Ed Davis or DeMarre helped us. I think that really helps with the chemistry. It also helps that those veteran guys can play. When they come in the game, you feel a difference, especially on the defensive end. They know what it takes to win in this league.”
Atkinson also praised vets Shabazz Napier and Kenneth Faried for being prepared when called upon in more limited roles. The return from a hamstring injury of Treveon Graham figured to cut further into their time because Graham offers a defensive presence at multiple positions.
If there is a common thread among the vets, it’s that they all are heady defensive players, and that is why they have made such an impact.
“I think they keep things stable, and I think it’s the edge you need and the kind of physicality you need in this league,” Atkinson said. “I’ve really noticed in the past 10 games, when those guys come in, they’re energy and Ed is hitting people, DeMarre busted through a screen on Ed Davis the other night, just ran through them. There’s just a presence those guys understand. It’s very important for those guys to see that.”
Last season, Carroll was the Nets’ primary veteran leader and had a career year, but he was slowed by ankle surgery at the start of this season and adjusted to a bench role. In his four games before facing the Grizzlies, Carroll showed he has regained his form, averaging 16.0 points and shooting 42.9 percent from three.
“I’m thrilled that he’s showing last year’s form,” Atkinson said of Carroll. “If he’s consistent, he’ll get more minutes. I told him he’s got to be that guy he was in Atlanta when he defended his heart out and made threes. That’s your role on this team, and that’s what he’s been successful doing in the NBA.”
All the Nets’ vets have that understanding of roles and a team-first mentality, and it has been contagious.