When the Nets traded for Jahlil Okafor, the natural assumption was that the No. 3 overall pick from the 2015 NBA draft would jump into the starting lineup after a break-in period because of his scoring ability. Not so fast.
Nets coach Kenny Atkinson suddenly has a crowd of big men at his disposal and plans to handle the center and power forward positions “by committee” for the foreseeable future and possibly all season.
After playing one game, Okafor’s status remains uncertain until he gets in better condition, so the rotation at center continues to feature veteran Tyler Zeller as the starter with rookie Jarrett Allen and veteran Timofey Mozgov backing up. Quincy Acy also gets time at center because his three-point shooting spreads the floor on offense.
But Zeller and Allen have enjoyed the most success of all the centers this season and might play critical roles against Sacramento big men Zach Randolph and Willie Cauley-Stein Wednesday night at Barclays Center.
“I think Tyler has been good all year,” Atkinson said after Tuesday’s practice. “With Jarrett we are still trying to build him up, build his minutes, build his stamina, build his strength. We’re building him with a strategic plan. We’ll continue to do the bigs by committee . . . You could see that all year.”
Zeller, who was signed as a free agent just before training camp, has started the past 13 games, averaging 9.2 points on 61.0 percent shooting, grabbing 5.8 rebounds and going a team-high plus-49 while on the floor in those games. His plus-7.2 points per 100 possessions ranks second.
“I love to play the game, and I try to do as much as I can every night to help our team,” said Zeller, who fell out of the Celtics’ rotation last season. “It’s a fun team to be a part of, a fun way to play, and I’m very happy to be a part of it.”
Allen sat out the Toronto game when Okafor made his debut, but played 17 minutes in the loss to the Pacers and has averaged 7.3 points on 62.5 percent shooting with 3.6 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in his past seven games. Sitting out at Toronto, Allen admitted, “was [disappointing] because I don’t like not playing. But seeing where coach was coming from and what he wanted to do, I can understand how it went.”
As for having patience while the Nets’ performance team builds him up, Allen said, “I trust what they say. They’re professionals. At times, it’s frustrating for me, like, ‘Why am I not playing?’ But in the end, it’s their call. So, I trust them.”
Atkinson has no doubt the Kings will attack the Nets in the post after watching the Pacers shoot 56.6 percent, a season-best for a Nets opponent, after the Raptors shot 55.7 percent.
“We’ve played a couple of very talented teams that hit a lot of shots and created problems for us, and we’ve got to get back to being solid,” Zeller said.
“Zach Randolph is a great player. He knows how to use his body. You’ve got to make touches difficult and make it as hard as possible on him.”