The injury absences of Kyrie Irving and Caris LeVert have been a huge setback to the Nets in terms of trying to develop into a championship-caliber team, but the silver lining has been the development of a strong second unit that is starting to put its own mark on games. That was evident Friday in Charlotte where the Nets’ reserves went on a 14-0 run to break the game open at the start of the fourth quarter while holding the Hornets scoreless for a span of 5:56 on the way to a 111-104 victory.
Suddenly, it’s the low-profile free-agent signings like Iman Shumpert and David Nwaba who are starting to impact games along with developmental players Dzanan Musa and Theo Pinson while getting important leadership from veteran center DeAndre Jordan, who came in the bargain with Irving and Kevin Durant in the offseason. Now, the test is whether the second unit can duplicate that defensive energy against the Nuggets Sunday afternoon at Barclays Center.
Coach Kenny Atkinson credited Shumpert, who had four steals, for changing the game in the fourth quarter. He was signed using the extra roster spot the Nets received for the last 20 games of Wilson Chandler’s suspension, and it appears Shumpert has become an integral part of the team and likely will be retained when Chandler returns on Dec. 15 and the Nets have to release someone.
“He’s been a sparkplug,” Atkinson said of Shumpert. “He’s really what we asked for. We asked for a perimeter defender, a guy that can really guard multiple positions. And then, he’s got a great spirit in the locker room.”
Shumpert’s lively sense of humor and infectious spirit has helped galvanize the Nets’ locker room during the 8-3 stretch they have enjoyed since he joined the lineup. Joe Harris, who knew Shumpert from their days together with the Cavaliers, smiled and said, “Shump is a very unique personality, and I just think he brings that energy and that entertainment every time that you see him. He is authentically himself for sure. He doesn’t change for anybody. That’s why people love him.”
On a quieter level, Nwaba lately has provided the offensive spark the second unit lacked, averaging 9.5 points over his past four games. Combine that with his defensive prowess, and he looks like a keeper, too.
“I can’t believe how confident he is playing,” Atkinson said. “For a guy that wasn’t playing, he is in the flow. His athleticism obviously helps us, but I love the way he is shooting the ball. There is no hesitation, and that’s opening up his drives, too. So, he is playing really well.”
Nwaba credited his extra workouts with other Nets who have seen limited playing time. “Just being confident in myself is the biggest thing,” Nwaba said. “I’m taking the open shots and I’m just playing off of that.”
At the same time, Nwaba and Shumpert emphasized that defense remains the calling card for the Nets’ second unit. “We’ve all got to stop talking about defense like it’s not the other side of the ball,” Shumpert said. “The other side of the ball is just as important as offense.”