LOS ANGELES — The Nets’ rebuild is just beginning, and their unexpected success and competitive results gave rise to an early sense of optimism. Then, reality bit hard in a 32-point loss to the Clippers (10-1) Monday night at Staples Center.
The Nets fell behind 35-7 and trailed by as many as 40 points. As horrible a performance as that was, coach Kenny Atkinson still took advantage of the opportunity to use those adverse circumstances as an incubator for young prospects Yogi Ferrell and Chris McCullough.
Pressed into service as the backup point guard because Jeremy Lin (hamstring) and Isaiah Whitehead (concussion) were out, Ferrell had 13 points, a team-high five assists and was the catalyst for a second-quarter surge that cut a 29-point Clippers lead to 19. McCullough, who recently played two D-League games, played the full fourth quarter and scored 13 garbage-time points, shooting 6-for-9.
“I thought Yogi was really good,” Atkinson said. “Chris McCullough, after being in the D-League, I loved that he came in and played well at the end. It was a great learning experience for them. We’ll look back and say, ‘That helped them get better.’ ”
After facing Clippers All-Star point guard Chris Paul, Ferrell figured to come back Tuesday night at Staples Center to get some time against a more familiar opponent, Lakers second-year point guard D’Angelo Russell. Ferrell was at Indiana when Russell played his only Big Ten season for Ohio State.
Describing what it was like to face Paul, Ferrell said, “It was very interesting. I’m glad I got to go up against him in my third game. I took a lot of pointers from him in how he was leading his team and how he was finding different guys and even scoring for himself.”
Ferrell credited a solid stretch of team defense for the Nets’ second-quarter rally. At the same time, he played with the kind of pace that Atkinson wants to get the offense into gear. Although some consider the 6-foot Ferrell too small to succeed in the NBA, he’s a good fit for Atkinson’s system because he played much the same way at Indiana under Tom Crean.
“This is going to build my confidence,” Ferrell said of the Clippers game. “I feel like I played really well. I feed off of my teammates. They tell me to be aggressive, do what I do in practice.”
He understands defenses will attack the Nets’ point guards even when Lin returns because the veterans really are combination guards and Ferrell and Whitehead are rookies. “Yeah, but I’m willing to take that challenge just to see where I am and assess myself and look at the film and see where I can get better,” Ferrell said. “I’m not going to back down from anybody.”
The 6-11 McCullough, who was the Nets’ first-round pick in 2015, played only 24 games as a rookie before suffering a season-ending torn right ACL. In two games with the Long Island Nets last week, he averaged 17.0 points and 6.5 rebounds and shot 51.9 percent.
“I think it was a great experience for me,” McCullough said. “It was an opportunity to play minutes, get up and down the floor and just play my game. It definitely builds your confidence. You go down there and play aggressive and come back up here and play aggressive.”
Asked if Atkinson has told him to expect a season-long shuttle between the two rosters, McCullough said, “He hasn’t told me, but honestly, I think I do need it just to get me going. It was good for me going down and getting a chance to play. The more experience I get, the more comfortable I get.”
That’s the idea.