LOS ANGELES — It’s not as though Trevor Booker was an unknown quantity in the NBA. He was a part-time starter for four seasons with Washington and a solid backup the past two seasons with Utah. But now he’s blossoming with the Nets as the full-time starter at power forward and as their defensive leader.
Booker scored eight points in the 20-4 run the Nets used to close out a 122-104 victory Saturday night in Phoenix, and with center Brook Lopez ruled out of Monday night’s game against the Clippers at Staples Center to rest, the Nets figured to lean even more heavily on Booker. He and 6-11 Justin Hamilton, who was scheduled to start in place of Lopez, faced a physical matchup against Clippers big men Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.
Asked at Monday’s shootaround about taking on Jordan and Griffin without help from the 7-foot Lopez, Booker said, “It’s going to be tougher, I know that. He’s a big part of our team, especially offensively. Somebody is going to have to pick up the scoring. We’re facing two very good low-post players in Jordan and Griffin. It’s going to be a challenge, but this team likes challenges.”
Of all the free agents signed by new Nets general manager Sean Marks, Booker might be the one who best personifies the underdog mentality of a team fighting for respectability after finishing 21-61 last season.
“He reminds me of Lawrence Taylor — speed, aggressiveness, anticipation, toughness and he rebounds the ball,” said coach Kenny Atkinson, comparing Booker to the great Giants linebacker.
“He’s so active and so fast. For today’s NBA, he’s a good fit for our system . . . The guys love him and the coaches. Our intel was fantastic on him, and Sean did a great job finding a guy like that who fits in the locker room and is willing to play defense.”
Last season, the Nets ranked 29th in defense in the NBA. Entering Monday night’s game, they were 11th in defensive efficiency, 13th in opponents’ field-goal percentage and 21st in average points allowed. Booker, who generally covers the best opposing big man, is a major reason for that improvement.
Looking ahead to the matchup with Griffin and Jordan, Booker said, “I expect it to be very physical. Those are two physical players, but we’re not going to back down . . . It’s still early in the season, so we’re learning new terms and seeing who can do what. I just expect us to keep improving on the defensive end.”
Given the opportunity for an expanded role with the Nets, Booker, who will turn 29 next week, has seized it with both hands. Before the Clippers game, he was averaging 10.2 points and 8.9 rebounds in 26.8 minutes, all career highs.
“It’s a bigger role, and I love it,” Booker said. “I always envisioned myself as a starter. When I was in D.C., I started a few games and had the same type of production. So I’m not surprised at all what I can do. When I’m confident, it’s pretty tough to slow me down.”
Notes & quotes: Rookie point guard Isaiah Whitehead, who suffered a concussion when Minnesota’s 6-11, 260-pound Gorgui Dieng accidentally stepped on his head last Tuesday, rejoined the Nets in Los Angeles after completing the concussion protocol. Describing his symptoms, Whitehead said, “It was tough. I really didn’t feel together. It was just a weird feeling, a huge, huge, huge headache. And you can feel yourself slow down and you’re just not there.” Whitehead has avoided watching tape of the play . . . Rookie swingman Caris LeVert, who is coming off foot surgery, has been going full speed in practice, but Atkinson declined to project when Le Vert will be cleared to play, saying, “Yes, he’s progressing nicely.”