The Nets wrapped up their Summer League excursion in Las Vegas with a 102-95 victory over the Celtics on Saturday night to finish the tournament above water at 3-2.
Not that the record means anything—and beating the Celtics had absolutely zero effect on the payback scale from Boston’s four-game sweep of Brooklyn in the first round of the playoffs. In truth, if you went into this thing with high expectations based on the fact that the Nets’ starting five were all returning players, with four of them having NBA playing time experience, you should be disappointed that they didn’t look all that superior to teams with nobodies.
Sure, you could choose to focus on the marginal improvements in certain aspects of players’ repertoires, from Cam Thomas’ playmaking to Day’Ron Sharpe knocking down a few three-pointers, but no one can claim they took a major leap the way I recall Richard Jefferson did between the summer before his sophomore season or the Knicks Quintin Grimes has this go-round. Mostly, what we saw over the last 10 days was more of the same from the Nets’ notables.
Here are three other takeaways from what the Nets did this summer:
1) Now, about that other end of the floor…
For the most part, Thomas delivered as promised. He showcased his ability to create offense out of nothing, especially using his knack for getting to the free throw line—only Golden State’s Moses Moody topped Thomas’ 10.8 free throws per game in Vegas. Thomas also continued to provide evidence that he’s more of a volume scorer than an efficient one, posting a 44.2/27.3/87 shooting split, which was in line with his stats from his rookie regular season against NBA pros. As noted above, there were stretches where Thomas showed good awareness of where his open teammates were, but there were still way too many bad decisions with the ball in his hands to deem any such progress definitive. However, the area that might keep Thomas on the bench this season is on the defensive end. Whether the effort he put forth this summer was his normal or he was genuinely allowed to conserve his energy on defense, the results were ugly. When screened, his instinct wasn’t to fight through or get to the shooter’s back side. He didn’t go under or switch either. It looked like he simply gave up on many pick-and-rolls, floating to spots where he hoped might be a passing lane. He was too often late in help defense and had almost no impact when contesting shooters. This isn’t going to cut it. He’s not Kyrie Irving. Thomas may only be 20, but it’s not too early to deliver this warning: He either has to start taking his defensive responsibilities seriously or he won’t even get a chance to live up to his potential.
2) Duke Jr. highlights not enough to prove prime time worthiness
Many of the most spectacular Nets highlights in Vegas came courtesy of David Duke Jr., who parlayed a successful 2021 Summer League into a two-way contract in Brooklyn last season. Duke Jr. reportedly turned down another two-way deal in the hope that some team, if not the Nets, will offer him a standard contract for 2022-23. While his raw numbers in the tournament (12th-best 19 ppg to go along with 4.6 rebounds and 4 assists) and hounding defense suggest he’s ready for that next step, he’s not the right fit on the Nets. How many times will this organization get burned by wasting roster spots on guards/wings who can’t shoot three-pointers? Duke Jr. went 5-for-20 (25%) from deep in Vegas, nearly the same conversion rate as he had on the 37 three-point attempts he took last regular-season. As we saw all last season, placing non-shooters on the floor makes running an effective offense extremely difficult, even when you have superstars like Irving and Kevin Durant facilitating it. You can get away with it for a good chunk of the regular season, but in the playoffs, such weaknesses are exploited to the nth power. Now, if management’s plan for this season calls for the Nets to blow it all up by trading their two stars and reverting to a development culture, then Duke Jr. is obviously a prime candidate to make such a team that has no urgency to win. However, I’m going under the assumption that the end game of all the Nets’ drama is for KD and Kyrie to run it back one more time just to see if adding Ben Simmons into the mix addresses the deficiencies that held them back last season. If that holds true, then how many developmental projects who aren’t playoff-ready can you place on one 15-man roster? Brooklyn has already committed to Sharpe, Thomas, and Kessler Edwards, none of whom I’d trust against the Eastern Conference’s elite when it matters; what’s missing are the veteran pieces to fill spots 10-through-12. And while we’re at it, the Nets should immediately withdraw that two-way contract given to guard Alondes Williams. His exquisite passing can be neutralized (he coughed it up 11 times in 97 Vegas minutes) by teams playing off him because he too can’t shoot a lick.
3) Invitations only
I wrote about my fascination with forward RaiQuan Gray in my last Nets post Thomas Trying To Alter No-Pass Narrative In Nets Summer League Games (substack.com), wondering whether he has a future in this organization. As a second-round pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, Gray was allowed to be allocated directly to G-League Long Island last season without the Nets losing his draft rights. Should he be invited to September’s training camp and cut, my understanding is that he’d be a free agent. It’s possible that the Nets’ plan for Gray is to stash him somewhere for another year. Usually, Exhibit 10 training camp deals are for undrafted players whereas Gray would need to be signed to a two-way or an NBA standard contract (albeit one that might not be guaranteed). Among the Nets Summer League contingent, no free agent other than Duke Jr. really stood out as worthy for a camp invite. In my view, the one who came closest was wing Donovan Williams. Playing in his UNLV college arena, he seemed comfortable in his limited opportunities, knocking down 3-of-4 from deep. I’m under no illusions that he is an NBA player—he needs to hit the gym hard to be able to withstand the league’s physicality. However, I think a G-League assignment for this season isn’t out of the question. As for the other training camp invites, hopefully the Nets have scouted other clubs’ Summer League teams well.
If RaiQuan Gray has some Draymond in him, we should invest another season of development in his growth. While his height is less than ideal, his body type should allow him to tangle with other Power-Forwards and, at best, hold his own. I can imagine him struggling against Giannis and Anthony Davis. Then again, who's effective guarding them? Perhaps only a healthy Jonathan Isaac.
Steve, is the ideal situation to bring back all three of our Stars and allow these role-players to show what they can do with the starters and veteran role-players? If we could get Thomas, Williams, Edwards, Gray, and Sharpe to play 10-18 minutes off the bench as a cohesive unit, many would guess something catastrophic happened to our team. Hopefully, we get closure on the Durant and Irving situation sooner than later
Hope you're doing well brother.
I completely agree with you on Cam Thomas, specifically his defensive lapses. I only got to see the one game against the Timberwolves. I do see Kyrie as a 6th Man type off the bench. If he's gonna find success by mirroring his game after Kyrie, management must prioritize a guy like Ben Simmons.
To that end, I saw Alondes Williams as a guy that should've played a bunch of minutes at starting 2-Guard next to Cam. I heard he couldn't shoot and if our coaching staff fails to put him in the best position to optimize his skills, we're wasting time