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League-worst Nets providing hope for future

Recent Run of Success Bodes Well for Brooklyn’s Marks and Atkinson

April 6, 2017 By John Torenli, Sports Editor Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The return of Jeremy Lin has helped first-year coach Kenny Atkinson and the Nets point the way to a better future. AP Photo by Frank Franklin II
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Predicted to be the NBA’s worst team this season before a single game was played, the Brooklyn Nets are well on their way to fulfilling that low expectation.

But since March 1, the current owners of the league’s worst record have actually put together a stretch that provides hope that all was not lost during this first full year of the Sean Marks-Kenny Atkinson era.

By splitting its last 20 games, and riding a season-high three-game winning streak into Thursday night’s game in Orlando, Brooklyn has begun to show that it might not be such a walk-over for opponents in 2017-2018.

“It helps our morale,” first-year coach Atkinson said following Tuesday night’s impressive 141-118 victory in Philadelphia.

“I think the fans can appreciate that they see progress.”

The Brooklyn fans will get one more chance to see the Nets (19-59) this season, when the Chicago Bulls visit the Barclays Center on Saturday at 5 p.m., for Fan Appreciation Day.

The Nets should be appreciative of the 15,371-fan average they have pulled into their Downtown arena despite spending most of this campaign in the Eastern Conference cellar.

Brooklyn lost a season-high 16 games in a row before its March resurgence, and also dropped a franchise-record 16 straight here on the corners of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues.

Not exactly the type of record-making that has fans rushing through the turnstiles.

A major factor in the Nets’ lack of success was the 44-game absence of point guard Jeremy Lin, who inked a three-year, $36 million deal with the Nets this past summer in the hopes or orchestrating Atkinson’s offense and initiating general manager Marks’ long-term, patient approach to team-building.

The Nets have gone 10-12 overall since Lin returned from his second extended stint on the shelf due to hamstring issues, and former All-Star center Brook Lopez has been the main beneficiary since the return of Atkinson’s “quarterback”.

Lopez and Lin both had 16 points during Tuesday night’s rare rout over the 76ers, but more importantly, their pick-and-roll mastery is enabling the players around them to flourish as opposing defenses are forced to defend the Nets’ dynamic duo.

“It starts with Jeremy and Brook,” Atkinson said. “When they get other guys involved, I think it helps our offense a lot.”

“I’d say the way we got the shots was like, really beautiful to me,” added Lin after dishing out seven assists and grabbing five rebounds against the Sixers despite logging just 23 minutes of court time.

“Beautiful basketball. Super unselfish.”

That may prove to be the team’s motto for next season, if, of course, they can carry over this better-late-than-never run of solid basketball.

In order to do so, they will have to see increased development from the likes of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, a superb athlete and tough defender who is just starting to find his touch around the basket, and Isaiah Whitehead, the Lincoln High School legend that has benefitted from the Nets’ misery and Lin’s injury by logging more minutes than expected in his rookie campaign.

“I just got to hand it to coach Atkinson,” said Whitehead, who is averaging 7.5 points per game for the Nets, but could easily be riding the season out on the bench or even be in the Developmental League if not for Brooklyn’s belief that he was ready to compete at this level this early in his career.

“He could’ve easily went out and got another point guard, or he could’ve easily went out and got some more players, but he stuck with me,” Whitehead added. “He believed in my abilities, so I just got to give all the thanks to him.”

Thanks in large part to their late-season surge, the Nets rank a respectable 12th in the league in points per game, but are in the NBA basement because they yield 112.5 per contest, which ranks them 29th on the 30-team circuit.

Tuesday night’s rout afforded Atkinson the opportunity to empty his bench early, creating a chance for eight Nets to finish in double figures in scoring, including Marks’ brigade of pick-ups since his anointment as the franchise’s architect in February 2016.

Sean Kilpatrick (13 points), Archie Goodwin (14 points) and K.J. McDaniels (14 points) were all players that were underutilized by other franchises, or stuck down in the D-League before Marks came calling.

The GM also went to work at this year’s trade deadline, dealing Bojan Bogdanovic and Chris McCullough to the Washington Wizards in exchange for a lottery-protected first-round pick and forward Andrew Nicholson.

Brooklyn now has two first-rounders next year, though neither will likely make up for the absence of what could have been the first overall selection if former GM Billy King hadn’t dealt away the Nets’ coveted draft rights in the infamous 2013 deal for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce from Boston.

“We obviously value the draft or we wouldn’t have done it,” said Marks of dealing Bogdanovic.

“It’s about being strategic, and having two picks now gives us an opportunity to move up with those picks,” he added. “You can hold them where you are if your players are there at the time. You’re using players and picks, there’s a lot of different things you can do there. We like the draft, so we’ll just see where we go.”

Where, or how far, they ultimately go is anyone’s guess at this point.

But one thing Atkinson and Marks have given Brooklyn fans over these last five weeks is hope for a better future.

And that was the plan going into their first season together.

“I can’t wait until the offseason to improve,” Atkinson said.


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