Yogi Ferrell‘s career with the Indiana Hoosiers finished against North Carolina in the 2016 Sweet 16. Despite a 25 points-4 assists effort by their most representative player in the last twenty years, IU never really had a chance, with the Tar Heels going up by ten halfway through the first half and never looking back. It was not a pleasant way to finish a career that sees him first in assists, games started, games played and sixth in scoring in the history of Indiana University. He was the heart and soul of the roster, setting the tone with a team first approach and never looking for personal glory. A special player, a rare mix of talent, leadership and charisma the Nba certainly could not miss.
Yet, last June, neither Adam Silver nor Mark Tatum (Nba Deputy Commissioner, calling the names of second round picks on draft night) called his name. At 5-9, 178 pounds, and 23 years of age, he must have been deemed unfit for the Nba: too low of a ceiling due to his age, too hard on his body, since almost all guards in the league are taller and bigger. But the Brooklyn Nets decided to give him a chance once he went undrafted.
He was ok in Summer League (8.8 points, 1.5 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 0.8 steals in 4 games) but he impressed the coaches in preseason and training camp, prompting coach Kenny Atkinson to recognize his impact on the team the day before he was waived: “He’s the Energizer Bunny. We saw that in Summer League. He can score in bunches. He’s dynamic. He’s done a really good job in camp”.
The Nets’ roster had no room for him, with veterans Jeremy Lin and Greivis Vasquez signing in free agency, the addition of rookies Isaiah Whitehead and Caris LeVert on draft night and holdovers in Bojan Bogdanovic and Sean Kilatrick. Ferrell ended up with the Long Island Nets, Brooklyn’s D-League affiliate, with the idea of joining the team later in the season, depending on the team’s position in the standings and his performances in the development league. The chance in the Nba came sooner than expected: LeVert is still rehabbing from foot surgery and the Nets will not rush his return (he had his first full practice with the team earlier this week), Vasquez was waived after an ankle injury limited him to 3 games, Lin went down with a strained left hamstring against Pistons, and the lack of available guards suddenly forces the team to call up the undrafted rookie from the D-League. And Ferrell was ready: ninth among all rookies in points and fifth in assists in 17 minutes of playing time off the bench.
Ferrell is unlikely to be a future star in the Nba. Undersized players are always in trouble against a league constantly growing in size (the smallball fascination hides the reality of rosters built with 6-6 players surrounding the likes of Towns, Porzingis, Embiid, Davis, and so on). Can a 5-9 player face that kind of opposition every night? Some players do it, but Isaiah Thomas in Boston is more of an exception. Ferrell might be a successful bench player, but he will need to find himself in an environment where he can grow, improve and establish himself. Until a couple of seasons ago, the Brooklyn Nets were the least likely place to start that kind of development, but they are starting a new course, and Ferrell might just be in the right place at the right time.
Rebuilding projects, whether it is the Nba or Ncaa, are a common sight and are pretty much all the same: new, young players with talent and upside, who can grow and eventually turn into the kind of “transcendent player” who can change the destiny of a whole franchise. Nba teams have the draft as the main tool to do that, except the Nets traded all of their first round picks up until 2018 to the Boston Celtics a few years ago. That sacrifice was worth a trip to the Eastern Conference semifinal in 2014 and a couple of first round exits. It was time to start over: coach Lionel Hollins was fired, ex Gm Billy King (he of the infamous trade that stripped the Nets of all the assests) took the blame for executing the ownership’s plan and was reassigned within the franchise. Since last February, the new Brooklyn Nets GM is the ex San Antonio Spurs Sean Marks, who has been asked to import the culture and mentality of the winningest franchise in the last 20 years while getting the team back to relevancy. He will need an injection of talent for a team depleted of stars, and Marks said that “draft picks are one way to build a team, but there’s several other places and other ways to go out there and do it”. Not that the Nets have a choice.
Player development is a key asset for the Nets, this season more than ever. Without picks in the draft (unless a trade sends back draft picks), internal development and finding talents that have been discarded in the hurry of the Nba is a must. And to actually develop players, a coach must be able to connect to the players in a very specific ways. It seems obvious, then, that Marks chose Kenny Atkinson, ex development coach for a number of Nba franchises, most recently for the Atlanta Hawks.
“Kenny has a great feel and great knowledge of the game. Those two things are not always synonymous. The feel is sometimes more subtle, more hard to find. And then he has a way of connecting. So when you are talking about player development, you got to understand the game and be able to feel it, and then got to be able to communicate it and connect with the players. He has done that at a high level the whole time we have been here”, said coach Mike Budenholzer, Atlanta Hawks head coach and assistant coach to Gregg Popovich for 18 season in San Antonio.
The new coach isn’t backing down from the challenge. Just after his hiring he said that the team would have to “look under every rock” when looking for talent. And they did just that. But most important of all, the Nets needed to send the message to the rest of the league that things were changing, to make the franchise more appealing to future free agents. The Nets are playing fast (102.2 possession per 48 minutes, first in the league in pace) and the players are actually working on defense (although numbers don’t back them up: 110.7 Defensive Rating, 28th in the league). Their motion offense keeps the ball moving, every player gets touches within the same possession and shoots a lot from behind the arc. When the team was sneaking into the playoffs, the only reason to stay positive was playing in the postseason, because the team was mostly playing an isolation-heavy offense. This year, the fans have a fun team to watch and cheer for, despite the numbers of losses the Nets will collect throughout the season. The talent available is not what fans would hope for, but most of these players are worth the Nba and they are getting their chance to rekindle their careers thanks to coach Atkinson and Sean Marks.
Beside Ferrell, the Nets have two more rookies in LeVert and Whitehead. The former was a high-risk high-reward kind of pick for Brooklyn, who flipped an asset in a trade to get him. His recovery will be slow and the team will try to avoid any sort of risk. The Nets have nothing to lose with him, but if LeVert had to fully recover, they have a lot to gain.
Whitehead, on the other hand, found himself immediately in the rotation, at first as a backup to Lin, and then as a starter when the ex Harvard went down with an injury. He plays roughly the same minutes as Ferrell and he is averaging the same number of assists, but his frame helps him on defense. Whitehead was one of the best player in Seton Hall history, but he also came to the Nba as a high-volume low-efficiency shooter. Finding a team who believed in him enough to pay a pretty penny to acquire him and sign him and then be the starting point guard six games into the season should feel great.
The other youngsters
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was the 23rd pick in the 2015 draft but, 29 games into his first season, he needed surgery to repair a broken ankle. He came back this season and he is once again the best defender for the Nets, although his offensive game is still extremely poor. The ex Arizona has a future as a role player, and if he had to improve on his outside shooting he might turn into a devastating 3-and-D wing who can guard four positions.
The first move by new GM Sean Marks was signing Sean Kilpatrick, a good offensive talent and a poor defender in the Nba. His defense was what kept him out of the league, but he is slowly improving on it. His defensive rating actually improved, going from 115 to 111, and if he had to turn into an ok defender, his offensive talent might be enough to make up for it.
The same could be said for Joe Harris. Drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round, he was a great shooter for Virginia in his four seasons there. He spent more than a season in D-League while in Cleveland, was traded to the Orlando Magic as a salary dump and immediately waved. He signed with Brooklyn in the offseason and, while his numbers are not that good (9 points per game, 31.1% from three), he is playing over 20 minutes a game and the coaches hope he can get back the confidence in his shot and reach once again the 40% mark from behind the arc.
The most fascinating story is that of Justin Hamilton, a second round pick for the Philadelphia 76ers in 2012. He found himself bouncing around the league for a few years before deciding to bring his talents overseas, in Valencia in the Spanish ACB, where he averaged 14.1 points and 5.4 rebounds. After such a positive season, the Nets decided to give him a chance and bring him in as a backup for Brook Lopez, although he was probably not expecting such an expanded role. The two center are splitting more or less evenly their time on the court, both have a nice shooting touch from behind the arc (36.7% for Lopez, 44.2% for Hamilton) and they often choose to play the pick-and-pop game with their guards to open up the paint. Hamilton showed a consistent shot in Spain for the first time, that’s why he said in an interview that “Spain saved his Nba career”.
The Nets are at a turning point, they embraced a long term plan, both their GM and coach who are capable of evaluating raw talent and develop it within a system that they established, and signed veterans to mentor all of their young guys and be a positive presence in the locker room. Yogi Ferrell and his teammates might soon be part of a winning core.