Nets stand pat and draw cubs, bet on upside

The Brooklyn Nets came to Thursday night NBA Draft with an abundance of possibilities. Armed with consecutive first-round picks at Nos. 21 and 22, as well as the 51st pick, the Nets could have packaged their picks to move up or trade one of their veteran wings, Royce O’Neale or Dorian Finney-Smith for a improved choice. They chose neither.

The big surprise was that there was no surprise.

Speaking to the media at the conclusion of the draft, Sean Marks acknowledged the possibility of moving up in the draft, but said the Nets chose it.

“Yeah, I mean, there’s a lot of conversations at the draft, you know? You go in, you think you know what’s going to come your way, and then there’s always a few things that might surprise you a little,” he said. “But we didn’t see the need to do that. And as the draft progressed, I think we’re very, very happy with how it played out for the Brooklyn Nets.”

That played out for Brooklyn by drafting two 18-year-olds with their consecutive first-rounders, Noah Clowney and Dariq Whitehead, respectively. How young are they? Whitehead is the youngest prospect ever drafted by the franchise, Clowney the third youngest.

Clowney, a 6’10” power forward from Alabama with a 7’2″ wingspan, brought tenacious rebounding and a strong willingness to shoot from deep to the Crimson Tide along with Brandon Miller at No. 2. Whitehead, another one-and- made prospect, comes from Duke, where the Newark native battled a recurring foot injury that led to a slide in the draft.

At the end of the night, the Nets pounced on 6’8” first-round pick Jalen Wilson, a 22-year-old four-year prospect from head coach Jacque Vaughn’s alma mater, Kansas University.

By and large, the Nets are betting on long-term upside in these players. After being swept in the first round of the postseason by Philadelphia 76ersthe club is far from competing for a championship, and is well aware of it.

“We’re excited about these young men that we’re getting to add to our Nets family. It’s just amazing, the benefits of all of them,” Marks noted. “I mean, you know, a couple of these guys are 18 years old, so I’m just excited to see, ‘where is this guy going to be in two years? Where will he be in three years? Where will he be in five years?'”

Ironically, Clowney doesn’t seem to know where he’ll be in two, three or five years.

“In two to three years, it’s difficult,” he told the media shortly after being drafted. “I never really think about it [myself] individually.

“Obviously I want to improve and perfect my game in each [way] possible. I want to be as versatile as I can be in terms of dribbling, shooting, everything. I want to be able to pass the ball well, because when you are a good decision maker, it makes the game a lot easier offensively. And defensively I will be a force. I would like to be in talks about the awards for the defender of the year. But honestly, I want playoff runs. I want to win.”

Clowney is an energetic big whose willingness from 3-point land endears the Nets brass. He averaged 9.8 points, 7.9 rebounds and 0.9 blocks per game. 25.4 minutes a game in his only collegiate season. Although he shot just 28.3% from deep in the SEC, his 3.3 attempts per night optimism for Marks.

“He doesn’t shy away from shooting it. That’s what we want. Confidence is something some people are born with, some people grow it, and you hope that a guy like Noah, his confidence just continues to grow and grow and grow.”

On the defensive end, Clowney says that’s where he “hangs his hat.”

“Guard multiple positions. We protect the rim … from a mental standpoint, I do what I’m asked,” he asserts. The Nets may not have repeated those goals Thursday, but are impressed with his lateral mobility ability to switch and guard multiple positions, much like his fellow South Carolinian, Nic Claxton.

Whitehead’s upside could be even higher. The former No. 2 prospect in his high school class was sidelined by a right foot injury, then returned to the game too soon, requiring another procedure, which dropped his stock. He ultimately posted averages of 8.3 points in 20 minutes per game. match, but with promising shooting percentages. He emerges as a strong shooter with 42.9% from deep and 79.3% accuracy from the charity stripe.

The repeated foot injuries are reminiscent of former Nets draft pick Caris LeVert, another guard/wing selected in the 20s of the first round. Whitehead, like LeVert, underwent surgery at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York earlier this month. Dr. Martin O’Malley, a longtime member of the Nets medical staff who also performed Kevin Durant’s ankle and Achilles surgeries.

Marks is confident the foot injury won’t be a concern, citing LeVert’s history with the franchise. “Knowing what we know, and it’s obviously not the same injury, but a similar injury with Caris LeVert, and our performance team has done a heck of a job. So they know what they’re going to do with him.”

Whitehead will not play along NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, but will be ready for training camp this fall. And while he wasn’t ready for the draft, he’s certainly excited.

Brooklyn’s final pick of the night, Jalen Wilson, will be donning black and white in the Nevada desert in July. Wilson led his Jayhawks team in scoring and rebounding, with 20.1 and 8.2 each, and was a key member of the 2022 national championship team.

“Jalen: He’s a champion,” said Marks of Wilson, who was part of the Jayhawks’ run to an NCAA title in 2023. “He’s won before, so he’s seen what it takes. Being coached right hard, be trained well.”

Despite no longer being a perennial championship contender, the Nets plan to compete, Marks said. They’re not going to turn into a dark one overnight, and especially not on Draft night, he acknowledged, but with a summer full of possibilities ahead, Brooklyn certainly kept its options open. They didn’t have to act DFS or O’Neale or use Joe Tsai’s money to move up at their home ground Barclays. Instead, they drafted their version of “best player available” and kept the ball rolling.

The Nets will present all three picks on Friday at 12:00 PM ET at a press conference hosted by Marks.

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