By Steve Lichtenstein
» More Columns
Given all the gushing the Nets have heaped upon center Jarrett Allen from the day they selected him with the 20th overall pick in June’s draft through the first few months of his rookie season, I felt the need to get my eyes checked.
“With the really good ones, you know right away,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said of Allen following the injury-depleted Nets’ 116-108 home victory over Philadelphia on Wednesday.
What were Atkinson and general manager Sean Marks seeing that I was missing?
Sure, the athleticism from the 6-foot 11 Allen lent itself to highlight-reel plays every now and then, from impressive blocked shots to emphatic dunks. On the other hand, I’ve often felt the Nets, in their primary mission of development, tend to emphasize such moments (they call them “small victories”) over the whole picture, as in how much a given player contributes to wins or losses.
Through December, Brooklyn was terrible with Allen on the court. His minus-7.4 rating per 100 possessions was worse than anyone who played at least 20 of the team’s first 36 games except useless center Timofey Mozgov.
If Allen could bulk up from his listed 234 pounds to handle the league’s physicality, if he could develop even a short-range game (he converted an egregiously low 36 percent of his first 50 layups while also blowing 6 of 34 dunks), and then expand his range so as to not clog the club’s spacing, then maybe the Nets had something.
If, if, if.
I was willing to give him time. He’s only 19.
In this case, however, necessity has sped up development. A stint with the Nets’ Long Island G-League affiliate could never even be contemplated.
First Mozgov and then Tyler Zeller played their way out of the Nets’ center rotation. Jahlil Okafor, who was acquired in a Dec. 7 trade with Philadelphia, has been eased into the picture, to say the least. He is averaging just 13 minutes per game.
Enter Allen, who has seen his responsibilities grow over the course of the season to the point that he started the Nets’ last two contests, including Tuesday’s 111-95 loss at the Knicks.
Make no mistake, Allen earned the promotion with a significant uptick in his offensive production throughout January. After scoring on 11 of his 12 shots from the floor over these last two games, Allen finished the month with a 72.2 percent field goal percentage, the highest of any Net with at least 70 attempts in a month since the 1983-84 season, per the Nets PR department.
Against the 76ers, Allen recorded career highs in rebounds (12), assists (three) and free throws made (six) while tying his career high with 16 points.
Still, this will truly be a trial by fire, as evidenced by Allen often getting overpowered by the likes of New York’s Enes Kanter and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid. The Nets were hammered on the boards when Allen was on the floor — the team’s defensive rebounding percentage dropped from 83.3 percent with other centers to 75 percent with Allen in the last two games.
He committed six turnovers, including a potentially costly one with 1:03 remaining Wednesday when his rebound of Robert Covington’s missed free throw was stripped by Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons. Fortunately, Quincy Acy hustled over to snuff Dario Saric’s ensuing layup attempt that could have cut Brooklyn’s lead to just three points. Spencer Dinwiddie grabbed the loose ball and then the Nets, who played without starting forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and sixth man Caris LeVert, proceeded to ice the game from the free-throw line.
“I thought he fought,” Atkinson said of Allen’s matchup down the stretch with the elite Embiid. “We did not want to send double teams, we did not want to front (Embiid) — we did not want to leave those 3-point shooters — and (Embiid) had to work for every point. Obviously, he’s got to get stronger, but he competed his tail off.”
Offensively, Allen has been having success adding to his repertoire. He can hook with either hand, and he has at least been efficient (59 percent, including 1-for-1 from behind the left corner 3-point line) from outside the restricted area in January.
“I take pride on defense,” Allen said. “So when my defense is going good, it lets me do things on offense. We work on (offensive moves in practice) in small chunks. We don’t really work on the whole sets of moves. I try to piece every type of move together that I could use in the post.”
The capacity to make these kind of improvements is what caught the Nets’ eye when they scouted Allen’s sole season at Texas.
“He’s got a maturity about him that most 20-year olds don’t have,” Atkinson said. “He’s a really smart kid. You tell him one thing or give him a coaching point — we were upset with him for shooting too many of those floaters in the pick-and-roll, and now he’s just trying to get in there, get closer to the rim and shoot jump hooks and trying to dunk everything and taking higher percentage shots. As he gets stronger, he’s going to be really good. He was a poor free-throw shooter coming in to us, and I think he’s in the 76 or 77 percent (76.1). It’s great to see.”
I was right to be skeptical about the Nets’ initial hype regarding Allen. After seeing the literal and figurative leaps he has made this season, I would be right to be less so now.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1