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Piling Up Low-Cost Youth In the Swamp

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Thus far, there seems to be just one certainty regarding the New Jersey Nets' plan going forward: They intend to have the cap space necessary to make a legitimate run at LeBron in the summer of 2010.

After that, it's all a mystery.  It looks like Devin Harris is going to be the point guard for some to come.  Whether the team will try and if it could be successful at getting out from under Vince Carter's massive contract between now and 2011 is anyone's guess.  Same goes for the identities of the pieces that will be in place to help lure LeBron to town along with all the dough in two years.

For now, the Nets remain an interesting set of question marks thanks to the youth on the team.  They have done an intriguing job of putting together several young draft talents at low prices in hopes of having a couple mature big-time over the next two years.  The only problem is that it's hard to see a bona fide blue-chipper in this group.

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The Nets have seven players on their roster from the last three drafts, two from the first round of each plus Chris Douglas-Roberts from the second round this year.  Thanks to rookie contracts, none will make so much as $3 million this season, and only Yi Jianlian will next year.  It's a pretty good deal considering the low spending the Nets have been looking to practice.

It's finding out what each of these players really brings to the table in extended NBA minutes over the next couple of seasons that will make watching the Nets interesting.   

Josh Boone and Maurice Ager are the two with the longest tenures in the league, although Ager has only played in 58 games as a pro.  So far, Ager hasn't been anything special at the pro level, and the Mavs certainly seemed to believe he was little more than a reserve worthy of scrub minutes.  Ager was a good college player at a reputable program in Michigan State, and perhaps he'll get more of a chance if healthy in Jersey this year.

Boone seems to be the most clearly defined of the bunch so far.  He is a low-risk-low-ceiling big man.  The guy has no shooting touch and is a major liability from the charity stripe, but he plays hard all the time and is a very good rebounder, particularly on the offensive end. He'll get a few dunks off put-backs and defensive ignorance, and he'll always play smart enough to avoid killing his own team.  Boone isn't a great defender, but he works hard enough to cover some of his deficiencies.  Still, the guess here is that he will be best used as a reserve energy guy in the long run.

Yi Jianlian came to the league from China with obsevers fairly polarized on whether he'd be great or terrible, and he split the middle for his rookie season.  He averaged a bit more than 8 points and 5 boards per game and wasn't particularly efficient from the field.  Yi started 49 of his 66 games and was hampered by injuries as well.  He certainly isn't a personal favorite here as I'm not sure exactly what skill the guy has that will set him apart as a stud NBA player.  But he is supposed to have very nice touch for a guy his size, and in a season in which he is expected to get plenty of opportunities, we'll learn a bit more about him this year.

This year's draft brought in three more players who were solid collegiates.   Brook Lopez was initially projected to go several spots higher before falling to the Nets with the tenth pick, and some of his fall may have been related to scouts' concerns that both he and his brother Robin will be more geared toward serving as spark plug role players than big-time stars.  But Lopez has legitimate center size and a good face-up game around the basket.  He is a smart player who comes from a very solid program at Stanford and should be able to at least hold his own in the league.  His ceiling remains unknown.

Same goes for power forward Ryan Anderson from California.  This is a guy who was tremendously efficient in scoring 21 points per game in his final year at Cal while shooting 41 percent from deep and 49 percent overall from the field.  This is a 6-foot-10 guy who also nearly averaged double-digits in rebounds as well.  Anderson fell to 21 because of concerns about his quickness and defense and whether he has NBA athleticism, but the Nets would be foolish not to give him an extended look in the year to come.  Meanwhile, Douglas-Roberts is expected to be another solid-but-not-spectacular player who took part in the national title game (see also: Chalmers, Mario, and Dorsey, Joey), and the Nets likely got a steal with him in the mid-second round.

Finally, the most captivating player of this bunch is the one who might have the most physical ability of all.   Sean Williams fell to the Nets at 17th in the 2007 draft primarily for one reason, which was concern about his character.  The guy had a myriad of troubles at Boston College, and there are still plenty of questions about how long he'll be able to keep his act together in the NBA.  But he can play, particularly on the defensive end.  Williams' length, leaping, timing and shot-blocking instincts are nothing short of fantastic, and he blocked 1.5 shots in less than 20 minutes per game last season, good for 3.0 per 36 minutes.  The guy has the quickness to become an interior force defensively, and if he adds a bit more to his offensive arsenal, he could become the Nets' best all-around performer of any of their youngsters.  If Williams commits to behaving - he wasn't a major problem as a rookie - he has the ability to be truly special.  But as always, conduct is no guarantee.

As mentioned above, the problem here is that for all the Nets' young prospects, it's hard to identify any of them as a can't-miss player.  Devin Harris is the only guy on this team right now that seems worthy of being identified as a major piece to build around going forward, and whether that is enough to woo LeBron or other major free agents in 2010 is anyone's guess.  Finding out which if any of the Nets' neophytes are for real and which are destined for careers on the pine may well be the story this year in the Swamp.  

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