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NY Post
New York Post
2 Dec 2023

NextImg:How Jacque Vaughn’s evolution as a coach is helping the young Nets grow

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With the NBA season quarter pole visible on the horizon — and a matchup against his former Orlando team looming Saturday night — now seems like as good a time as any to assess where Jacque Vaughn and his Nets stand.

The short answer is probably further along in their rebuild than most expected by this point, but with a long way still to go.

Their first 18 games this season show how they’ve progressed and taken steps forward, while Thursday’s humbling loss to Charlotte underscored just how shaky each of those steps still are, and how easily this still-developing team can stumble if they veer even a little off the path Vaughn and his staff set down.

“Just [lack of] communication,” Mikal Bridges, on pace for career-highs in points, rebounds and assists, said of the club’s halting progress. “We’ve just got to talk out there and help each other out. Just being in the spots for everybody and just trust each other.”

Focus on attention to detail has been a constant talking point since the summer, and it’s allowed Brooklyn to avoid what could’ve — and perhaps should’ve — been a disastrous injury-riddled start.

If anything, Thursday was a stark reminder of what happens if they lose that focus.

Terry Rozier’s 37-point explosion and the Hornets’ ease with scoring was the result of poor communication, according to Mikal Bridges. AP

The Nets squandered a chance to win a season-high fourth straight, coughing up a staggering 73 first-half points and falling to a terrible Hornets because of a lack of concentration.

“Mark Williams had five offensive rebounds in the first half, Vaughn noted. “That has nothing to do with 3s. And for us to give that up, it’s just unacceptable for this group. To have a standard, to play a certain way every single game, and we did not have the standard that we typically have.

“It’s a concentration issue. At the end of the day, defensive rebounding has not been a problem for us; when you don’t concentrate, then it becomes a problem.”

The fact that rebounding hasn’t been a problem is a positive sign, because it’s been an Achilles’ heel for years. But the Nets are actually leading the league in rebounding (at 47.7 per game headed into Friday night), partly due to Vaughn’s decision to go with less switching on defense and more drop coverage and help on pick-and-rolls.

It was far from the only solid summer move from Vaughn.

Vaughn has learned that coaching has evolved to the point that he has to form more personal relationships with players than what he enjoyed when he played. Corey Sipkin for the NY Post

Brooklyn comes into Saturday’s tilt vs. the Magic at 9-9, actually a better mark than they had last season at this point (8-10) and outpacing expectations for a team that Caesars tabbed for just 36.5 wins. And they’ve done it facing one of the league’s toughest early schedules (seventh-toughest, per ESPN), and despite a raft of injuries.

The seeds of any regular-season success — and what the Nets hope is postseason success — were sown in the offseason. After Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving’s forced exits in February rocked the franchise and forced general manager Sean Marks into an unforeseen rebuild, Vaughn had to adjust as well.

Vaughn spent the summer retooling his staff, building one suited not just to coach stars but to develop everybody else. He also doubled down on communication, and we don’t just mean players talking on defense, but players, coaches and staff openly talking and building relationships.

Whether that was building trust with Ben Simmons, or mitigating enough of Cam Thomas’ weaknesses to let his scoring strength show, or developing Day’Ron Sharpe’s body or Lonnie Walker IV’s potential, some of Vaughn’s best work was done in July and August, and is starting to pay dividends in November and hopefully beyond.

“Oh, [the summer was] huge,” Vaughn told The Post. “Ben, in particular, the way our relationship is right now, those seeds were definitely sown in the summer.

Lonnie Walker IV said Vaughn is the first coach in his six-year career to push him to showcase the multiple ways he can score. NBAE via Getty Images

“I think, overall, my approach in the summertime was to give guys some distance, but also check in on them. And we were able to do that throughout the course of the summer, whether we sent coaches to see guys, whether it was the conversations I had with guys throughout the course of the summer.”

That in and of itself is a sign of growth for Vaughn, who learned under San Antonio icon Gregg Popovich and was a horrid 58-158 in his first stint as a head coach in Orlando.

But Vaughn has learned that coaching is a year-round endeavor now in the NBA, as is the need to build relationships.

“So, when I grew up in this league you saw your coach at the exit interview and then you saw him again in training camp,” Vaughn said. “That’s not the way things work anymore.

“The constant checking in and making sure guys are ready for the year, feel that they’re a part of their development in the offseason and that there’s a connection with me that goes beyond just when I see you on game nights.”

Basically, communication never sleeps. The personal bonds are going to have to strengthen the professional ones — and Brooklyn will need that.

Cam Thomas credited having a full training camp with Jacque Vaughn for the understanding he has of his role on the team. Getty Images

Not only don’t the Nets have superstars like Durant and Irving to carry them anymore, they haven’t even had the roster they expected.

They’ve already had 10 players miss 48 games so far this season, including starters such as Simmons, Thomas and Cam Johnson. They’ve paid out a staggering $9.4 million in salary for those lost games, fifth-most in the league per Spotrac.

But they’ve stayed afloat for a number of reasons.

Several players have developed, whether it’s Dorian Finney-Smith regaining his shooting touch or Sharpe improving his conditioning or Thomas breaking out to average a stellar 26.8 points per game.

“Yeah I’d probably just say more comfortable with the coach,” Thomas said of his emergence earlier this season. “As far as playing, I’ve been comfortable. I really just know what coach expects. He came in filling in for [Steve Nash], so I was feeling everything out. So having a full training camp, knowing what he expects, knowing how he wants the team ran, that’s really helped me a lot.”

That included going over defensive schemes with the offensive-minded Thomas and making clear expectations of ball movement concepts.

For Sharpe, it was prodding the third-year pro to get in better shape.

Averaging a career-high 15.3 minutes per game, Day’Ron Sharpe took to heart Vaughn’s suggestion over the summer that he get into better shape. Robert Sabo for the NY Post

“I hadn’t been getting a lot of minutes my first two years,” Sharpe said. “With the conditioning during the summer, the extra lifting, the extra reps. … When I’m not playing a lot of minutes, I’m still conditioning, just trying to stay in shape for anytime I need to be out there.”

In the case of Walker, it was just showing a faith in him that past staffs haven’t.

“I’ve been in the league; this is my sixth year. This is the real first year where I can showcase my abilities offensively as far as a three-level scorer,” Walker said. “And he’s allowing me to play through that, and I thank God and coach JV for the opportunity. I take it to heart.”

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Walker is averaging a career-high 14.6 points, and is making an early case to be considered for Sixth Man of the Year. He and Nic Claxton — leading the league in blocks at a career-high 2.8 — are 24. Thomas and Sharpe are just 22.

Even Trendon Watford — forced into duty as an emergency backup point guard while Simmons and Dennis Smith Jr. have been out — is only 23.

Progress often needs guidance, and Vaughn emphasized that in remaking his coaching staff.

Back in June, Vaughn added assistants Kevin Ollie, Will Weaver, Jay Hernandez, Ronnie Burrell and Corey Vinson to holdovers Adam Caporn, Trevor Hendry and Ryan Forehan-Kelly, Vinson with the added title of player development.

With the addition of Kevin Ollie and a number of player-development-focused assistants over the summer, the Nets are hoping to see significant improvement from within the current roster. NBAE via Getty Images

But with Ollie coming from Overtime Elite (and a 2014 NCAA title at UConn), Weaver and Burrell having both won G League Coach of the Year with the Long Island Nets, and Vinson having been a player development coach in Phoenix, it’s clear development was an important priority, though not the only one.

“I don’t want to diminish the assistants that way, because these are some high-level dudes. My approach with the assistants was where they could do it all,” Vaughn said. “Will Weaver has been a head coach abroad, but also was around a young team in Houston. Jay Hernandez has been around a young team in Charlotte, but also coached in the G League.

“And so across the board, I don’t want to diminish that this group of coaches could coach whatever team that we had previously and [whatever team we have] going forward.”

Whatever team the Nets have going forward, some of Vaughn’s best and most important work was in sowing the seeds this past summer.