Jarrett Allen is learning amidst the losing

SACRAMENTO, CA - MARCH 1: Jarrett Allen
SACRAMENTO, CA - MARCH 1: Jarrett Allen /

The Brooklyn Nets find themselves in unique standing among the NBA teams fighting for playoff seeding and lottery ball favor. They currently own a 23-48 record, tied for fifth-worst, with no first-round pick to soften the losing. Their postseason hopes, unrealistic to begin with, dispelled early this season with injuries to two lead guards. All Nets fans have until mid-April, all they’ve had until now, is following the development of their young core. Can D’Angelo Russell become a more complete player? Is Rondae Hollis-Jefferson starter material in an NBA run by jump-shooters?

But no prospect displays more promising improvement than Jarrett Allen, Brooklyn’s freshman project-turned-starter. In a year with limited silver linings, this budding big man continues to impress and build on his game, giving hope to the future and meaning to the present.

“Jarrett’s been above and beyond my expectations,” head coach Kenny Atkinson said of his rookie prior to a 114-106 win over the Mavericks. “He just does some things, he wows you.”

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Allen can wow without so much as stepping on a basketball court. Coming out of the University of Texas at 6-foot-9 with a nearly 7-foot-6 wingspan and 9-foot-1 standing reach, his imposing length coupled with some raw skills made him an appealing late first-round pick. He was a terror around the rim in college, but a long way from being an NBA rotation guy.

“Doesn’t bring the type of nasty attitude you’d like to see to compensate, setting soft screens, being weak with the ball and struggling to finish in traffic through contact,” Jonathan Givony and Mike Schmitz wrote at DraftExpress last May. “Allen’s basketball IQ is a work in progress.”

Once the season arrived, Allen began dismantling these weaknesses, earning minutes as Brooklyn’s more seasoned centers disappointed. The Nets have fostered a culture of improvement since general manager Sean Marks took the reins two years ago, which has seen many veteran vagabonds and underwhelming talents blossom. For Allen, this atmosphere helped spur rapid growth for a 19-year-old big man in his first season. The results? Atkinson inserted Allen into the starting lineup in late January and he has jumped tip in all 20 games since, the only rookie center to do so in 2017-18.

“Having a coaching staff and a front office that believed that you can do it would give anybody confidence, especially a rookie,” Allen said prior to swatting four shots against Dallas.

This confidence, along with serious improvements, are showing. Allen is averaging 15 points, 10 rebounds and just shy of two blocks per-36 minutes. Since becoming a starter, his true-shooting, rebound and block rates have improved. The once “weak with the ball” Allen grabbed the basketball world’s collective eye with a thunderous slam over fellow freshman Lauri Markkanen.

This single play offered a glimpse into what kind of roll threat Allen can be in this league. He’s currently top-10 among roll men with at least two possessions a game, scoring 1.16 points per play. Indecision has become a series of quick spins, up fakes and a feathery touch from the paint. Allen’s length and quick lift-off makes him a terrific lob threat, and both he and Atkinson have talked about adding to his strength moving forward. Punching the ball through defenders is already becoming habit, so extra girth will give opposing teams fits. But Allen’s focus going into the pick-and-roll isn’t primarily on what he does with the ball.

“First of all, you gotta set a good screen for him to get off and that opens everything up,” Allen said. “If you crack his defender then it helps me and him be able to look for an opportunity.”

Cracking defenders isn’t the terminology of someone who sets soft screens. With his paint dominance and Black Dynamite-esque afro, Allen can easily be characterized as an old-school center. However, he’d be the first to refute it, citing his ability to run the floor with impressive speed. The Nets also rarely post Allen up, and he’ll occasionally pull out a smooth jumper from mid-range. Allen believes he’s working towards being a modern-day center, hoping to add ball-handling and shooting to his game, even comparing himself to Brook Lopez, the former Nets anchor who flourished offensively under Atkinson by expanding his range and movement.

Defensively is where Allen can set himself apart from Lopez. His build makes him a frightening tower to climb in the paint, with the length to make passing lanes difficult and ridiculous blocks easier. Prior to the All-Star break, the Nets were worse defensively with their rookie on the floor. He flipped the script post All-Star, and is among presences like Robin Lopez and Bismack Biyombo in affecting field goal percentages within six feet of the basket. There’s work to be done here as well, of course.

“Obviously gotta get him stronger,” Atkinson said. “That’s something he’s worked on and we’ll work on going into the summer.”

Bulking Allen up is a priority for Brooklyn, which should set him up to be more effective in the pick-and-roll, guarding bigger players and on the glass. Turnovers have been an issue, as with many rookies, but Allen has made enough strides this season to make one wonder how many he has left before becoming one of the league’s best big men.

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“I honestly feel like I’m still just coming in,” Allen said. “I feel like I learned some stuff, but not enough.”

Brooklyn has 11 games left on the docket. Let’s see what he learns next.