NEW ORLEANS — Last season, the Brooklyn Nets found a center, maybe faster than they thought they would. Jarrett Allen’s precocious rookie campaign had the then-19-year-old in the starting lineup less than 50 games into his NBA career. But they also spent much of the season searching and shuffling to find the right players to pair with Allen at the position.
The offseason solution was veteran Ed Davis, who has more than lived up to expectations through Brooklyn’s first four games. Combined with the growth of Allen, whose minutes are up to 28.0 per game from 20.0 last season, the Nets have solidified the center position with consistently defined roles.
“An anchor,” is how Nets coach Kenny Atkinson described Davis. “To have that stable guy behind Jarrett, it’s a really nice comfort zone.”
In the Nets’ 102-86 win in Cleveland on Wednesday night, Davis had his first double-double as a Net with 10 points and 10 rebounds in just 17 minutes. It was his second 10-rebound game in the season’s first week, and he goes into Friday night’s game in New Orleans averaging 8.8 rebounds in just 17.0 minutes — that’s a per 36 rebounding rate of 18.5, a career high even for Davis, who has always put up strong rebounding rate numbers.
Between them, Allen and Davis have covered practically every minute at the position this season except for some late fourth-quarter moments in which games were no longer in doubt. They’ve combined to average 19.3 points, 16.8 rebounds and 3.0 blocks.
Part one has been Allen’s continued growth. His numbers are up across the board, and Atkinson stresses the improvement in two areas that reflect on the defensive end — rim protection and rebounding. Allen is averaging 8.0 rebounds and 2.5 blocks, up from 5.4 and 1.2 last season.
In Davis, Allen has found a mentor and competitor. Someone he can go head-to-head with in practice, then measure himself against in games. He’s driven to outrebound his teammate, and one of his methods of getting there is to simply focus on how Davis gets it done and steal some tips.
“It’s almost like a game for me with the rebounding now,” said Allen of watching Davis play when he’s out of the game. “I’m always looking for little ways that I can get more rebounds and he’s a perfect guy to watch.”
Davis has been the reliable, low-maintenance veteran the Nets sought to shore up some rebounding issues and work smoothly with guards like D’Angelo Russell and Caris LeVert in the pick and roll.
“Better than I thought,” said Atkinson after the Cleveland game. The Nets coach appreciates the way the ninth-year veteran has continued to work on his game to improve on defending the rim while at the same time not committing as many fouls.
“I’m just trying to come out every night and bring energy,” said Davis. “Just help the team. When that bench unit gets out there, there’s no drop off from the starters, and that’s the only thing I’m focused on.”
He’s feeling comfortable working in the offensive system that’s a departure from his previous experience in Portland, where the Trail Blazers relied heavily on the backcourt combo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum to dictate the action.
Brooklyn’s depth, style and scheme are a plus for an active big man like the 6-foot-10 Davis.
“Last couple years playing in Portland, it was a different style with two ball-dominant guards,” said Davis, “and here it’s more let’s pass it around, let’s get the open shot and playing for the most part four-out, one-in, so I’ve got one defender to beat for the offensive glass. I definitely like this system. I get a lot of easy buckets from drop-offs and put-backs, just the guards being aggressive.”
The Nets split their first four games of the season, and they’ve run into challenging big-man pairs like Detroit’s Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond and Cleveland’s Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson along the way.
But they’ll find a different challenge in New Orleans on Friday night. The Pelicans are off to a blistering offensive start, leading the league with 132.0 points per game led by the frontcourt pair of Anthony Davis and Nikola Mirotic.
Davis, a likely opening matchup for Allen, is averaging 30.3 points 13.0 rebounds and 5.3 assists.
“They run almost everything through him,” said Allen. “Him and Mirotic. I’m always going to have to be ready. He’s really the focal point. So it’s not like I’m helping off of my guy.”
Mirotic is next with 28.0 points per game, shooting 54.2 percent from the field, including 47.8 from 3-point range.
“They’ve got shooters,” said Davis. “Their GM did a solid job of putting those pieces around AD and making it more difficult to defend him and then you’ve got Julius Randle coming off the bench who’s a totally different player than Mirotic and Anthony Davis. Your defensive scheme mixes up a little bit because it switches up with players playing a unique style, which Julius Randle plays. It’s going to be a great challenge for us. We’re definitely going to see where we’re at.”