Being a 1st-round pick can set high expectations, even if that pick was next-to-last. The Brooklyn Nets are taking their time with Dzanan Musa and that’s OK.
With the exceptions of Michael Porter of the Denver Nuggets and Zhaire Smith of the Philadelphia 76ers, both recovering from injuries that have sidelined them all season, no first-round pick from last year’s draft has played fewer minutes than Musa.
At least not at the NBA level.
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Musa has played in just seven games with the Nets this season, totaling 26 minutes, He’s scored 12 points with three rebounds, an assist and two steals in those minutes, going 6-for-14 overall, missing all six of his 3-point attempts.
But Musa is getting minutes again, outside of the glare of the NBA spotlight with the Long Island Nets of the NBA G League.
He missed more than a month after partially dislocating his left shoulder in a game with Long Island on Dec. 16 and returned to action last week on assignment with the G-Nets.
He had a solid return, playing 25 minutes in Long Island’s win over the Texas Legends on Wednesday, finishing with 20 points, eight assists and four rebounds on 5-of-11 shooting, going 9-for-9 at the foul line and hitting 1-of-2 from deep.
Friday night against the Austin Spurs, Musa logged only 17 minutes and missed the last quarter-and-a-half after leaving with an injury he said was not serious.
But per Brian Lewis of the New York Post, coach Kenny Atkinson and the development staff want Musa to remain in Uniondale for the time being as he comes back from his own lengthy absence.
Musa has played well with Long Island in the 18 games he’s been with the G-Nets, averaging 19.4 points, a surprising 6.7 rebounds and 3.1 assists in 31.2 minutes per game, while shooting 43.5 percent overall, 35.8 percent on 6.1 attempts per game from long range and 82.1 percent from the line.
The 3-point shooting is particularly encouraging, since he did not shoot it that well during his first three professional seasons with Cedevita in the Adriatic League and the Croatian A-1 Liga, where his percentages went down with increased volume each year.
In 2015-16, he hit 34.9 percent on 1.7 attempts per game in 38 games. In 2016-17, that dipped to 32.7 percent on 2.8 attempts in 60 games and last season fell to 31.3 percent on 4.0 attempts per game over 71 contests.
Cedevita also played in the Eurocup competition last season, while winning the Croatian A-1 Liga regular-season and playoff titles.
Offensively, Musa is aggressive to the basket off the drive, but can get himself into trouble when he has to get too creative with his finishes — very similar to what we see from Rodions Kurucs at times.
But the similarities end there. Musa is still very thin at 6-foot-9 and 208 pounds and, like many young players, needs to gain more strength.
He also does not possess Kurucs’ length, with a wingspan matching his 6-foot-9 height.
The other area where he needs lots of work is at the defensive end, which is likely the primary reason Musa has been deemed not ready for NBA minutes. He’s made significant strides, but can still drift off the ball and becomes very susceptible to back-door cuts and off-ball screens.
Offensively, he has the potential to be special. At 6-foot-9 with a point guard’s skill set, Musa has very good handles and is a creative and willing passer. With maturity will come a reduction in the tendency to attempt passes that aren’t really there.
You can see the whole offensive package at work in this highlight reel from Long Island’s win over the Lakeland Magic in December — the ability to get by defenders and get to the rim, some nice touch from deep and the vision as a passer.
And it’s also important to remember that while Musa was a first-round pick, he was taken at the No. 29 spot — the next-to-last pick in the first round.
Since that slot moved into the first round of the draft in 1995, one player picked 29th overall has finished his career with a double-figure scoring average: Josh Howard, taken 29th overall by the Dallas Mavericks in 2003.
Musa is the seventh-youngest player in the NBA and won’t turn 20 until May 8. He has time.
The Nets are taking the right approach with the youngster, getting him developmental minutes — and lots of them — with Long Island and will pick their spots to get him exposure at the NBA level once he’s got his legs fully under him after missing seven weeks with the shoulder injury.
He has the skill set to be a solid contributor at the NBA level. We just have to give him the time needed to get there.