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What a difference a year makes. Last season the Nets' training camp operated under a black cloud. Injured point guard Jason Kidd was unhappy, and center Alonzo Mourning erected a soapbox for his tirades against owner Bruce Ratner.
This year the Nets are beaming. Mourning is in Miami, Kidd's left knee is sound, and coach Lawrence Frank has a full training camp to integrate swingmen Richard Jefferson, who missed 49 games with a ruptured ligament in his left wrist, and Vince Carter, who was acquired from the Raptors last December. Says Frank, "Guys have a much better feeling about the direction the franchise is going in."
A key to that direction is 7-foot center Nenad Krstic, who averaged 11.7 points and 6.2 rebounds in 57 starts as a rookie. Krstic's steady play spurred New Jersey's postseason push; the Nets were 29-12 when he scored in double figures. "I thought if he could give us three or four minutes a night, it would be a plus," Frank says. "He exceeded every one of our expectations."
Krstic must improve his defense and board work if the Nets hope to return to the form that made them Eastern champs in 2001-02 and '02-03. After failing to acquire forwards Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Robert Traylor during the off-season, New Jersey is paper-thin up front in a conference loaded with talented big men. "I don't want to say any one player is more important than another," says Frank. "But Nenad's play is going to be a very big part of this team's success."
And how did Krstic view the Nets' attempts to shore up their frontcourt? "I was in Serbia all summer," he says. "I don't really watch anything that goes on over here."
" Jason Kidd and Richard Jefferson have shown Vince Carter how to play through bumps and bruises. In the past Carter might have parked himself on the bench when he was banged up.... On any given night Vince can go for 30, but if you leave Jefferson alone, he can score 30 too. The sight of Kidd sprinting down the floor, with Carter and Jefferson on either wing, is going to be scary.... Carter and Jefferson will get along fine. Jefferson is a terrific team player: He defends well, his jump shot has improved, he can handle the ball--and he's not the type to complain about Carter's getting too many touches.... Kidd's knee has healed, and he's still strong defensively--but he is 32. To spell him they signed Jeff McInnis in spite of his well-earned reputation for creating trouble. McInnis brings size and scoring, and he can play alongside Kidd at times.... Nenad Krstic is a tough, gangly guy who can score, and he's getting better as a rebounder. He doesn't always look good, but at the end of the game he's got a double double because he chases the ball down.... Marc Jackson is a quality backup center, and Cliff Robinson can still defend anyone up front. But they need another big man if they hope to get by Detroit, Indiana and Miami."