The last thing the free-falling Nets needed was to lose an important contributor.
But the Nets, who have lost 11 of their last 14 games, will now be without backup center Day’Ron Sharpe.
He was diagnosed with a hyperextended left knee, which he suffered during the team’s 134-127 loss to the Blazers on Sunday, and will be re-evaluated in approximately two weeks.
Sharpe, whom the Nets drafted 29th overall in 2021, had emerged as a strong tag-team partner with starting center Nic Claxton, giving head coach Jacque Vaughn versatility at the position and coverage for all 48 minutes.
Sharpe is averaging 7.5 points, 7.0 rebounds and 0.9 blocks in 16.0 minutes per game.
His rebounds and blocks are second-most among qualified players on the team.
For a team that has largely underperformed this season, the Nets’ rim protection has been a rare bright spot.
They’ve allowed just 46.2 points in the paint per game, tied for the fourth-fewest in the NBA
It hasn’t budged during the recent turmoil, as they’ve allowed the fourth-fewest points in the paint per game during the last 14 games as well.
“I can do some things when you have Day’Ron at center compared to when you have Nic at center,” Vaughn said before Sunday’s game and Sharpe’s injury.
Now, it’s a new hole Vaughn, whose Nets have traveled overseas to Paris for a matchup with the Cavaliers on Thursday, will have to fill.
It likely means an uptick in Claxton’s usage, which results in less adaptability and ability to be unpredictable for Vaughn.
Claxton is averaging 12.2 points, 9.9 rebounds and 2.4 blocks in 28.1 minutes per game, but hardly ever plays long stretches.
Vaughn has preferred to constantly rotate Claxton and Sharpe after just a few minutes in order to keep both fresh and opponents off balance.
Can Claxton, who has an extensive injury history himself, handle more minutes? He’s made a strong case recently.
Claxton played 33:55 in the Nets’ 124-115 win over the Thunder on Friday, often staying on the court for long stretches, and played 36:15 in Sunday’s loss.
They marked the third- and fourth-highest court times for Claxton all season.
“I’m in better shape now I think than I was, especially last year,” Claxton said after Friday’s win. “Over the last road stretch, I was dealing with a cold, I wasn’t really feeling that good. Tonight I was just feeling more like myself and my energy was in the right place, the team needed it.”
The team will need it even more now.
But he can’t play the entire game. After Claxton, who can help fill the void?
The most obvious option is one fans have clamored to see more of in recent weeks.
Noah Clowney, whom the Nets drafted 21st overall in June, has been tearing it up in the G-League with the Long Island Nets.
He recorded 27 points, 14 rebounds and four assists in the team’s win over the Maine Celtics on Monday, all career-highs.
In 19 games between the G-League Showcase and regular season, Clowney is averaging 14.4 points, 8.7 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game.
He’s played in two NBA games for the Nets and got an extended run in the team’s 144-122 loss to the Bucks on Dec. 27, recording 14 points, four rebounds and two assists in 24:04 of action.
The Nets were notably resting a majority of their main contributors in the game, and were fined $100,000 as a result.
Though he’s more of a traditional power forward, Clowney is listed at 6-foot-9, the same as Sharpe.
And in that Dec. 27 loss, with Claxton resting and Sharpe replacing him in the starting lineup, Clowney filled in at center when Sharpe went to the bench.
Vaughn could also opt to just use small-ball lineups when Claxton needs to rest. Dorian Finney-Smith, one of the team’s best defenders but just 6-7, would be the most likely to slide into the center position.
But the Nets’ wings already struggle mightily defending opponents on the perimeter, and moving one of them inside against even bigger opposition likely wouldn’t reap favorable results.