When 6'10" Keith Van Horn, a senior forward from Utah, arrived
for his predraft workout in June, the Nets were prepared to like
him. What's not to like? Good size, good stats, good shooter,
good kid. But New Jersey needed to draft someone better than
good. A floundering franchise bereft of the sort of of star
power that not only wins games but also attracts fans, the Nets
needed someone special.
Van Horn showed up lean, toned and looking much quicker than he
did on film. By the time he had completed the required drills,
hitting 24 out of the 30 jumpers he took, John Calipari, New
Jersey's coach and vice president of basketball operations, was
convinced that Van Horn was the sort of player who could turn
the Nets around. "We all knew he could run and jump," Calipari
says, "but we had no idea he could run that well or jump that
To make certain they could get their hands on Van Horn, the Nets
had to pry the No. 2 pick away from Philadelphia. Calipari
packaged veteran guard Jimmy Jackson, center Eric Montross and
his two first-round draft choices (Nos. 7 and 21) to land Van
Horn, center Michael Cage, guard Lucious Harris and forward Don
MacLean. While the deal meant that New Jersey would be saddled
with the long-term contracts of those three veterans, the Nets
haven't looked back. "He's more athletic than you think, and he
uses his head," says assistant coach Don Casey. "The kid can
play. He's a presence out there." However, Van Horn tore a
tendon in his right ankle and will miss the first three weeks of
In Van Horn and second-year shooting guard Kerry Kittles,
Calipari has a pair of young, multifaceted players to build a
team around. Another vital component is point guard Sam Cassell,
who re-signed with the Nets for $21 million over six years.
Cassell was not as highly sought after in the free-agent market
as he had expected and settled for less than the $6 million a
season he wanted. He has no plans to sulk, however. "I think the
contract should have been better, no question," Cassell says.
"So what am I going to do? I'm going to prove to people I'm
worth even more than I got."
November 10, 1997
Scoring was often a chore for the Nets last season. They
averaged just 97.2 points per game and were last in the league
in field goal percentage. In the preseason Cassell and Kittles
combined to average 32.5 points per game, and though Cassell
exhibited some of his usual wildness at the point, he is well
aware that Kittles and Van Horn are the players he has to share
the ball with for New Jersey to be successful. Throw in swingman
Kendall Gill, who scored 21.9 points per game last year, and
Calipari's attack should be considerably more potent.
The Nets will struggle mightily, though, on the defensive end.
In relinquishing Montross to acquire Van Horn they became one of
the smallest teams in the league. At 6'5", Gill will again log
significant time at small forward, even though he often
surrenders more points than he scores there. Van Horn will
likely cut into his time, however, as will a healthy David
Benoit, who spent all of last season on the sidelines with a
ruptured Achilles tendon.
Chris Gatling is a productive scorer in the low post, but with a
lean 6'10", 230-pound frame and a sore left knee, he's not
likely to bolster the interior defense. By default the pivot
will belong to center Jayson Williams, who hauled in 13.5
rebounds a game last year. Williams also made headlines for his
scathing diary of the season, published in the June issue of GQ,
in which he ripped Calipari for endlessly carping at players.
Although Williams would still prefer to be traded to a
contender, he is far too valuable to New Jersey to get his wish.
In the meantime he and Calipari insist that they can coexist.
The Nets should win their share of shoot-outs this season, but
they're still a couple of years away from making the playoffs.
When they do break through, expect Van Horn to be leading the
way. "I'm glad he's with us," Casey says. "I'd hate to have to
see this kid four times a year wearing a different uniform."