Newark is supposed to be Shaquille O’Neal’s turf, but a gigantic billboard covering a building on Route 21 seems to indicate it’s Brook Lopez’s city now.
Further proof was early in Thursday’s game in the Prudential Center as Lopez took it to O’Neal and drew three quick fouls on Shaq in his backyard.
Clearly, O’Neal is not the player he was and Lopez is the Nets’ star on the rise. He probably won’t ever reach Shaq’s status, but everyone knows he is for the Nets what O’Neal was for the Magic, Lakers and Heat – The Man
“Brook Lopez is going to be great if he continues to work,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “Right now Brook is the picture of the Nets. He is ‘The Guy.’ He’s tough and works hard.
“I even enjoyed the Shaq versus Brook match up. Shaq scored on Brook and then Brook went right back down and scored on Shaq. I like seeing young guys do that.”
The Nets will need plenty of that from Lopez, who finished with 23 points in 25 minutes against Boston Afterward, Shaq compared Lopez to his idol, Tim Duncan, saying, “Classy guy. You'll never hear about him getting in trouble. Great moves, great composure, and you're really not going to faze him. A couple guys will probably try to rough him up, but that's not going to faze him. Good player.”
Lopez did what coach Avery Johnson has been stressing and that’s establishing himself in the post, drawing fouls and holding his ground on both ends. Lopez still has work to do defensively, but offensively he’s one of the best centers in the game and keeps on improving.
It will be interesting – and exciting for the Nets and their fans – to see how Lopez does this season with a coach who plans to constantly call his number and wants to develop him into an All-Star.
Lopez wasn’t featured enough after Kiki Vandeweghe replaced Lawrence Frank as coach last year. But that won’t be the case this year.
During a practice, Lopez passed it out of the post and was punished for it by Johnson.
“He sent me on an up-back,” Lopez said, referring to having to sprint from baseline-to-baseline. “That helped me a little.”
Johnson will stay on Lopez, making sure he develops more a mean streak and the type of demeanor needed to become an elite big man. There aren’t too many in the league who are legitimate centers.
Shaq isn’t anymore. Duncan is more of a power forward; same for Amar’e Stoudemire. There’s Dwight Howard and the rest of the NBA. But the next tier of big men after Howard includes – in no specific order - Chris Kaman, Andrew Bogut and Lopez.
“He’s been playing really aggressive,” Johnson said. “His aggressiveness is something we’re really enjoying. We want to continue encouraging him to do more of it.”
“He’s a terrific post up player. He’s very skilled. We want to make sure we utilize his skills. At the same time he can make a jump shot. We just don’t want him to get jump-shot happy.
The Nets know they have one of the better centers in the league, which is why Lopez has been off limits in any talks for Carmelo Anthony. If they get Anthony, Lopez would become the second option understandably. But right now and for the foreseeable future, Lopez is The Man on the Nets.
The Nets were hoping to have Troy Murphy, the expected starting power forward, in the lineup for tomorrow’s preseason game against the Philadelphia 76ers. But he’s out indefinitely due to inflammation and strain in his lower back.
He won’t join the Nets on tomorrow’s trip to Moscow, to see the owner, and subsequent flight to China for two preseason games. Murphy will be re-evaluated after the Nets return Oct. 17.
It’s unknown at this time whether he’ll be ready for the Nets’ season opener Oct. 27.
Murphy missed the first three exhibition games with a groin strain, but as of yesterday morning was feeling fine and set to play tomorrow. More minutes for Kris Humphries and rookie Derrick Favors, who needs the experience so he can get used to playing against bigger, stronger, faster players.
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Al Iannazzone covers the Nets for The Record (Bergen County, N.J.)