The Brooklyn Nets acquired the Russian Karasev along with Jarrett Jack from the Cleveland Cavaliers back in July as part of the cap-clearing deal that would help Cleveland bring LeBron James back home. Now, both those players have entered the Nets' starting lineup.
The 6'7", 208-pound wing got into just 22 games as a rookie with the Cavs, going up and down from the D-League so many times, you'd think he'd call for MLB-style options to be placed on NBA players. (He was assigned to the Canton Charge 10 times with Cleveland last season.)
But no more D-League for Karasev, now. The second-year wing has found a home in the Nets' starting lineup, replacing rookie small forward Bojan Bogdanovic. He's getting legitimate time on the floor, too, averaging 8.4 points, 3.3 rebounds and 1.7 assists in 28.1 minutes a night during the 11 games since joining the starting unit, a move that sort of came out of nowhere when it happened.
The lefty had played a total of 35 minutes on the season before running with the starters against the Chicago Bulls on Dec. 10, though he was coming off an 11-point performance in which he drained four of five shots from the field against the Cavaliers.
"I put him in the game, the Cleveland game. He played extremely well, and I decided we need to make a change," Nets coach Lionel Hollins explained. "We were floundering. Three or four games in a row we lost, and I just thought, 'Where are we going?'"
This wasn't necessarily a reactive move from Hollins, either. The Nets coach values practice output as much as any other one in the league, constantly reinforcing the idea of "showing stuff everyday." But mostly, it's not too shocking that a defensive-minded coach would appreciate a defensive-minded player.
Karasev's theories on his increased playing time aren't so different: "I think I started playing better defensively," he clarified.
That doesn't necessarily mean Karasev is locking guys down one-on-one. Guarding is also about smarts, managing your own role within a larger system. For example, Bulls sharpshooter Mike Dunleavy may have dropped 23 points against the Nets on Tuesday night, but Karasev actually defended him quite well, closing out hard for the most part and eluding screens off which the Chicago marksmen would run.
Brooklyn's scheme calls for aggressive help off shooters in the corners during dribble penetration. Ball-handlers get into the lane, and the Nets' wings immediately slide away from their assignments in an attempt to prevent easy layups. We see the same type of defense from Brooklyn power forwards when they go up against stretch 4s who like to camp out in the corner.
Karasev, though, is particularly capable on the recovery aspect of that strategy. When you leave a capable shooter in the corner, you best recover once more help comes to pick up the dribbler, like on this play from the Bulls game, when Pau Gasol gets into the lane on a pick-and-roll:
Karasev leaves the shooter just in time for Lopez to get back onto Gasol. The split-second rotation helps deter a quick shot from Pau, and the immediate recognition to rotate back onto Dunleavy is what such an assertive, yet risky, play requires.
If you go re-watch the Nets' 96-82 blowout victory over the Bulls, you'll see Karasev following Dunleavy off picks pretty effectively. Below, watch Karasev deny Dunleavy the ball while bouncing around a few Bulls who are trying to impede his path:
These aren't the best screens from Chicago—lord knows Joakim Noah has set beastlier picks than this one—but Karasev makes it around multiple Bulls no problem while also managing to "chuck" Gasol, imposing on him a legal nudge a defender will give to a cutter in the paint. That's an improvement from what the Nets had before with Bogdanovic.
"This is just your hustle," Karasev said about his ability to navigate picks and close out on shooters. "Just like, you should go your hardest. Just scramble every time, and that's what I do really well, especially at the end of the game."
The Nets are allowing 1.5 points per 100 possessions fewer since Karasev entered the starting lineup. Of course, there are other variables over that time period that could affect Brooklyn more than a quality off-ball defender on the wing.
The defensively superior Jack has started the Nets' past six games in place of Deron Williams. And most importantly, Mason Plumlee has usurped a leading position on both sides of the ball about as aggressively as possible.
The offense has improved over this period, too, though that is likely from Jack's impressive performance, and Plumlee's supreme play, because Karasev's scoring and creating ability is still raw.
Sergey boosted his prospect stock at the Nike Hoop Summit, where he tore it up before the 2013 NBA draft. That was when he started to show off his ability to be more than just a shooter, which, fair or not, was his reputation after almost never seeing the floor as an 18-year-old playing for coach David Blatt on Team Russia during the 2012 Olympics.
He's rarely shooting or handling the ball now, though when he does, we've seen some occasional pretty passes or crafty reverse layups. About two-thirds of his shots are coming either at the rim or from long range—pretty much exactly what you want to see from a player in his low-volume role.
Smarts are essential to development, especially for a just-turned-21-year-old who, in some ways, still has the figure of a kid.
"I think the physicality [is the biggest transition], because it's way different in Europe than here," Karasev said about switching from the Russian League to the NBA. "So, that was the biggest part, and now I feel like I'm getting stronger and working everyday. So I feel way easier, especially playing defense, and then on offense, too."
It takes a certain amount of mental fortitude to stand such a change, a transition in culture as well as one in playing style. But Karasev seemed to learn toughness years ago.
Away from home can be relaxing, actually. The Dorthian attitude doesn't necessarily follow everyone around, especially when your family can come visit you in Oz.
New York City's Russian population of just under 80,000, most of whom live in Brooklyn, provides a soft bed for Karasev, which he says makes the culture change "not really tough." Meanwhile, he doesn't need to click any heels together. His home can come to him.
Sergey's father, Vasily Karasev, attended Monday's game against the Sacramento Kings. And all of a sudden, the 21-year-old experienced some flashbacks.
Vasily, a former Russian point guard, isn't just a father and role model for his son. He was also his coach—for four years, to be exact—back in Russia.
"It was hard, because he'd yell at me every time," Karasev said of his father's coaching style. "He wanted me getting better."
In a way, the father-son on-court relationship—which became gentler once the two stepped through the doorstep of their home—prepared Karasev for life in Brooklyn, where he's playing for another tough-love coach, even if this one doesn't drive him home after practices.
Still, whether he's hitting his open shots, defending intelligently or completely failing to do anything correctly, Karasev doesn't mind taking some lip from his father, from his coach, probably from anyone. But Sergey sums up his own attitude far better:
"Sometimes, guys said, '[Expletive]! Your dad is screaming at you, like, every five minutes.' I'd say, 'I know. He's my dad. He can do whatever he wants.'"
Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade but maintains that his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at WashingtonPost.com or on ESPN's TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.