Cal Basketball: All Eyes on Nets GM Sean Marks After Blockbuster Deal for James Harden

Former Cal forward has assembled in the latest mega-team in Brooklyn
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It’s tempting to suggest that Sean Marks has been something of a basketball Forrest Gump. Always in the right place at the right time.

At Cal, his teammates included Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Ed Gray, Al Grigsby, Monty Buckley, Tremaine Fowlkes, Francisco Elson and Tony Gonzalez.

In 11 NBA seasons, he played alongside all-stars Vince Carter, Tracy McGray, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Steve Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire, Shaquille O’Neal, Grant Hill and Chris Paul.

Now 45 and general manager of the Brooklyn Nets, Marks no longer is a piece of the puzzle. He’s the guy acquiring and assembling the pieces.

He is very much in the spotlight after creating the NBA’s latest buzz-worthy roster: Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden, with Steve Nash as coach.

Marks brought each one of them to Brooklyn. If it works and the Nets win an NBA title, Marks will be the sport's hottest front office exec. If it doesn’t, the New York media won’t let him forget it.

Former Cal coach Ben Braun coached the 6-foot-11 native of New Zealand his final two years in college, including on the Bears’ 1997 Sweet 16 team. Marks scored 11 points with a trio of 3-point baskets in the loss to a North Carolina team featuring Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison, then averaged 9.8 points and 7.6 rebounds a year later as a senior.

Sean Marks on the 1998 Cal media guide

“What made Sean special was not only did he have ability but he always was a great complementary and role player,” Braun said. “He had great relationships with his teammates. He understood the game. He was a smart player. He really fit in. He was a fun guy to be around . . . he was really well-liked by everybody on the team.”

A few years later, when “Kiwi” was playing for the Spurs, Braun spoke with the San Antonio staff about his former player.

“They said specifically they thought Sean was destined to be, not a coach necessarily in the NBA. They thought he might become part of an administrative staff because he really understood people and he understood the game,” Braun said. “What he’s doing now is not a total shock to me or people that know him.”

It’s not a shock to upper management with the Nets, either, after Marks wowed them back in 2016 during his in-person interview, according to length story in the December issue of Forbes magazine.

“He blew us away,” said Mike Forde, who advised the Nets during the process.

“He knew his (stuff),” added Irina Pavlova, who was a member of Brooklyn’s five-person search committee.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich reportedly gave Marks a strong endorsement after Marks had served the franchise as an assistant coach and an assistant GM. “He’s going to be a star,” Popovich told reporters.

Just five years after his playing career ended, Marks was hired to run the Nets, signing a four-year contract worth $9 million.

Marks' ability to bring high-level talent to Brooklyn is fulfilling Popovich's prediction.

But how will it work?

The Durant-Irving pairing netted no fruit last season because Durant still was getting healthy after tearing his Achilles with the Warriors. Nash, the Santa Clara grad and two-time former NBA MVP, came on board this offseason.

Harden came via a complicated and costly trade this past week. The Nets gave up Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, Taurean Prince, Rodions Kurucs, three first-round draft picks and four pick swaps to get the three-time defending NBA scoring champ.

Harden’s talent is indisputable: He was the 2018 MVP and is a six-time All-NBA first team selection. But he was disgruntled in Houston, creating a sense that he might become difficult.

“We've had conversations with him and he's so eager to get on the court with these guys and be part of this and start fresh,” Marks told reporters on Thursday. “There's an excitement, I know our group is excited, our coaching staff is excited.”

Braun, in the video above, applauds Marks for what he called a “bold” trade.

“I don’t know if you have this many opportunities to put this kind of a team together,” Braun said. “Sean understands one thing from being in the league: It’s a player’s league. If you don’t have talent, there’s nothing a great GM, nothing a great coach can do.”

The trick will be making sure three mega-stars fit together. Durant and Harden played together in Oklahoma City at the start of the pro careers, and they looked very much in sync in their Saturday night debut together. Harden scored 32 points in a triple-double and Durant put up 42 points.

Missing from the mix was Irving, who took personal leave time for yet undisclosed reasons, then was put into the NBA’s five-day quarantine after video emerged showing him in at a private indoor party. He was fined $50,000 by the NBA and is expected to forfeit more than $800,000 in salary for games he’s missed.

Nash told reporters Saturday he’s still not sure when Irving will play again, adding he hopes it’s soon.

At that point we will begin to find out if Sean Marks’ great experiment can work. Durant can thrive without dominating the ball, but both Harden and Irving are accustomed to having it in their hands for long stretches during a possession.

Nash acknowledged Harden will have to adjust his game to his new teammates.

“He’s played the same role for many years now, the same way, the same style,” Nash said. “So, he’ll be able to emulate that in some ways, but in other ways he’s going to have to adapt to playing with other guys, namely Kevin and Ky.”

Braun is excited for Marks and intrigued to see how it all unfolds.

“He might already be the NBA Executive of the Year,” Braun said of his former player. “Sean’s got to be the architect of this. Now the real onus is can you win it?”

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COVER PHOTO OF SEAN MARKS BY BILL STRIECHER, USA TODAY

Follow Jeff Faraudo of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jefffaraudo