OFFICIAL GAME PROGRAM OF THE BROOKLYN NETS
Nets coach Kenny Atkinson reflects on his influences over four decades in basketball
Kenny Atkinson is coaching an NBA basketball team just 46 miles from where he grew up in Northport, Long Island, and the global basketball odyssey he traveled over 30 years on the way to Brooklyn covered more than just miles.
Atkinson signed on as the Nets head coach in 2016 as an all-in acolyte of the NBA's most progressive principles, a group of ideas and trends he tends to generally refer to as "the modern NBA" — focusing offense on the 3-point line and rim attacks, defending the same, stocking up on long, ball-handling guards who can operate interchangeably.
It's notable that little to none of this was present in his earliest informative basketball experiences at Long Island's St. Anthony's HS or during his college days at Richmond.
"Completely against how I grew up playing," concedes the third-year Nets coach.
Over the last three decades, the 51-year-old Atkinson has seen and embraced a revolution in the way the game is strategized and played. So, how did he get here?
You can start with the local legend he played for in high school. There's also the maverick, the CEO, and dozens of other influences in between, large and small, during a 14-year pro career in American minor leagues and abroad, then another decade as an assistant coach before coming to the Nets.
At St. Anthony's, Atkinson starred toward the end of coach Gus Alfieri's two-decade run. A former St. John's player on the school's 1959 NIT title team, Alfieri preached a methodical, low-scoring style. When Atkinson went on to Richmond, it was more of the same.
"It's a wealth of knowledge."
"My dad, he didn't want me to go to Richmond," said Atkinson. "He'd say, 'you're an up-tempo guard! What are you going to a slow-down school for? They slow it down.' I also learned a lot playing that. When you control the game and you're disciplined in what you do, that helps too."
It worked out just fine. Atkinson helped the Spiders to two CAA championships and a memorable run to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 that included a win over defending national champion Indiana.
After two seasons in the Continental Basketball Association, Atkinson headed abroad for an entirely different basketball education. From Spain to Germany to Italy to France and more, Atkinson experienced what he describes as "just a different basketball culture" as he played through the end of the 2003-04 season.
There were fewer games than in an NBA season, allowing more time for development. Small staffs were led by taskmaster coaches, and Atkinson played for a bunch of them, all with their own backgrounds and varying international influences. He took a piece from each, lessons both on the court and off.
"It's a wealth of knowledge," said Atkinson. "It's almost like when you travel and you're in different places, you're in Italy, and you get a much better sense of the food culture when you travel. It's a big part of who I am, big part of why I'm here I think. Because I know Sean (Marks) appreciates that part."
After two years coaching in Paris, Atkinson landed in the NBA as a player development coach with the Houston Rockets in 2007. He had connected with Houston assistant GM Dennis Lindsey -- now the GM for the Utah Jazz -- while working camps in Italy. One of the last moves the Rockets made before Lindsey left prior to the 2007 season to go to San Antonio was hiring coach Rick Adelman. As the Rockets filled out Adelman's staff, one of the last things Lindsey did was hand off Atkinson's name as a recommendation to Houston GM Daryl Morey.
While Adelman is one of the NBA's all-time winningest coaches, it was the analytical approach of Morey and his assistant GM Sam Hinkie that completely changed the way Atkinson saw the game.
"They made a believer of me after five days being in Houston," said Atkinson. "The information we were getting was nothing like I was seeing. It was nothing I'd ever seen, but it was also, this makes sense. Holy cow. Sam Hinkie used to do a scouting report that was all stats based. It was called the executive summary. I ended up reading that over the basketball scout. This guy shoots 22 percent when you go under on the pick and the roll if he's going left. They had these beautiful shot charts where each guy was good, what he did going off the dribble, going right, going left. And they made it simple, so the coaches could understand it. Lineup reports. It was completely like nothing I'd ever seen."
With that new perspective, Atkinson landed in the right place when he left Houston after one season to coach under Mike D'Antoni with the New York Knicks.
"I just got lucky who I worked with."
D'Antoni, now coaching the Houston Rockets, was "ahead of the analytics," said Atkinson, building an offensive juggernaut in Phoenix with a fast-paced style that emphasized 3-point shooting and rim attacks several years before Atkinson got a look at his first executive summary in Houston.
He brought the same style to New York, where Atkinson worked for him for four seasons.
"Mike took a lot of criticism in New York. 'You're taking too many threes.' He was ahead of the game," said Atkinson. "It's like, well, now they're taking 50 threes a game and no one's saying anything because the analytics are supporting it. They had the guts to stick with it despite all the criticism.
"I was around and there was a ton of criticism. 'You can never win that way.' If Chris Paul doesn't get hurt (last season), they have a good chance at beating Golden State and being in the Finals and having a chance to win it all. It's a bunch of malarkey. You can win playing that way. Steve Kerr always says it, right, he took a lot of what Mike did in Phoenix and does it with his guys."
How much did the NBA end up following D'Antoni's lead? The 24.7 3-pointers a game the Suns took in 2004-05, the first of two consecutive seasons leading the league, would have ranked 25th in 2017-18 when D'Antoni's Houston Rockets led the league with 42.3 attempts per game. Next on the list last season? Atkinson's Nets, taking 35.7 threes per game.
Shortly after D'Antoni stepped down during the season in March 2012, Atkinson was on the move too, hired on to Larry Drew's staff in Atlanta. When the Hawks replaced Drew with Mike Budenholzer a year later, Atkinson ended up developing one of his most significant basketball relationships. Budenholzer arrived in Atlanta after two decades working for Gregg Popovich in San Antonio.
"Very talented. Smart. Was an assistant, a video guy, and then an assistant for 19 years for Pop," said Atkinson. "I always say Bud could run any company, that's how smart he is. He's just a very smart guy. Relates well to players. Collaborative beyond belief. Always willing to listen to an idea. Wants input. If you don't give him input, he's mad at you. You felt included. As an assistant, that's not always the case. You felt like a real ownership and stake in the team. I had never seen that before to that level."
In his third season in Atlanta, Atkinson, Budenholzer and the Hawks won 60 games, a 22-game jump over Budenholzer's first season, earned the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs and reached the conference finals.
One year later, Atkinson was introduced as the head coach in Brooklyn.
"I just got lucky who I worked with," said Atkinson. "Who I was coached by in high school. And had a great coach in college. Someone is smiling upon me. Because, I don't know about you, but sometimes you don't get the greatest coach. And you're not in the greatest programs. I was just fortunate to have been coached by the best and work with the best."