Brooklyn Nets' Rookie Rodions Kurucs Had a Breakout Month in December
Game-by-game with the 20-year-old from reserve to 39-minute man
Early on, Rodions Kurucs made an impression on Brooklyn Nets coach Kenny Atkinson with his aggression and athleticism during training camp. But it was still a distance from where Kurucs stands today, a starter on a team that has won nine of its last 10 games going into a Friday night trip to Charlotte.
"In training camp you take it with a grain of salt," said Atkinson on Thursday. "The vets aren’t, are they really getting after it? But there were kind of warning signs of him impressing. Then it just incrementally improved there. Everything he does opens your eyes up a little more. Now it’s to the point we’re playing him 39 minutes. I mean, that’s a huge jump. And, like I said last night, surprising, shocking; you have to put it in those terms. It’s hard for me to think of a context of another situation like that in the NBA where a 20-year-old guy wasn’t playing a ton of minutes in Europe, just comes over and – what pick was he? I don’t even know?”
Kurucs was the 40th overall pick after three years for FC Barcelona, where he played sparingly for the club's top-tier team. He had put his name in for the 2017 NBA Draft, then withdrawn it. For a year, his name moved all over the draft boards. Pegged in some circles as a potential lottery pick in 2017, he still found a place in plenty of first-round projections last spring before the Nets got him in the second round.
“He was identified early and I think that’s part of it," said Atkinson, who credited the team's front office staff for its work in scouting Kurucs. "You could talk to (general manager) Sean (Marks) for more details, and (assistant GM) Trajan (Langdon), those guys. But yes, identified him and his name kept coming up and I would say we took particular interest in him. We probably saw him more than we saw other guys. So really had a good…those guys have high interest in, there’s a whole other level of seeing him more, and then when we brought him in here another level of interviews. He was on the high priority list.”
With the season coming up on the midpoint -- the 17-19 Nets have played 36 of their 82 games, and 20 of their 41 home games -- Kurucs has suddenly emerged as a key player for Brooklyn. He's started the last seven games since an injury to Allen Crabbe and played 30-plus minutes in the last three.
"He has no fear," said Spencer Dinwiddie after Wednesday night's win against Charlotte. "He plays really hard. But I think the best part about him as a rookie is that he's usually in the right spot and that's something that is rare for a rookie, but that's what's allowing him to play crunch-time minutes and then because he's doing all the little things right, you start to see his talent because that's what's going to come through after you get all the minutiae down and all that stuff. He's able to get big stops for us, push it on the break, he's a terror in transition. Obviously you see he's shooting the gaps in passing lanes and getting dunks. As a spot-up shooter he's also been very effective. He's a great talent for us."
Two weeks after Kurucs stepped into the starting lineup, let's take a look back at the last month, game-by-game, at the rookie's emergence:
December 3 vs. Cavaliers
Kurucs had played 14 late minutes two nights earlier in a dismal loss at Washington, but otherwise hadn't played in a Brooklyn game since Nov. 16. He had played in the G League for Long Island as recently as Nov. 27.
With the Nets trailing late in the third quarter, Atkinson called on the rookie, and Kurucs dropped in two quick baskets to bring the Nets within four points going into the fourth. He ended up playing all of the final quarter and finishing with 12 points and four rebounds. His putback basket tied the game at 97 before Alec Burks won it for Cleveland in a 99-97 Nets loss.
"He just plays hard," said Atkinson after the game. "He's got extreme energy and I thought he turned the game for us and got us back in and his energy was contagious. Listen, that's what he's done most of the time he gets in there, so it's good news for the Nets. Disappointing loss, but to have a young player contribute like that at this level, this early, is good news."
"I just played tough and that's it every game," said Kurucs. "If I go on the court, I play tough. I use my minutes, and that's it. My role on the team is to help the team, to help the guys, to bring energy, so that's what I'm doing."
December 5 vs. Thunder
Kurucs drew a DNP in the loss against the Thunder, but his play against Cleveland two nights earlier had sparked interest in his role.
"I’m going to make a bad baseball analogy," said Atkinson before the game, responding to a question about Kurcus' role and playing time. "He’s going to have the bat in his hands. When you’re pinch-hitting or you’re waiting to get up to bat, you pick up a bat in the dugout. He’ll have it in his hands. We’re going to have to read the game a little bit and see where we can insert him. But like I said, his energy and his aggressiveness and his rebounding are screaming out like we’ve got to find him minutes. But he’s kind of warming up with the bat in his hand."
December 7 vs. Raptors
Unlike two games earlier against Cleveland, when Kurucs was a late-game reach, he entered in the first quarter, clearly part of the rotation plan for the game. Kurucs scored six points with three rebounds as the Nets broke a seven-game losing streak with a 106-105 win against the team with the NBA's best record.
December 8 at Knicks
Kurucs played 13 scoreless minutes in the win over the Knicks and continued to see minutes in a lineup that also featured Jared Dudley and DeMarre Carroll -- three forwards -- at the three wing spots.
"That's where the positionless NBA, who's the 4, 3 and 2, they're kind of interchangeable," said Atkinson a few days later after practice. "Technically he's the 4 in that group because that's where I think we can create mismatches with him. He probably rebounds better than those two guys. That was part of the theory of us improving our rebounding. Rodi's a rebound a minute, so I think that's part of the reason he's getting minutes. That's where we're talking about personnel. What can we do to up our athleticism and rebounding?"
December 12 at 76ers
With the Nets leading 94-89, Kurucs scored seven of Brooklyn's next 13 points as the Nets took a 107-95 lead. He remained on the court for crucial fourth-quarter minutes, coming up with two big defensive plays forcing steals while guarding Philadelphia's Ben Simmons in the post.
"It means a lot to me because before I didn't have that coach who truly trusted in me," said Kurucs. "It means a lot to me because guys trust in me and coach trusts in me and they give me that energy to go on the court, to get out there every day and work out and work my ass off. That's all right. I'm just saying my thoughts because I've never had this kind of team and collective where you really want to come every day and work out there."
Kurucs set a career-high with 13 points, shooting 4-for-6 with three steals in the 127-124 win.
"You didn't know what was going to happen," said Atkinson. "It was fun for all of us. He threw one in the third row and then he made two huge tip-aways from Simmons. Simmons tried to post him. That's his length. He gives us length and activity. Again, he forced us to keep him in there."
December 14 vs. Wizards
With Allen Crabbe sidelined by a sore knee, Kurucs made his first NBA start and quickly elevated his career high with 15 points on 5-for-6 shooting with six rebounds in 30 minutes in a 125-112 win.
"I thought he hit two big shots when we were struggling, I believe in the third quarter," said Atkinson. "He hit a long two and then a three. We were struggling and they were starting to come back. Just all around, his energy and his athleticism is a big plus. He just keeps doing it, keeps surprising."
December 16 vs. Hawks
Kurucs scored in double figures for the third straight game, finishing with 11 points on 4-for-9 shooting, plus six rebounds and four assists in the 125-118 win.
December 18 vs. Lakers
The Nets won their sixth straight, 115-110, but Kurucs played just 17 minutes and scored three points.
December 19 vs. Bulls
As the Nets won their seventh straight, beating the Bulls in Chicago 96-93, Kurucs had eight points and four rebounds.
December 21 vs. Pacers
Brooklyn's winning streak came to an end in a 114-106 loss, but Kurucs eclipsed his career high again with 24 points on 6-for-11 shooting, including 4-of-5 3-pointers. With the game tied at 100, Kurucs connected on a go-ahead 3-pointer and scored seven straight Brooklyn points in the fourth quarter.
"It's hard to take him out of the game," said Atkinson. "It wasn't the plan to play him 34 minutes, and he's earning his minutes. He's earning his play, and it's a pleasant, pleasant surprise for a 20-year-old kid."
December 23 vs. Suns
With Kurucs continuing to impress and coming off that 24-point game, Atkinson was asked about the rookie's play before the game against Phoenix.
“Just a lack of breakdowns. Whether not understanding the offense or messing up a play or not knowing the coverage, he’s been spot on," said Atkinson. "And for a young guy like that, a 20-year-old guy like that, especially coming from a different league, coming from Europe, the fact that he’s so on point with what we’re doing, that builds trust.
“Then on top of that, his talent is really -- normally I don’t say that; I say, ‘Let’s talk about this;’ his pick-and-roll defense’ -- but his talent, his athletic talent, his instinctual talent, and then there’s how darn hard he plays, those are things that really stand out. He’s had very few lows. He’s been pretty consistent.”
In the 111-103 win, Kurucs scored 16 points with 10 rebounds for his first double-double.
"I'm just playing basketball," said Kurucs. "I was hungry. I didn't play two years. Now I'm enjoying it. I think also one of the things, I wasn't playing in Barcelona, it helped me mentally to prepare myself to be tougher, work harder and some day it will come back. I just keep working; working on my game and that's it."
December 26 vs. Hornets
With the Nets hanging on to a two-point lead in the final seconds of a wild two-overtime game against Charlotte, Kurucs found himself isolated defending against Hornets guard Malik Monk at the top of the key with the floor spread wide open.
As Monk broke to his right, Kurucs cut him off and the ball slipped away into the hands of Joe Harris, who sprinted away for the winning layup. The next day, Kurucs said he maybe got the tip of his finger on the ball.
"I think young guys they lunge or they make a false step," said Atkinson. "He was just like those fencers, he had a perfect fencer stance and did a great job keeping in front of him. He can do that with his length. He can be off you and still his arms are long enough to guard you. I think when players are playing against him they're surprised at his length, but he's pretty fundamentally sound too."
With the Nets and Hornets going basket-for-basket in a game with 18 lead changes and 22 ties, Kurucs was on the floor all throughout crunch-time for a career-high 39 minutes, scoring 13 points on 6-for-9 shooting with a second-straight double-double thanks to 12 rebounds -- plus three assists and three steals.
"Talking about surprises, that's out of nowhere," said Atkinson. "That's a guy that wasn't hardly playing in Europe and now he's playing 39 minutes. It's pretty close to shocking really if you think about it."
Catch the Brooklyn Nets this Season