Nets Coach Kenny Atkinson's Road to Brooklyn Began in Houston

After more than a decade playing and coaching abroad, Atkinson's first NBA job was with Rockets

The Brooklyn Nets are headed to Houston to face the Rockets on Wednesday, a return for coach Kenny Atkinson to the city where he got his start coaching in the NBA. It took less than a decade for Atkinson to grow from NBA neophyte to head coach, but he jokes that in those first few months in Houston head coach Rick Adelman didn't even know his rookie development coach's name.

"Then one time on the plane, he started busting my chops about something," said Atkinson. "And I knew I was like, 'OK.' It took a long time to get his trust."

"I got hired by management," added Atkinson. "So it really took me a while to integrate to that staff, because I wasn't hired by Rick. And eventually got into Rick's good graces. But that was a heck of a challenge, first year in the NBA."

Adelman was an NBA lifer, spending nearly 50 years in the league as a player or coach, and today he's ninth on the league's all-time coaching wins list. Houston was the fourth of his five stops as a head coach.

Atkinson had to go abroad to build his own playing career, and got his start on a coaching career in Paris after a decade crisscrossing Europe as player. So how did Atkinson, outside the NBA atmosphere and across the Atlantic Ocean, end up in Houston 11 years ago, a crucial step on his path to Brooklyn?

He credits current Utah general manager Dennis Lindsey, who left his position as assistant GM in Houston for a similar job in San Antonio in between the hiring of Adelman and Atkinson -- leaving Atkinson's name with Houston GM Daryl Morey on his way out.

"Daryl wanted to hire a development coach," said Lindsey. "I said, 'look, I think there's a young, very talented guy from the New York City area that has played overseas as a coach and I think he's special and if you get an opportunity, hire him.' So I left Kenny with Daryl and left Daryl with Kenny and they were able to work out an agreement."

Lindsey had connected with Atkinson at the annual EuroCamp in Treviso, Italy for NBA prospects. He recalls Atkinson being the first person in the gym in the morning, getting in his own workout before working with the players as a coach.

"His energy, his ability to teach, his way with people, multiple languages," said Lindsey. "I loved his ability to demonstrate because he was an excellent player as you guys know in high school and college and internationally, so I've always felt like the guys that can demonstrate what you want the players to perform to when you're teaching skill always have a little bit of an advantage and Kenny was superior."

As Atkinson climbed the ladder in moves to New York and Atlanta before landing the Brooklyn job in 2016, Lindsey was often in his corner behind the scenes, particularly during the Atlanta days. But Lindsey doesn't see it as a one-way transaction. He figures that every time Atkinson succeeded, he made Lindsey look good.

"I've always admired him," said Lindsey. "Even though your paths take you in different directions, you do remember guys that have helped you. I know he probably considers me someone that's helped him, but he's helped me. Anytime you recommend somebody to people that you care about and it works out well, worked out well in Houston, worked out well in Atlanta and certainly ... here as well as a head coach."

These days, Houston represents another connection for Atkinson as well. He left the Rockets to join Mike D'Antoni's staff with the Knicks, and now D'Antoni is Houston's head coach, hired the same year the Nets hired Atkinson.

With the Rockets, Atkinson had received an education with the organization's emphasis on analytics. With D'Antoni, he found a coach who had embraced the principles years earlier in reshaping the Phoenix Suns into a Western Conference contender.

"He was ahead of the analytics," said Atkinson. "Before the analytics, he started with the threes. He figured out, I want to get threes, I want to get free throws. Without having that.

"I know when the analytics came, he said it all makes sense. And I know he's full in in Houston. He loves what those guys are doing. Listen, I think you know, it's here to stay in every sport. It has changed every sport. Baseball guys are swinging, remember your dad was like, 'swing level.' Now, strikeouts are OK. Hit home runs. Every sport. And I think the analytics have changed that. And it takes coaches a while. But I am not halfway in, I am not three-quarters in, I am all in."

As much as the numbers shape Atkinson's thinking, the heart of coaching often comes back to what Lindsey first saw in the Brooklyn Nets coach in a gym in Treviso, Italy.

"A good coach who's a great teacher's worth his weight in gold," said Lindsey. "You can make players better if you spend time at it, and the players always know. They always know the guys that shoot 'em straight, that can get them better. They're the ultimate judge."

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