Brooklyn Nets Training Camp: Kenny Atkinson's Strong Impression

Nets coach enters fourth year welcoming big-ticket additions

Before Kenny Atkinson ever talked to Kevin Durant, he left an impression. One of the tasty tidbits that came of Friday’s Media Day session for the Brooklyn Nets was that Durant had gone to the trouble of researching the Brooklyn Nets coach by looking at online video of his postgame interviews.

The reviews from the superstar forward came with a thumbs up.

“I really liked his approach to his craft as a coach,” said Durant. “That drew me in pretty quickly. I didn’t really do too much research on other coaches. I guess you always have to learn that. But once I started getting comfortable how he coaches his craft, it started to make me feel at ease even though I never had a conversation with him. I could just see it through You Tube and clips that he was pretty genuine about the game.”

“He’s gonna tell you like it is,” echoed Kyrie Irving. “Kenny’s known for telling it like it is, which I appreciate.”

It's not surprising. Late last season, Atkinson allowed that the media sessions are something he enjoys. It’s a chance to talk basketball, and his affection for the game and its players and coaches are something that comes through. He’s candid, insightful, and sometimes self-deprecating.

It’s straight talk, maybe not too different from what Nets players get when the gym doors are closed and the cameras and tape recorders aren’t around. For Atkinson it’s a mix of nature and nurture; his own personality mixed with lessons from his former boss in Atlanta, current Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer.

“What I learned from him is to really challenge your best players, be direct with them coach them harder than you coach anybody else on the team,” said Atkinson. “I do think it’s part of my personality. I don’t mind conflict and telling guys what I see. I think also use humor. It’s not always a scolding. Sometimes it’s used in different ways. But I think I get my point across. Personally I think that’s how guys want to be coached. I think they like hard and direct and honest. Sometimes maybe I could be a little more diplomatic, but I think they understand that. I think they understand the emotions of that.”

There are a couple of ways to tell that Atkinson’s way produces the right results. One is in the record with Brooklyn’s rise from 20 wins to 42 wins and the playoffs in the space of two years. Another is the eagerness with which Nets players such as Joe Harris, Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert have signed new contracts to continue their time in Brooklyn. They’re the ones that have seen firsthand what Durant logged in for.

Those relationships have been built over time. Those three players are the longest-tenured Nets. Their first seasons in Brooklyn were Atkinson’s first as well.

There have been plenty of changes since then as the Nets have climbed the ladder, so incorporating new players is nothing new. This year there are eight on the 15-man roster, plus a new two-way player in Henry Ellenson. With training camp just underway, Atkinson doesn’t see the sense in tip-toeing into things.

“I think you have to be yourself,” said Atkinson. “You have to be authentic. If you’re not authentic they’ll see through that, then you’re in trouble. It’ll be interesting. We’ll see when the film sessions start coming. This is preseason talk. We’ll go through some rough times I think, just with all the players you go through two, three days without talking to a player, ‘cause they’re mad. Then you get over it. And then you become closer. That’s how relationships build. But I’m not afraid of that, the conflict.”

But in Durant, Irving and DeAndre Jordan, the Nets have imported a different level of player. They’ve had veterans like Jared Dudley with strong personalities and tons of experience, but nobody with this level of accomplishment.

Atkinson has always encouraged feedback from players like that, and he expects it from Durant and Irving. Irving has sat out the first two days of camp after taking a hard shot that led to a facial fracture in a workout earlier this week, while Durant is sidelined following his Achilles’ surgery.

“I think they’re sitting back and watching, but I’m sure down the road we’re going to have some discussions and ‘hey, why don’t we tweak this,’ and, ‘in Golden State we did this,’ that has happened in the past with other players and we’ve made adjustments,” said Atkinson. “But there’s other ones you stand your line. They might make a suggestion, you’ll listen to them and be like, I don’t think we should do it and here’s the reasons why. I think that’s what we always try to do; evidence-based coaching. You have the video, you have your analytics. You build your case so to speak. I think they respect that; it’s not just your perspective. It’s your staff’s perspective and there’s evidence behind it.”

One of the words Durant used was “genuine,” and that applies off the court. A few weeks ago Atkinson flew to China to catch up with Joe Harris as he represented Team USA in the World Cup, joining Nets GM Sean Marks and owner Joe Tsai for dinner. Although, he did concede some ulterior motives.

“I just wanted to go over and watch the games. I love Joe – and I told Joe – I was even late to the dinner we had with Joe because I was watching the semifinals, I was watching Australia and Spain,” said Atkinson. “We went over there to see Joe, but I didn’t want to leave that game. It was double-overtime, like oh my God I’m here to see Joe, I better leave the game, and I show up halfway through the dinner. But I think Joe understands. You’re kind of a hoop junkie, so it worked out.”

Just last week, Irving experienced the personal interest when he went for medical attention after his injury. Atkinson, scheduled for his annual preseason press conference with Marks, opted out of the session to accompany Irving to the hospital, later doing his session on media day instead.

“I think when I get hurt, you think about your family, if it’s your brother, your mother, and I know when I’ve been hurt in the past, when somebody from your staff comes and visits you, that’s important,” said Atkinson. “Which brother comes to see you, which one does. I did nothing. I didn’t even have any advice. I just stood there and did nothing. Sometimes you just want people around you, especially when you get hit in the face, and I knew he’d been through it before. It’s like, you’ve got to go. It’s just what you do. It’s no great Mother Theresa moment, it’s just something you do.”

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