Forward Rodions Kurucs has exceeded expectations and played a key role in the Nets' season

It's been some kind of year for Rodions Kurucs.

This time in 2018, the 21-year-old from Latvia was harboring NBA dreams while playing limited minutes in Barcelona, looking at a basketball future that offered both promise and uncertainty. Fast forward to 2019 and the stretch run of an NBA season, where Kurucs found himself in the starting lineup for a Brooklyn Nets team chasing the playoffs.

"I've thought about before a little bit, just thinking I've worked hard for it," said Kurucs. "I've always stayed focused. Keep working every day, even if I didn't play in Barcelona. Just work, work, work. Just took my opportunity to go to the draft. You never know what would happen next year with Barcelona. I got the opportunity and came here."

The Nets nabbed Kurucs with the 40th pick in last June's draft, seeing a multi-positional forward with perimeter skills and range ... plus plenty of room to grow.

It took just a few days of training camp for Nets coach Kenny Atkinson to realize he had something more than he expected with Kurucs. The combination of the rookie's athleticism and relentless style jumped out and made an impression.

"He basically came out of nowhere," said Atkinson. "We expected him to spend a lot of time on Long Island with our G League team. From Day 1, he made his mark. It was like, ‘Who is this guy?’ Fearless, much more athletic than we thought. That was what really surprised me, how athletic he is, how long he is, how fast he is. Obviously, he’s a skilled player. And I just repeat fearless. He does not shy away from contact. He’s aggressive to the rim, he’s aggressive defensively. I always joke that I think he must have grown up in a tough neighborhood in Latvia. He comes from somewhere where they breed toughness because he’s a tough character."

Nets fans got a surprisingly early look at those attributes at the beginning of what has been a twisty season for the rookie. Early season frontcourt injuries necessitated some playing time for Kurucs in the season's first week, where his energy and nose for the basketball jumped off the court.

He was out of the rotation for much of November, until a dynamic showing off the bench in early December sparked a comeback against the Cavaliers. By the end of that week, he was in the rotation. A week later, he was starting, with all of this happening in the early stages of the stretch in which the Nets turned their season around in winning 22 of 33 games.

"Rodi's extremely important for us."

Spencer Dinwiddie

"Rodi's extremely important for us," said Spencer Dinwiddie. "His energy and his spark are a different dynamic than anybody else brings to this team. In that manner, he's extremely special. Obviously he gets out in transition and runs and does those things. He's going to continue to get better and better with more minutes and then also with maturation in general."

That propelled Kurucs to a spot in the Rising Stars game at All-Star Weekend. And then, in Brooklyn's first game back after the break, Kurucs — who had missed the last game before the break with a sore shoulder — received his first DNP since early December. Teammates had been out with injuries, and now they were back, and he understood the landscape.

The absence was not prolonged. Kurucs was back in the rotation the following game, and soon back in the starting lineup, sliding down to the power forward slot after back soreness sidelined Treveon Graham.

"I just was staying in the moment, working, being patient, waiting for my opportunity to come."

Rodions Kurucs

"I just was staying in the moment, working, being patient, waiting for my opportunity to come," said Kurucs. "Play some games in the G League a little bit. Just get the rhythm in and when coach put me in the first game against Cleveland, just started to get my confidence more and understand that I can play here and help the team. A little bit later I became the starter at the small forward position. Also, a lot of guys got injured, also played a role in there. But I used my minutes, used the chance to help the team.

"And then after the All-Star break I don't want to say that I knew, but I knew my minutes would be reduced because a lot of guys are coming back from injuries, so they'll play more, they'll have more playing time. I knew I would spend less minutes on the court. And then, also, TG got injured a little bit maybe, played a little bit role so now I'm starting the power forward."

Along the way, Kurucs has found guidance from veteran mentors in the Brooklyn locker room like DeMarre Carroll and Jared Dudley.

"DC more with the shooting," said Kurucs. "So he was also helping me with the shot, how to set my feet, how to be consistent and focus. JD is more with little tips, smart plays, when to do this, when to do that, and helping me also in a game. I do something bad, he comes to me, he says, 'Rodi, you have to do like this, like this.' Helping me with these little tips when I have these little mistakes. So he also comes and explains to me and corrects how I have to do better."

He's also found a comfort zone in his new home, settling into an apartment between HSS Training Center and Barclays Center.

For this final stretch of home games, Kurucs is welcoming his grandfather to Brooklyn for the first time to see him play. Vladimirs Kiselovs was his first coach in their hometown of Cesis, and each night after a game this season, Kurucs is intently on his phone messaging with his grandfather about the evening's game.

"Brooklyn's good," said Kurucs. "I live in a quiet, quiet, quiet area. I just love it. I like quiet with a slower pace, not like Manhattan. We went there with my family sometimes, and we didn't like it. My family said, no, we're going back to Brooklyn because it's too much people. They like calm, quiet."

On the court, Kurucs found a new family as well. He's been part of a dynamic season for Brooklyn as the Nets blew past last season's win total before the All-Star break. Kurucs didn't experience the hard times of the last few seasons, but he found a team forged by them and hungry to win.

"I saw how hard they worked in the offseason," said Kurucs. "Before the season it was a crazy summer. Everybody was coming in. We scrimmaged a lot. Everyone's fighting and competing hard. I think that's something you could see then that this team is fighting. They won't give up ever. That's what we show also on the court. We're always fighting. Someone steps up, someone in one game, maybe D'Lo scores 40, the next game maybe he scores 20, but someone else scores 20. We've always got each other's back. We're always helping each other, playing together. We are like a brotherhood."

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