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Even in defeat, legend of Rodions Kurucs grows

Rookie Rodions Kurucs remains a revelation for the Brooklyn Nets, scoring a career-high 24 points with some heady plays in Friday’s loss to the Indiana Pacers.

In a tie game Friday night with 3:08 remaining, Rodions Kurucs took a skip pass from Brooklyn Nets point guard Spencer Dinwiddie above the break of the 3-point line and never hesitated. The 26-foot jumper nestled into the net softly and the Nets had a 103-100 lead.

It was a big-time shot in a big situation, particularly for a 20-year-old second-round draft pick playing in his 17th NBA game.

Kurucs, already something of a cult hero to many Nets fans, had the best game of his career thus far in Brooklyn’s 114-106 loss to the Indiana Pacers at Barclays Center.

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The 6-foot-9 Latvian scored 24 points in 34 minutes against the Pacers — both career highs — while providing his usual assortment of heady plays that bely both his age and, even more so, his experience.

Unlike many players who come from European pro leagues. Kurucs did not come to the U.S. with hundreds of games under his belt against top-level competition.

Between injuries and a decision by Spanish club FC Barcelona to bury Kurucs last season on its second-tier team or just not play him at all because of his desire to make the leap to the NBA, Kurucs came to the Nets having played 69 professional games between Latvia and Spain.

Of those 69, only 17 would qualify as being against top-level competition in Europe.

So to say Kurucs is learning on the fly at the NBA level would be an enormous understatement.

But at the pace he’s progressing, Allen Crabbe may become the NBA’s version of Wally Pipp. Pipp, as diehard fans of the New York Yankees know, sat out a game in 1925 with a headache. A young player named Lou Gehrig started in Pipp’s place that day … and for the next 2,129 Yankee games.

Kurucs made his fifth NBA start Friday night, inserted into the starting lineup after Crabbe went down with a sore right knee after a hard fall in a road win over the Philadelphia 76ers on Dec. 12.

In those five starts, Kurucs is averaging 12.2 points and 4.0 rebounds in 26.6 minutes per game, shooting 52.8 percent overall and 7-for-16 from 3-point range while also hitting 16-of-18 at the line.

Overall, Kurucs is at 8.6 points and 3.2 boards in 17.0 minutes a night over 17 games, shooting 50.5 percent overall, 34.1 percent from deep and 90.3 percent from the stripe.

Against Indiana, he hit 6-of-11 from the floor, including 4-of-5 from long range, and was 8-for-10 at the free throw line. He added three rebounds, a steal and a block.

And of Brooklyn’s 20 turnovers, their youngest player committed none of them.

He created a nice one, using his 7-foot-2 wingspan as he has on a few occasions now to step in front of a sideline inbounds pass, this one intended for Darren Collison, and charged down court. He missed the layup under pressure, but Jarrett Allen trailed the play for a massive dunk.

That play early in the third quarter came during an 8-2 run by Brooklyn after the Nets trailed by 10 at the halftime break.

Late in the game, he and Allen teamed up on another hustle play, keeping a missed Jared Dudley free throw alive until Indiana big man Myles Turner knocked the orange out of bounds to save a possession for Brooklyn, which trailed by two with 1:40 remaining.

For a player with so little top-level experience, Kurucs’ instincts are remarkable. He is almost always in the right place to make a play on the ball and his energy and hustle are contagious.

Defensively, the pre-draft scouting reports were not kind to Kurucs, but he has proven to be a much, much better defensive player than anticipated.

How much better? Well, he opened the game Friday night checking Victor Oladipo, an All-NBA player who leads the Pacers in scoring.

Operating mostly against Kurucs, Oladipo was limited to 2-of-6 shooting and six points in the first half. Kurucs turned the assignment over to others in the second half, during which Oladipo went for 20 points — 14 in the fourth quarter.

So maybe coach Kenny Atkinson should have stuck with the kid,

Kurucs isn’t perfect. He can make mistakes with the ball at times. He can get lost defensively at times. But so often on both ends, he just seems to be right where he should be and will only get better from here.

The 2018 NBA Draft class has been a very good one, but Rodions Kurucs is making a very strong case for being the steal of the draft, coming all the way from 40th overall to start for a team contending for a playoff spot.

Next: 25 greatest individual games in Nets history

Imagine what this kid will be like once he has more experience.

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