The seven-game winning streak is over, but more importantly, the 15-19 Brooklyn Nets are in a much different place —and better place— than they were on December 5.
In that time, we’ve seen the rapid rise of Rodions Kurucs, who has become more than the beneficiary of the clichéd “next man up” mantra with Allen Crabbe out with a sore right knee. Kurucs has been a difference-maker.
In fact, he’s been one of the more productive rookies in the NBA this season, despite a late start to his rookie campaign due to injury, and a brief stint with the Long Island Nets in the G League.
He got an Honorable Mention on this week’s NBA.com’s Rookie Ladder, along with the likes of top-six picks Jaren Jackson Jr, Trae Young and Mo Bamba.
Similarly, CBS Sports put him “on the bubble” in its Rookie Rankings, just outside the top ten. And that before Friday night’s performance when he exploded for a career-high 24 points and shot 4-of-5 from deep and 6-of-11 overall.
Not bad for a guy taken No. 40 … and who played a total of 42 minutes for F.C. Barcelona last season.
”No fear. He’s fearless,” Kenny Atkinson said when asked what he’s seen of Kurucs, who has now made five consecutive starts. “He hasn’t been afraid of the moment. Plays extremely hard. Lot of activity.”
Since his first start against the Washington Wizards on Friday, December 14, the Nets have gone 4-1, and the Latvian has posted the following.
And for the season, having now played 17 games, he’s now up to 8.6 points and 3.2 rebounds per contest while shooting over 50% from the field, 34% from three and 93% on free throws.
“It’s hard to take him out of the game. It wasn’t the plan to play him 34 minutes, and he’s earning his minutes,” Atkinson said Friday, “He’s earning his play, and it’s a pleasant, pleasant surprise for a 20-year old kid.”
Kurucs says he’s enjoying the process. (Is that a term we’re allowed to use when not in Philadelphia?)
“I mean, it’s been good,” Kurucs insisted Friday night. “I’m enjoying it every day … I enjoy the team, the guys, the staff, everyone. I just love to be here. I just love to help the team.”
He’s also enjoyed the increase in minutes, but that comes when opportunities arise after earning the trust of your head coach. He’s done that, and more.
“More comfortable, more confident,” Kurucs added of his improvement, and what factors have been at play. “I see how coach trusts me, he gives me more playing time and I’m just going and getting it.”
Will he continue to start? Atkinson said Crabbe’s injury has had the near $20-million man on the shelf for longer than anticipated, but the team expects a return soon.
That leaves the tunnel wide open for Kurucs, who has already powered through like a 2-train pulling up on Flatbush Avenue. (Would’ve said R for Rodions, but that train sucks.)
“We’ll see,” Atkinson said regarding whether or not Kurucs has earned a permanent starting slot. “It seems like we have guys in and out, so it’s just kind of we’ll deal with it when we’re completely back healthy and deal with it when it comes. But I’ve really liked what I’ve seen so far. He gives us size. So you can play him on a 4, he can defend a 3, he can defend 2’s. So he gives us a little bit more defensive versatility.”
As the Nets continue to be competitive, the team’s future grows increasingly interesting. Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, D’Angelo Russell and Jarrett Allen make up the bulk of the Nets’ core at the moment. With Kurucs under control for at least another three seasons at under $2 million per season, his development could wind almost as crucial as the others.
He is playing his way into becoming a focal point of the Nets’ big plans, and while that may have been the intention all along, it could’ve have been expected this quickly.