Brooklyn Nets coach Kenny Atkinson entered his third season as an NBA head coach with a reputation as one of the league’s more progressive coaches in terms of embracing what he tends to describe as “the modern NBA” with its offensive emphasis on high-value shots beyond the 3-point line and at the rim, a defensive emphasis to force exactly the opposite type of shot profile, and a preference for versatile wings and big men who can space the floor.
It’s a world away from the way Atkinson was raised to play at St. Anthony’s on Long Island under legendary coach Gus Alfieri, who led the Friars to great success over 20 years with a methodical approach to offense. In the NBA, Atkinson worked on staffs led by Rick Adelman, Mike D’Antoni, Larry Drew, and Mike Budenholzer. We checked in with the Nets coach for a first-person account to see how his view of the game and his coaching style evolved with the influences of these coaches over the last 35 years.
I just got lucky who I worked with. Who I was coached by in high school. And had a great coach in college. Someone is smiling upon me. Because, I don’t know about you, but sometimes you don’t get the greatest coach. And you’re not in the greatest programs. I was just fortunate to have been coached by the best and work with the best.
In high school, Atkinson’s Friars were contrasted by the high-scoring approach of rival St. Agnes — now Kellenberg Memorial — under coach Frank Morris. Current Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan, two years older than Atkinson, starred for St. Agnes before going on to Providence.
I was a huge fan. He influenced a lot of people on Long Island how to play basketball. Billy Donovan and all those guys. I used to watch them play. I went to a coaching clinic of his. They were putting up a hundred points. It was unbelievable. No one had ever seen it. I’m glad I went to St. Anthony’s, but I really appreciated that style of ball too.
From St. Anthony’s, Atkinson played his college ball at Richmond under Dick Tarrant. Tarrant’s Spiders were known for big NCAA Tournament upsets, including one of defending NCAA champion Indiana that Atkinson and teammates pulled in 1988 on the way to the Sweet Sixteen. A year after Atkinson graduated, Richmond became the first No. 15 seed to upset a No. 2 seed, beating Syracuse in 1991.
I never forget my dad, he didn’t want me to go to Richmond. He’d say, ‘you’re an up-tempo guard! What are you going to a slow-down school for? They slow it down.’ I also learned a lot playing that. When you control the game and you’re disciplined in what you do, that helps too. I think the best offense of all is the ones that can change gears. You can play fast. You can also set your offense and execute in a longer shot clock. Changing speeds is hard to guard, I think. I don’t think you can play like this all the time. There’s a time to bring it back.
Even if the influence of Alfieri and Tarrant isn’t readily apparent in Atkinson’s approach today, there are lessons he hasn’t forgotten.
Executing in the halfcourt, what that takes. You need to do that. You just can’t play up and down all the time. You need to set your offense and when you need a bucket, you know you can go to A to B to C. That’s really what that type of basketball is. During the flow of the game, we’re more read and react, but sometimes when you need a bucket, you’ve got to go to that. My experience at Richmond, we’d have one play called ’24,’, we’d cross-screen and then we’d get a double-screen down for the guy that cross-screened, we’d have a great screen on the first one, and then on the next two they would knock the guy. It was almost like football. It was a football type offense. But you need to do that in the NBA. And I think that’s where, the Nets, we have to evolve and be able to execute, especially at the end when it gets more physical.
After Richmond, Atkinson embarked on a 14-year pro career that took him to France, Spain, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, and more. He began his coaching career abroad as well, in Paris.
Just a different basketball culture. We only played one or two games a week, so the massive amount of practice time, which was good from the development standpoint, because you could really work on your game. Over there, the coaches are, how should I say it, more dictator like. The staffs were small, so the head coach, a lot really depended on his personality. But I played for a Greek coach, I played for a French coach, I played for a Serbian coach. I worked with a Canadian coach. So I have a lot of different ideas. From each guy, I learned something different, whether it was player development or a new play. I had a Greek coach, and I’ll never forget, he was so, the team meal was so important to him. Who was sitting next to who and the team dynamics and the social dynamics of the team, I kind of learned that from him. I had this French coach who talked about shooting corner threes without a step. You know, mostly we’re taught one-two. But just put both of your feet. And I teach it to guys now, you don’t need to one-two in the corner. Just keep your feet stable like this, catch it and shoot. Joe (Harris) works on it all the time. Jared Dudley was working on it. You catch it in the corner, you don’t even need to move your feet. Stuff like that. It’s a wealth of knowledge. It’s almost like when you travel and you’re in different places, you’re in Italy, and you get a much better sense of the food culture when you travel. It’s a big part of who I am, big part of why I’m here I think. Because I know Sean (Marks) appreciates that part.
After two years coaching in Paris and more than a decade making his basketball living overseas, Atkinson got his first NBA job in Houston on the staff of Rick Adelman. Atkinson got started as a player development coach, a standard staff position now, but one that was rare at the time.
Dennis Lindsey, who’s the GM Utah right now, was the assistant GM there. He kind of identified me when I was over in Europe coaching there. And (Houston GM) Daryl Morey called me up one day and said ‘hey, we’ve got this player development position open.’ I said, ‘player development, what the hell is that?’ So it wasn’t Rick’s call. I got hired by management. 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.
Atkinson’s first boss is one of the winningest coaches in NBA history. Adelman led the Trail Blazers to two NBA Finals, coached the Sacramento Kings to 61 wins and the conference finals, and won 55 games in Houston in Atkinson’s single season there. He currently ranks ninth in NBA history in coaching wins.
He had a system and he was so methodical in implementing that system. It was a system based on cutting, he loved cutting and movement off the ball. And then from a personality standpoint, just a consistent, kind of stoic, quiet but firm, really an interesting guy. I was joking when I first worked for him, I don’t think he knew my name the first six months. And then one time on the plane, he started busting my chops about something. And I knew I was like, OK. It took a long time to get his trust.
When it comes to analytics in the NBA, Atkinson characterizes himself as “I am not halfway in, I am not three-quarters in, I am all in.” His introduction came during that single season in Houston.
They were over the top. Daryl and (assistant GM) Sam Hinkie. They made a believer of me after five days being in Houston. The information we were getting was nothing like I was seeing. It was nothing I’d ever seen, but it was also, this makes sense. Holy cow. Sam Hinkie used to do a scouting report that was all stats based. It was called the executive summary. I ended up reading that over the basketball scout. This guy shoots 22 percent when you go under on the pick and the roll if he’s going left. They had these beautiful shot charts where each guy was good, what he did going off the dribble, going right, going left. And they made it simple, so the coaches could understand it. Lineup reports. It was completely like nothing I’d ever seen.
In 2008, the Long Island native finally got to work close to home, taking an assistant coaching job with the Knicks under Mike D’Antoni.
Mike, unbelievable personality. He’s like a swashbuckler from West Virginia. He’s just like a riverboat gambler who’s very smart. He’s that guy at the poker table, talking a lot, but he’s smart, knows what he’s doing and a risk-taker. Rick was a fantastic guy, so was Mike. Mike was very funny and the most politically liberal person you’ll ever be around. He loves to talk politics. He’d play music in the coaches meeting. He’s just a cool dude. A cool cat.
Mike D’Antoni had changed the NBA with his success coaching the “seven seconds or less” Phoenix Suns. After the Knicks and Lakers, he took over the Rockets in 2016 and last season led Houston to the NBA’s best record. In 2017-18, the Rockets were the only team to attempt more 3-pointers than Atkinson’s Nets.
They thought this was the way it should be played. And Mike took a lot of criticism in New York. ‘You’re taking too many threes.’ He was ahead of the game. It’s like, well, now they’re taking 50 threes a game and no one’s saying anything because the analytics are supporting it. They had the guts to stick with it despite all the criticism. I was around and there was a ton of criticism. ‘You can never win that way.’ If Chris Paul doesn’t get hurt, they have a good chance at beating Golden State and being in the Finals and having a chance to win it all (last season). It’s a bunch of malarkey. You can win playing that way. Steve Kerr always says it, he took a lot of what Mike did in Phoenix and does it with his guys.
Before taking over the Nets, Atkinson’s last lessons as an assistant came during four seasons in Atlanta, the last three under current Milwaukee Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer. In Budenholzer’s second season the Hawks made a 22-win jump to 60 wins, the top seed in the Eastern Conference and a trip to the conference finals in the playoffs.
Very talented. Smart. Was an assistant, a video guy, and then an assistant for 19 years for (Gregg Popovich). I always say Bud could run any company, that’s how smart he is. He’s just a very smart guy. Relates well to players. Collaborative beyond belief. Always willing to listen to an idea. Wants input. If you don’t give him input, he’s mad at you. You felt included. As an assistant, that’s not always the case. You felt like a real ownership and stake in the team. I had never seen that before to that level. I was used to private meetings, but everything we did was collaborative. And a fun guy. Likes to go out and have a glass of wine, kind of like Pop. We had great staff dinners.
These days, Atkinson is the head coach setting the course. But he’s not done evolving. In a reversal, he finds new ideas from his staff, which includes Jacque Vaughn, Chris Fleming, Bret Brielmaier, and others.
Those guys, Jacque played for a great coach in Utah’s system, played in San Antonio. Worked for Pop. Chris Fleming’s got German national team. As the years have gone, they’ve influenced me a ton. I think that was the reason for bringing in a diverse staff like that. I can tell you, I’ve changed, I wouldn’t say a lot, but I’ve changed some of my thoughts about the way the game should be played from these guys. I think that’s what’s great about a collaborative organization. I definitely don’t have all the answers. And then, I continue to travel and talk to people and visit different coaches and all different sports. I think a curiosity to learn, I’m never going to stop that. I really enjoy that part of it. I’ll be, in five years, I’m going to be a hell of a lot different as a coach.