He came in flying to the basket against the Suns on Sunday, slamming the ball through the net, grabbing the rim, sweeping his legs in the air and sweeping up the Barclays Center crowd in the excitement.
Rodions Kurucs already had swept up Kenny Atkinson in that excitement.
Whenever the Nets’ coach is asked about the new kid, there are only rave reviews. The 6-9 rookie forward from Latvia has announced his presence in Brooklyn as a second-round surprise. Even at his age, he has a knack for doing the right thing.
“For a young guy like that, a 20-year-old guy like that, especially coming from a different league, coming from Europe, the fact that he’s so on point with what we’re doing, that builds trust,” Atkinson said.
“Then on top of that, [there’s] his talent . . . his athletic talent, his instinctual talent. And then there’s how darn hard he plays. Those are things that really stand out. He’s had very few lows. He’s been pretty consistent.”
Barcelona gave Kurucs all of 44 minutes of playing time last season. He hadn’t made a commitment to stay and was bound for the NBA. The Nets took him with the 40th overall pick and signed him to a four-year deal.
He rode the G League shuttle in November, playing four games with the Long Island Nets. But Kurucs started to get more minutes for Brooklyn earlier this month and provided a spark, an injection of energy off the bench.
Then Allen Crabbe went down with a sore knee. Atkinson put Kurucs at small forward with the first unit, making him the youngest foreign-born player ever to start for the Nets.
“I’m just playing basketball,” Kurucs said. “I was hungry. I didn’t play [much for] two years. Now I’m enjoying it. I think also the thing that I wasn’t playing in Barcelona helped me mentally to prepare myself to be tougher, work harder and someday to come back. So I just kept working on my game.”
The Nets are 5-1 since he began starting, improving to 16-19 and moving one game out of the Eastern Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot. Kurucs has averaged 20.0 points in the last two games and 12.8 points and 5.0 rebounds in the six games. He has averaged 9.0 points, 3.6 rebounds and 17.9 minutes in 18 games overall.
“He’s just confirming, it doesn’t seem like this is a flash in the pan,” Atkinson said. “This is sustainable to me.”
Kurucs’ contribution to the 111-103 win over Phoenix came mainly in the form of 16 points and a career-high 10 rebounds — his first double-double. That followed Friday’s 114-106 loss to Indiana in which he hit four three-pointers and scored a career-high 24 points.
Atkinson likes his size and the defensive versatility that stems from his length and athleticism. DeMarre Carroll said Kurucs “does the little things and plays hard and knocks down the shots.”
Crabbe is due back after Christmas, and the Nets will host Charlotte on Wednesday night. Now Atkinson has to decide whether to give Crabbe his starting job back or keep Kurucs out there with the first unit.
On the one hand, Atkinson said, “That’s not going to be an easy decision.” On the other hand, he said of Kurucs, “He keeps playing like this, it would be tough to take him out.”
Now that he has gotten a taste of starting, Kurucs wants to retain the job. “I feel comfortable with that,” he said. “I’m getting more comfortable with that every game, more confident. Of course I would love to keep that role . . . and then bring the energy every quarter.”
Kurucs comes across with a mixture of innocence and optimism, talking about the Nets having to make the playoffs, about the need to win as many games as possible. He also talks about his need to grow his game and his strength. That 6-9 frame weighs only 210 pounds.
“I need to work on a lot of things, on the weight first, on the body, definitely in the summer,” Kurucs said. “For sure, my handle . . . Basically everything. Just get stability in my game.”