It’s only been a short period of time, less than a year and a half, but Kenny Atkinson’s time with the Brooklyn Nets organization has left its mark.
What’s this “it” factor? Players like him, a lot. Ask Rondae Hollis-Jefferson who discussed the bond between player and coach on Wednesday, and how it developed, at least in his case.
“Kenny’s my guy,” Hollis-Jefferson said when asked about Atkinson, his face lighting up like a match in a dark room. “Just being with him the last year and some change, our relationship has grown – I’m just understanding him more, getting to know him; just being around him.”
Rondae, of course, has been around Atkinson for the full 18 months he’s been Nets coach. Not many of his teammates have. Hollis-Jefferson, in fact, is the last Brooklyn player who’s known any coach other than Atkinson. He worked under Lionel Hollins, then Tony Brown when he was a rookie.
Interestingly enough, the third-year player out of the University of Arizona, sees plenty in common between he and his head coach. He mentioned Atkinson’s competitive nature and how it drives him to make unorthodox moves. Atkinson decided to move Hollis-Jefferson from small forward to power forward, believing it would push RHJ.
And it did.
“He wants the best out of all his guys, that’s something that I see in me,” said Hollis-Jefferson of Atkinson. “I want to be great. I want everyone around me to become great. That’s where we get along very well.”
The relationship works, Hollis-Jefferson said, because players feel they can be honest with their coach.
“Sometimes we butt heads where it’s like ‘no, Rondae!’ I’m like ‘no, Kenny!’ (laughs). That’s what makes a team better. You can’t always be like; ‘yes, yes, yes.’ Sometimes you’ve gotta be able to say what you see and at the end of the day we’re out there playing and competing.”
It’s called respect, and there’s something else that’s noticed throughout the organization. So what exactly is it? Hollis-Jefferson said that, simply, Atkinson works his ass off. The players, and front office, have noticed.
“(He’s) just putting in the time,” said Hollis-Jefferson. “You could actually say anything as a coach. You could tell a player if you just want him to set screens, that’s your job as a coach. But I feel like he puts in the time and the effort to show that he cares to go beyond basketball and to actually care about someone goes a long way when you’re on the court.
“I’ll dive on the floor for that guy. I’ll take a charge for that guy. That’s the type of respect he’s gained from us.”
The feeling is mutual. It has to be if it’s going to work. Moments before Hollis-Jefferson offered his thoughts on his coach and unbeknown to RHJ, his coach reciprocated the same feelings and respect for Hollis-Jefferson, who has perhaps made the biggest improvement from last season to this season.
“He’s another guy who really, really worked hard in the offseason,” Atkinson said, complimenting The Hyphen. “It’s basketball development. It’s emotional development. I think he’s maturing. He doesn’t get down on himself nearly as much when he makes a mistake.
“He focuses on the ‘next play’ mentality and has really improved in that area. He’s growing before our eyes from a basketball standpoint and a personal standpoint. It’s great to see. I have a special place in my heart for Rondae for some reason. It’s a good relationship so it’s great to see.”
Hollis-Jefferson even went as far as to call Atkinson a father figure, to some degree, but he couldn’t resist a dig and a smile.
“Umm … I’d say he’s like 82, he is pretty old, so he could be (a father figure) … (laughs). Just kidding, just kidding,” said Hollis-Jefferson, still grinning the only way he can, from ear-to-ear. “Nah, he’s definitely someone that you could say is a father figure. Older guy, smart, charismatic, cares a lot about you, so you definitely could say he has that trait.”
The Nets have gone through a lot of coaches in the past few years. There’s been the cranky uncle Lionel; the staid and stern older brother Jason; and the whacky cousin from Texas, Avery. An ordinary father figure would seem to work just fine.
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