When D’Angelo Russell flew into New York in late June after he was traded to the Nets, one of the first people he met on arrival —if not the first— was Kenny Atkinson, his new head coach.
Russell said Atkinson got right to the point. “‘Defense,’ the first thing he said,” Russell told Adrian Wojnarowski this week. “‘I’m going to push you, push you.’ Every coach on the staff said that. The first thing they said was they’re going to push me and try to make me the best I can be. “
“Challenge” and “push” seemed to be the watchword around the HSS Training Center, Russell said.
When Allen Crabbe arrived on Thursday and spoke with reporters, he too talked about the importance of Atkinson. Although he hadn’t yet met Atkinson this time, he recalled a conversation last July when the Nets first signed him to an offer sheet.
“I talked to him last year when the whole offer sheet went down,” said Crabbe. “He spoke about incorporating me into the team. I definitely understand the defense and just the new system – I’m just really excited to start training camp and the season.”
And DeMarre Carroll, the third big free agent acquisition, didn’t need to be introduced to Atkinson. They had worked together for two years in Atlanta, when Carroll’s career blossomed.
“I’m happy. I’m coming to what I call family,” Carroll said. “Kenny I’ve known since Atlanta and he’s the one that helped me take my game to the next level. I’m just happy to get back under his wing.”
Timofey Mozgov also knows Atkinson, in this case from New York where Atkinson was an assistant coach Mozgov’s first year in the league. He remembers one critical thing about his new head coach.
“I worked with Kenny in New York,” Mozgov said. “He is a guy who works hard. That is for sure!”
Mozgov also noted that Atkinson encouraged him to play FIBA ball in the summer.
“Interestingly, for the first time in seven years, an NBA coach said to me: ‘Of course, play for the national team, it would be cool.’ It is unusual and a very pleasant surprise.”
Just as Atkinson was a big reason —actually THE big reason— Jeremy Lin signed with Brooklyn last year, the team’s new players like what they see in their new head coach.
“I have talked to him a lot,” Russell told The Sporting News. “He is an amazing guy because he is a hard worker, he has a chip on his shoulder and something to prove. He was an assistant a long time and he had to pay his dues. He has a lot of credibility. He speaks, I listen.
The key to all their comments is a belief that Atkinson can develop their talents, make them better ball players. Gregg Popovich may be the best x’s and o’s guy in the NBA and Brad Stevens the best at coach-player relations, but Atkinson is building a reputation as a development coach.
In talking about Crabbe’s game, Sean Marks said he thinks he’ll be better once Atkinson gets a hold of him.
“I think his role will expand here,” Marks told reporters Thursday. “I’m excited to see him with our coaching staff especially with Kenny and the development pieces here.
“It was one of the reasons when we talked last year and sat with Allen was ‘Look, we think we can up your game.’ We think we can take it to another level. ‘Let’s not just be a shooter.’”
Marks has also said he likes how Atkinson works within the overall Nets strategy, which is go for the best player available. Let Kenny sort them out.
“We’re still trying to get best available, talent acquisition. Kenny and the staff have done a great job of fitting guys together.”
But it’s development that Atkinson’s strong suit. He’s had some success. Caris LeVert and Isaiah Whitehead developed nicely as rookies. Spencer Dinwiddie, Quincy Acy, Sean Kilpatrick and Joe Harris are better players now than they had been in previous runs in the NBA. Not mention that it was Atkinson who encouraged Brook Lopez to take three-pointers ... and he went from making three of them in eight years to 134 last season.
Marks even thinks Atkinson’s development prowess can be a recruiting pitch that players, not he, will make.
“They’re going to talk to their peers on other teams and say, ‘This is the way Kenny coaches, the practices, the performance team, this is the player care that’s given in the Brooklyn Nets model,’” Marks added.
With Russell and Crabbe, the challenge will be different than taking a rookie or a D-Leaguer and turn them into rotation players. Russell and Crabbe arrive as established, if perhaps flawed, young players, true building blocks for the long haul.
Atkinson spoke to SB Nation’s Kristian Winfield in Las Vegas about his strategy ... and the value of patience.
“First off, there are very few guys who shine after one or two seasons,” said Atkinson. “Only the elite guys do. But I kind of like it this way. We’re built like — you learn from your mistakes. When you’re not a superstar, you have a chip on your shoulder because it makes them hungrier to get better.
“So I kind of like the progression. I like slow progression. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Mikhail Prokhorov has told us ‘patience, patience.’ I have the same message. We’re gonna be patient with them. They made some progress, but now to make that next step is harder. I’m looking two, three, sometimes development is four years down the road. That’s when hopefully we’ll see these guys, really. You’ll be talking about ‘man, that guy’s a heckuva player.’”
The Nets, of course, need a number of “heckuva players.” Marks has been given a great deal of credit for his moves since taking over a team with no draft picks of their own and a bad vibe. He’s used draft day trades and salary dumps, offer sheets to restricted free agents and things like the D-League to make up for that.
Always, however, Marks has talked about the value of what happens after the Nets get a player, how development is as critical as anything in his GM toolkit and Atkinson, the development guru, was his first choice as head coach, his first big move.
So far, so good.