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Kenny Atkinson and the Art of Empowerment

Charles Maniego takes a look at where the Nets stand as free agency nears its end. This is Part III.Sunday, he’ll examine the Nets defensive options.

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Brooklyn Nets Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

In his years as an NBA assistant coach, Kenny Atkinson developed a reputation as a “development guru,” a coach willing to work with every player on the roster in improving. Jeremy Lin credits Atkinson for his success in New York. Several members of the Atlanta Hawks spoke highly of Atkinson. DeMarre Carroll called him “family” when asked about reuniting with his former assistant. The respect for the Nets head coach runs deep.

But what exactly makes Atkinson a development guru?

Atkinson’s work ethic has been noted throughout the league. In Howard Beck’s profile of the Jeremy Lin-Kenny Atkinson relationship, the Long Island native’s willingness to work with a then relative unknown was detailed. Both Lin and Atkinson broke down film early in the morning. Atkinson took the floor with Lin, working his way with Lin through drills. The first thing Lin noticed about Atkinson was his “passion,” almost evident in everything the coach did.

Even as a head coach, Atkinson’s work ethic and passion stood out. Atkinson’s coaching staff included former players and staff dedicated to providing on-court demonstration. Jacque Vaughn, Chris Fleming and former assistant Mike Batiste were often seen on-court, sweating alongside Nets roster members – and head coach. Seeing the staff coaching by example, rather than by dictation, couldn’t have been more useful for players still learning their NBA roles.

In Jackie MacMullan’s profile on the Nets’ ground-zero rebuild, Atkinson’s post-loss ritual was described in detail…

A few hours earlier, the Nets lost another game, and this is the punishing ritual of the coach of the worst team in the NBA. After paltry few hours of sleep, he watches the loss again, on a laptop mounted to his bike. When the Nets screw something up, he turns up the resistance knob on the bike.

The failure-fueled self-flagellation stood in contrast to the team’s on-court desire. Even though the games often ended up far from the intended result, Atkinson’s passion was evident. That passion bled into the players. Despite gaps in talent compared to the NBA’s elite, the Nets played with #BrooklynGrit in many games. Effort means everything.

A staff dedicated to improving performance with direction is perfect for developing players. The individualized work – as Zach Lowe called, “vitamins,” exemplify the Nets’ continued commitment to development through a dearth of assets.

But as a head coach, Atkinson’s greatest tool to motivate players may be empowerment.

Yes, that sounds super flowery. You can’t break that down on film – or quantify it, per se. But for NBA players – and for almost every creative profession - setting limits may be counterintuitive for young players trying to find footing. Empowering players to build confidence in their skills – and giving the freedom to learn through their mistakes is a valuable skill in today’s versatile NBA.

That philosophy seems to come from Mike D’Antoni, 2016-2017 NBA Coach of the Year and basketball innovator. Not only did D’Antoni’s offense allow players to experiment with their game, it allowed players to play through their mistakes. Raja Bell, a former Phoenix Sun, mentioned that D’Antoni’s system was “ultimate freedom and confidence.”

Two other coaches, Luke Walton and Steve Kerr, have also embraced player freedom. Of course, those two represent opposite ends of the NBA win-loss spectrum. But the idea of expanding, rather than pigeonholing players’ games is taking hold.

Coach Kenny Atkinson has brought that philosophy to Brooklyn.

And his players respect the philosophy and the man.

Other head coaches seem to confine players to certain roles. If they play out of their comfort zone, the coach gives them a quick substitution. Atkinson’s coaching allows for experimentation. While the success of players expanding their game may not be perfect, the simple freedom to try new things could be a confidence booster. For a team full of players just trying to figure out their role, Atkinson’s coaching allows players to experiment and grow.

That was evident with Brook Lopez’s growth as a perimeter shooter. Lopez started the season as a standstill shooter from the perimeter, finally expanding his soft touch to the three-point line. By season’s end, Lopez was comfortable attacking off the dribble from the perimeter as well. While Lopez may no longer be a Net (it’s still strange), Lopez was just one example of Atkinson’s empowering of players.

Lopez wasn’t the only player that saw freedom under Atkinson. Throughout the season, the Nets experimented with using different players as primary ballhandlers. A shooter like Joe Harris looked more comfortable attacking from the perimeter. Sean Kilpatrick’s defensive effort improved. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson found success as a power forward – and while his offense is still a work in progress, his propensity to attack looked less herky-jerky, more explosive.

During the summer, NBA social media has been littered with videos of players working on their game. Non-shooters show off new perimeter skills. Big men test out new post moves or slick ballhandling. But all too often in the NBA, the work in the summer does not translate to the 82-game grind of the regular season. Team expectations of players are already set in stone. Seemingly, Atkinson’s empowerment of players allows the off-season and practice work to be applied directly onto the floor when the calendar turns to late October.

For the Nets, development seems to be about expanding, rather than refining. In fact, when Sean Marks talked about Allen Crabbe’s game, he used that word, expand, while expressing confidence in “Kenny” and his staff.

“His role will expand here,” Marks said at the Crabbe press conference. “I’m excited to see him with our coaching staff, especially with Kenny [Atkinson] and the development pieces here. That was one of the reasons we talked about him last year.

In an interview with SB Nation’s Kristian Winfield during Las Vegas Summer League, Atkinson explained his coaching philosophy, and the freedom he instills in his players…

“I think we had a film session the other day, and one of the things I showed them was us turning down open shots,” Atkinson told Winfield. “I think I’m an expand-your-game type of coach. I see the good in all players. ... It’s just a mindset, a growth mindset for players. I think they can do a lot more.”

Much has been made of the Brooklyn Nets’ lack of assets going forward. But one of their biggest assets may be time. There is no longer a five-year championship mandate.

Marks is trying to build a foundation for the future – and while that may not necessarily lead to success now, the culture (I’ve only said it once so far!) is slowly but surely growing. On-court, that starts with Kenny Atkinson. His focus on development is more than just drills, skills and a relentless work ethic. For Atkinson, the Brooklyn Nets will look to embrace player empowerment.