Every year, Sean Marks has plucked a draft night gem from unsuspecting territory where, for the most part, marginal NBA players of little immediate impact dwell.
In 2016, it was Caris LeVert – projected much lower – at 20th overall. (Isaiah Whitehead started off well, too.)
In 2017, it was Jarrett Allen, who fell unexpectedly to 22nd overall.
This past year, it was Rodions Kurucs of Latvia, A likely first-round pick in 2017, even signing with an agent, he dropped out at the last minute and elected remain with F.C. Barcelona in Spain, who decided not to play him, part of a contract dispute. He was taken 40th overall by Brooklyn this past June.
With Allen Crabbe missing Friday’s encounter with the Washington Wizards due to a minor knee injury, Kenny Atkinson summoned Kurucs to start his first NBA game. Not the trusted veterans — Jared Dudley nor the DeMarre Carroll — but the Latvian kid. Here’s the highlight reel, from his agent...
Another game, another win, another career high! @RODIONS1 #TeamBSA pic.twitter.com/I3xft2bCfY— Baltic Sports Agency (@balticsportsag) December 15, 2018
And so, 30 minutes, 15 points, six rebounds and a victory later, everyone was singing his praises, sung, again and again.
“I thought he hit two big shots when we were struggling in the third quarter,” Atkinson said of Kurucs, whose 15 points came on 5-of-6 shooting from the field and 4-of-4 from free throw, after beating the freefalling Wizards 125-118. “A long two and then he hit a three. We were struggling, he started to come back. Just all-around; his energy, his athleticism, big plus. He just keeps doing it and keeps surprising.”
Energy has been the buzzword regarding Kurucs’ play. D’Angelo Russell said so even back in October.
“He’s active, he’s athletic, he plays hard, he knows his role,” Russell said of Rodi. “He knows what he’s capable of. He never steps outside the box. He’s the guy that plays hard and brings that energy.”
Intangibles aside, he’s put forth some pretty damn good numbers, too. Following Friday, the 20-year-old now averages 7.7 points and 3.2 rebounds in 14.3 minutes per contest, while shooting 52.1 percent from the field, and 94.1 percent on free throws. From three, he’s shooting just above 30%, but watching him, it’s clear that he’ll be a threat from deep.
Speaking of three’s, Joe Harris offered his own glowing review of Rodi’s first start. And it all goes back to that energy.
“Rodi’s been great all year honestly,” said Harris of Kurucs, who had 13 points in 19 minutes on Wednesday’s Net win at Philadelphia.
“When he comes off the bench, you know he’s going to play hard,” Harris added. “You know he’s going to make hustle plays. The amount of times that he just gets to 50-50 balls, he just happens to put himself in the right spot. He’s a great defender, athletic offensively, great at attacking the rim, and again, provides a lot of energy for us.”
Harris added that Kurucs has made others better as a result.
“I think it helps out everybody,” he said. “When you have someone that’s able to come in and be a threat offensively, to cut to the rim, to go and try to get offensive rebounds, it just puts teams on their heels a little bit. Not to say that guys have a tendency to relax, but when you’re able to have that sort of spark where guys could just play all out, it opens things up for everybody offensively, and then defensively, he’s all over, making plays. He’s got a lot of length, a lot of athleticism, and he definitely makes things easier for everyone.”
Harris also insists that none of this is particularly shocking. Kurucs made an impression from this past summer in team workouts and scrimmages. But it would’ve been hard to see him even crack the rotation.
“Shoot, we’ve seen him play all summer, whether it was open gym, in practices and even in the spurts that he’s had early on in the season. What he always does is come in and gives us energy,” said Harris.
Moral of the story is: Stay read so you don’t have to get ready. Kurucs has made bringing the energy his responsibility.
“If I go on the court, I play tough,” he said after erupting for 12 points and four rebounds in 14 minutes less than two weeks ago, the same night Atkinson said Kurucs has ‘extreme energy.’
“I use my minutes, and that’s it. My role on the team is to help the team, to help the guys, to bring energy, so that’s what I’m trying to do every game – help them.”
Additionally, Kurucs’ deal looks like as much of a steal as his pick in the draft. The Nets gave him a generous deal — four years and $7 million, the final season a team option— for a second rounder. But if Kurucs breaks out, he will be a bargain. In his last year, 2021-22, he’ll make $1.9 million.
Now, does he continue to start in place of Crabbe alongside Harris, who had 19 points and six assists on Friday? Will he slide over and start in-place of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson at the 4? Doubtful, since The Hyphen has elevated his play and put up impressive tallies of 15 points, nine rebounds and six assists against Washington.
It’s reasonable to expect a return to the bench, but with increased minutes going forward. He’s earned it, and his play demands it. Now, it’s time for the Nets to keep that same energy.