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Finding Rodions: How Nets scouting machine went all out to get him

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Brooklyn Nets Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

On the day that Mikhail Prokhorov was introduced as Nets owner back in May 2010, the Nets had three scouts. THREE. The Nets don’t reveal how many scouts —or other front office— types they have, but by our count, that number have more than tripled when you count full and part-time scouts. More significantly, the quality has improved —as has the scouting system— under Sean Marks.

Of course, the proof is in the picks. The Nets three big “finds” under Marks (so far) —Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen and Rodions Kurucs— have a number of things in common. All were taken with picks the Nets acquired in trades. Two of the three —LeVert and Kurucs— had injury issues, LeVert’s foot, Kurucs’ meniscus. All dropped in mock drafts compiled by pundits ... and all were much higher on the Nets internal draft.

None, of course, has been a bigger surprise than Kurucs (although LeVert’s injury made him a bigger question mark.) As Brian Lewis reports Friday —and as we have noted in the past— the 6’10” Latvian was someone the Nets had been pursuing, despite obstacles, for more than a year prior to the June 2017 Draft. This wasn’t about luck. This was about work.

As Kenny Atkinson told reporters, he can’t take any credit for the find and actually had doubts about taking such a young player who F.C. Barcelona had played 44 minutes on their big club last season. He points to Marks and the scouting department.

“[They said] here’s a guy who has first-round potential and he slipped to 40. And I’m like, ‘What the heck are you guys telling me? This guy didn’t even play! He hasn’t played a ton.’ So really that’s [where credit goes]. Then we’ve just kind of given him the opportunity. That’s kind of how it’s rolled out.”

Specifically, Atkinson points to Marks, assistant GM Trajan Langdon and director of global scouting Gianluca Pascucci, an NBA veteran with unparalleled European connections.

Kurucs had been on NBA teams’ radar since his first game in FIBA competition four years back. Here’s a compilation of his games from when he was 16. In the first clip, he dominates in a battle between the Latvian U16 team and its Bosnian counterpart. He’s No. 7 in white ... and you might recognize No. 13 in blue. It’s Dzanan Musa,

Musa —accurately— recalled that game at the Nets post-Draft press conference “He kicked our ass. He scored against us like 20, 30 points. He dunked on us like eight times. So, I remember this guy.”

Kurucs ultimately signed with F.C. Barcelona, a European powerhouse, tore his meniscus and was only ready to play again in 2016-17. The Nets though had tracked him. In March 2017, Marks and Pascucci traveled to Barcelona to catch a glimpse of him.

Marks even paid his respects pre-game to Barca’s GM, who had called Kurucs up from the Spanish second division earlier that day. Àlex Gozalbo, a Barcelona hoops writer, captured the moment.

Kurucs played only two minutes that night —his only appearance that season with the big club. Other teams’ scouts tracked Kurucs as well, trying to get a look at him in the Spanish equivalent of the G League. He was a top prospect despite Barca’s decision to hide him. Draft Express had him at No. 14, a lottery pick, in January 2017 and by the time Marks and Pascucci arrived in Spain in late March, he was ranked just outside the lottery at No. 19. But the lack of playing time —and word of a $5 million buyout— cooled teams’ ardor for him and he began to fall. By the time he dropped out of the 2017 Draft in early June, he was ranked No. 29 by Draft Express.

Relations between Kurucs and Barcelona began to fall apart as well. He declined a new three-year deal, according to reports, and so the front office decided not to play him with F.C. Barcelona, relegating him to the second division. At the time, Draft Express reported one NBA team it did not name assigned a scout full-time to follow him, to get fleeting looks at his game. Atkinson seemed to hint that team was the Nets.

“He was identified early,” Atkinson told reporters Thursday. “[Marks and Langdon] identified him and his name kept coming up and I’d say we took particular interest in him.

“He was identified early and I think that’s part of it,” said Atkinson. “You could talk to (general manager) Sean (Marks) for more details, and (assistant GM) Trajan (Langdon), those guys. But yes, identified him and his name kept coming up and I would say we took particular interest in him. We probably saw him more than we saw other guys. So really had a good…those guys have high interest in, there’s a whole other level of seeing him more, and then when we brought him in here another level of interviews. He was on the high priority list.”.”

It wasn’t easy getting good looks at him. He played a total of 44 minutes for the big club and initially wasn’t playing much in the second division as well, getting just four starts. Barca had made a corporate decision. If you’re not interested in playing for us long-term, we’re not going to play you short-term. Damn the NBA. For the most part, Kurucs said he spent his time working out ... and became friends with the other Barca player with NBA ambitions, Aleksandar Vezenkov who the Nets took with the No. 57 pick in 2017. Vezenkov too rode the bench.

There were hints of interest by the Nets other than Marks 2017 visit. Gregg Polinsky, then the Nets director of player personnel, told an Alabama radio station in April without naming names that there were three European players who the Nets thought could be lottery picks. One was Luka Doncic, the other appeared to Musa. The third was left vague, but now we know, he was talking about Kurucs. They may have taken Kurucs at No. 40, but they had him a lot higher on their internal mock.

In early June, the Nets finally got a good look at Kurucs in Los Angeles when his agent brought him to the U.S. for a “Pro Day.” The Nets flooded the zone with scouts.

Also, Barcelona by then had relented and reduced the amount of his buyout from $3 million to around $700,000. So on Draft Night, after taking Musa at No. 29, the Nets selected Kurucs at No. 40.

“I was pretty excited. I was super, super, surprised. Actually that was where I wanted to go, this place with the Nets,” Kurucs said the day after the Draft. “And I’m happy to be here. I know the staff is great here, and the club is great for the performance, and I know they’ll work with the young guys. That’s what I like.”

He later said his agent had told him prior to the Draft that the Nets would be a good fit.

Still, the shadow of Barcelona’s corporate decision followed him. He couldn’t play in the Las Vegas Summer League in July because the Nets and Barca couldn’t work out a buyout deal in time. Reports had the Nets paying $750,000 to the Spanish league club to get Kurucs out of his deal.

And Kurucs can still can tell you how many minutes he played last year in Spain. He noted Thursday that he played 38 minutes in the double overtime win over Charlotte, then made the inevitable comparison.

“Yeah, that’s crazy!” Kurucs said of his playing time. “I thought about it. When I checked my playing time I was like, ‘[Wow!] I played a little less than I played last year. It surprised me of course because I didn’t play last year. Now I’m here in the best league in the world and I’m playing more than I did in Europe. So of course it surprised me.”

Part of it, Atkinson says, is that Kurucs may be better suited for the NBA game than the European game.

“It’s a different game,” Atkinson said. “The freedom of the NBA, the pace of this game, fits his style better. Europe is more halfcourt, more sets-oriented. We’re more read-and-react, free-flowing, get out and run. … We’re a little more equal opportunity.”

That, too, is a credit to the Nets scouts and front office. They saw his NBA potential, not just his (limited) European experience. It’s not just about looking under every rock. It’s examining the rock and seeing how it can be cut and polished.

Kurucs is a confident player who sometimes hides behind what might be described as an “aw shucks” personality if he was an American. He knows what he can do and he knew it while sitting on the bench in Barcelona or at a table on Media Day with little attention from reporters back in September. He told us at Media Day that he saw the G League as a possibility and and of course an opportunity. Then, he smiled.

“But maybe I’ll show something up here,” he added. “Maybe I’ll be something like a surprise.”


(Special thanks to NetsDaily poster jasperjarrod for finding the Kurucs video)