Rodions Kurucs first entered Monday’s game with 1:58 to go in the third, with Brooklyn down 78-70. The 6’10” Latvian immediately helped shift the tide in Brooklyn’s favor.
In fact, seemingly every time Kurucs has made an appearance this season, it’s been impactful. His head coach, among others, has been impressed.
“He just plays hard,” Atkinson said post-game of Kurucs, who helped bring the Nets within one possession of a win, and finished with 12 points – matching his career-high – and four rebounds in 14 minutes, a +6 on the floor during his brief run.
“He’s got extreme energy, but he turned the game for us and got us back in it. His energy was contagious. He gets in there, so it’s good news for the Nets. Disappointing loss, but to have a young player like that contribute at this level this early is good news.”
Prior to Monday, Kurucs had averaged 6.8 points and 3.3 rebounds while shooting nearly 48% from the floor in eight games averaging 12.1 minutes per showing. He’s simply made things happen, even from his pre-season debut.
“I just played tough, and that’s it, every game,” the 20-year-old said, grinning nervously from ear-to-ear through the entire post-game scrum. “If I go on the court, I play tough. 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.”
Kurucs later acknowledged that he did sense the game swing in the Nets favor upon his arrival on the court. It energized his teammates and those fans in attendance at Barclays Center.
“Yeah, for sure. I felt it. I felt like I can play here and can help the team in that period,” he added.
All good, which leads to the obvious question of why Kurucs hasn’t played more? A question Atkinson has faced, and will continually grow after Kurucs’ latest star turn.
Sure, Kurucs did briefly miss some time — six games — with an ankle sprain, and has also been yanked back and forth from Brooklyn to the Long Island G League squad – not nearly as much as fellow rookie Dzanan Musa. Moreover, he’s come from playing a mere 42 minutes with F.C. Barcelona last season to logging 110 with Brooklyn already this year.
The emergence of the 6’10” Latvian also comes at an opportune time. The Nets have needed a 4 for quite some time and have tried a number of players.
First it was Jared Dudley, and lately the Nets have reverted back to Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. And while, yes, the position is Hollis-Jefferson’s, but both he and Dudley are on expiring deals after all, with futures in Brooklyn that are uncertain, if not in doubt.
On the contrary, Kurucs is under contract through 2020-21, and has a team option for under $2 million the following season, meaning the Nets will control the 20-year-old’s contract for up to four years.
“He’s in the conversation, you can’t deny it,” Atkinson admitted, regarding step-one: rotation minutes for Kurucs. “We’ll have to look at it. We’ll have to consider getting him minutes. I think he’s shown that he can do it. Now, it’s a competitive environment in the NBA. Minutes are out there, and guys have to compete for minutes, but he’s definitely earning some playing time.”
Kurucs was notified of Atkinson’s sentiments. He’s ready …
“Yeah, for sure. I’ll play tough as I did today and I’ll just use them,” he said. “It (tonight) felt great, actually, because that was a dream for a little kid who comes from Latvia, from a little town. It would be cool to win, I would enjoy it more, but it felt great. I enjoyed it.”