When Kenny Atkinson was named head coach of the Nets two years ago (almost to the day), he arrived on Brooklyn soil with his first big opportunity.
For the previous eight seasons he had been paying his dues as an NBA assistant on the Houston Rockets, New York Knicks and Atlanta Hawks staffs. Then, he became one of the more sought after NBA coaches two springs ago. Over time, before Brooklyn and even now, Atkinson’s made a name for himself as a coach who excels in player development.
“When I look back and I look at the job Kenny has done, I say look at our players that have improved over the course of the last two years,” said Sean Marks on Monday, sitting next to Atkinson. “If you want to call some of them diamonds in the rough or so forth, but I don’t think we can argue with what Kenny and the staff have done in terms of developing talent.”
Still, the last two seasons might’ve been the most mentally enduring a head coach can withstand. Sure, he knew what he was getting into, but getting stabbed doesn’t feel any more soothing because you know the guy next to you has a knife.
Atkinson’s remained, at least publicly, optimistic, upbeat, with a positive mental attitude perhaps unmatched by any of his colleagues, considering the team’s record.
And in the name of remaining “glass half full,” Atkinson says helping the organization grow through injuries and other setbacks helped him transition from top flight assistant to new coach on the block.
“I think positive things do come out of it. You learn that Caris LeVert can play point guard,” he told reporters Monday, with a smile. “It’s amazing how you’re depressed for a day and you discover all these other things like, ‘Spencer Dinwiddie, man, he’s pretty good.’ Would he have gotten the same opportunity? D’Angelo (Russell) goes down and you have to kind of tweak it. We have found out a lot about our roster, a lot about our team, and again, you find out a lot about yourself as a coach as you go through those things.”
Even with two straight finishes at or near the bottom of the league, the list of those players who’ve dramatically improved their game is long: LeVert, Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen, Joe Harris and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Even Russell, despite missing 34 games, showed at season’s end, where his game is going. And to a man, they all say good things about Atkinson and his staff.
“The type of players we’ve brought in; we always preach high character guys. The spirit they came with every night, it’s really a reflection of them more than it’s a reflection of me,” said Atkinson showing his habitual enthusiasm and a bit of humility. “I’ve learned a ton – the growth and the development from the first day, I wish I had a scale up or a graph up here so I can show you where I think it’s gone and where it needs to go. (I) Definitely have improved but I have a long way to go. That’s from the heart.”
And although the Nets have gone 48-116 with Atkinson at the helm, the general sense is that the team isn’t far off from making legitimate noise. Atkinson’s involvement, mentioned by so many of his young charges, and investment in players deserves credit.
The biggest beneficiary may be Hollis-Jefferson who moved from small to power forward and jumped his scoring from 8.7 to nearly 14 points per game (13.9 to 17.7 per 36). More importantly, he’s visually grown more confident in scoring from the four position.
The Nets have in turn rewarded him with consistent touches and he’s shown the ability to turn, face and finish, get to the line or even pass out (2.5 assists per game), adding a dimension to the emerging Brooklyn offense. He credits a lot of that to his coach.
“Kenny’s my guy,” Hollis-Jefferson said when asked about Atkinson, his face lighting up like a match in a dark room, back in November. “Just being with him the last year and some change, our relationship has grown – I’m just understanding him more, getting to know him; just being around him. He wants the best out of all his guys, that’s something that I see in me. I want to be great. I want everyone around me to become great. That’s where we get along very well.”
Others have been grateful beneficiaries as well.
LeVert looks like a future All-Star caliber player, improving from per game numbers of 8.2 points and 1.9 assists to 12.1 points and 4.2 assists in the past year while also shooting a respectable near 35% from three, up from a previous 32.1% as a rookie.
When Jeremy Lin and D’Angelo Russell went down, Dinwiddie became one of the NBA’s most improved players, finishing the season second in assist-to-turnover ratio, seventh in assists and tied for 12th in dimes per outing.
After a slow start, Allen ended a strong rookie season as a likely All-Rookie (Second) Teamer and the Nets’ big of the future (as long as he gets stronger). Everyone thought he’d be spending time in Long Island, not leading all rookies in blocks per game.
Allen Crabbe and DeMarre Carroll also came over and had career seasons in roles with accentuated the strengths of their skill-sets. Then, there’s Harris who went from a deer-in-the-headlights (Atkinson’s words) spot-up shooter to a more complete and soon-to-be richer player. And don’t think that doesn’t play into players’ gratitude.
Atkinson’s had something to do with each, hoping to turn the re-build into a build.
“I think there’s a lot of bright spots here,” said Marks. “We both enjoyed listening to our players in the exit interviews and what they had to say. They were candid with both of us and also their performance coaches and assistant coaches and they had great feedback for us in terms of the culture that’s here, what we’re trying to implement, the system, the style and the attention to detail throughout the organization. Obviously, in a game-by-game situation, that starts with Kenny and his staff.”
Atkinson also noted that he feels that, with the support group in place, courtesy of Marks, he feels like he’ll reach his goal as a coach, which is in line with the organization’s visions for the team.
“I feel like it’s trending positively, our roster and our organization, but knowing that I have a long way to go and knowing that every day I walk in I learn a ton,” said Atkinson, humbly. “(I’m) Still learning, still reaching and definitely not satisfied with where I am. I have a long way to go to get to that. If you want to be at the top tier in your profession, that’s the goal. It’s a heck of a challenge, but again, I’m supported by a great group.
“The model for a head coach has changed. It used to be that you were a singular entity, now I think it’s much more. It’s much more supported by a group. That’s the model that I love, so I feel comfortable with the help and the organization Sean’s surrounded me with. It’s going to keep getting better.”
- Nets GM Sean Marks praises coach Kenny Atkinson’s player development - Greg Logan - Newsday