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The mystery that is Rodions Kurucs

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While Dzanan Musa has been a known quantity in Europe for several years, famously winning Bosnia’s first championship, the FIBA U16 European championship, in 2016. Earlier this month he was the focus of a stirring NBA Players Only documentary, “Something in the Water,” about basketball in the Balkans.

The Nets other rookie, Rodions Kurucs, is a bit of a mystery. Taken 11 spots after Musa, at No. 40 in this year’s Draft, Kurucs has always attracted a lot of attention because of his talent, first seen on Latvia’s junior teams.

Here’s what Musa said about their first match in 2014 in a FIBA U16 game.

“Actually, my first game was against this guy with the national team. He kicked our ass. He scored against us like 20, 30 points. He dunked on us like eight times. So, I remember this guy,” said Musa with a smiling Kurucs sitting next to him at the rookie press conference back in June.

In fact, at one point in 2016-17, Draft Express had him as a late lottery pick, but injuries and a lack of playing time with F.C. Barcelona dropped his draft stock as the season wore on. While he was healthy this past season, the dispute with Barca got worse and his playing time dropped.

As Mike Schmitz of ESPN wrote back in April, Kurucs’s fate in Barcelona was sealed after “his camp opted against signing a long-term extension in the offseason,” talking about last summer. Things went to extremes this past season.

“Barcelona, known for its in-house politics, has worked hard to keep Kurucs from being seen by NBA scouts, with a handful of European-based talent evaluators failing to catch him playing in meaningful games,” wrote Schmitz. “Scouts also aren’t allowed into Barcelona practices. One NBA team in particular has assigned an international scout to follow Kurucs around to every game, hoping to catch a glimpse of the 20-year-old forward.”

Want to guess which team Schmitz was talking about it? Maybe the one whose GM traveled to Barcelona last year in hopes of seeing him but came away with the smallest of samples, two minutes of garbage time.

And so as Schmitz and his colleague Jonathan Givony wrote four days before this year’s Draft, Kurucs wound up playing only 903 minutes over the last two seasons at Barca, all but 44 minutes with the organization’s B league team. In comparison, the two noted, Marvin Bagley III played 1,118 minutes as a college freshman at Duke.

Schmitz and Givony weren’t alone. Sam Vecenie of The Athletic noted Kurucs’ talent in an Draft preview back in January, but added, “Still, a lot of this is theoretical, as Kurucs has yet to show off his skills at a high level of competition in Europe.”

Moreover, until late this season, Barca wouldn’t budge on his buyout, which was reportedly $5 million. Considering that NBA teams can’t pay more than $700,000 of an international player’s buyout, it made no sense for Kurucs or any NBA to draft him. All that hurt his draft stock more than any injuries. (And even after the Draft, buyout talks between the Nets and Barcelona took so long that Kurucs couldn’t play in the Summer League.)

He CAN play. Here’s five minutes worth of highlights... from two years ago when he played for Barca’s B-League team... when the Nets considered taking him in the first round.

And here’s a more recent, if less revealing look at his Pro Day, a single player workout set up by his agent just before the Draft. Sean Marks and at least five other Nets staffers were on hand. You can see them ... in the front row.

So what we do know about him is that he’s long — measured 6’10” in sneakers before the draft, athletic and, as he admits, “skinny, skinny, skinny.”

What’s evident from the videos is that he can shoot, handle the ball, finish and play a little defense. He may not be a finished product, but he is decidedly not raw. What’s not visible, at least in this highlight reel, are rebounding skills. In the rookie press conference, he said “I can play 2, 3, 4. Whatever coach needs from me, I’ll do it.”

He also compared his game to two very accomplished NBA players at the press conference. “I like Kevin Durant. Gordon Hayward,” he said when asked who he models his game on. “I look more like Durant because I’m also skinny. Skinny body. I’m actually like him more or less, have his skills. I think I get compared to him more.”

What’s the Nets plan for him? Talking about he and Musa, Marks emphasized their versatility and how it will take time to figure it out.

“I would hate to pigeonhole any of these guys and say you’re a two-guard, a three-guard, a four. Again, it goes back to how they develop, what the development plan is here,” said the GM.

“We all know these young guys coming into the league have some stepping stones they’ve got to go through. It’s far too early for me or anybody else to decide this is the role or this is the position. Let’s see how it pans out. They do have a skill set – length, body, size, IQ – some of those intangibles.”

All that said, for the moment at least, think stretch 4. Schmitz and Givony thought so after watching him at Pro Day...

“There’s still plenty of talent here. He’s an intriguing option as a bench small-ball 4,” they wrote. “His recent change in contract situation in Barcelona will also make his future development much easier. Kurucs’ camp was able to get his buyout significantly lowered, allowing a team to bring him over next season or find a new home for him to develop in Europe.

“Kurucs lost far too much key time sitting on the bench in Barcelona, so this added flexibility is huge for his growth potential. It’s not out of the question that Kurucs -- once considered a potential lottery pick -- turns out to be the best international prospect in the draft after (Luka) Doncic.”

Not Musa? We’ll take either. Indeed, the Nets were very happy they wound up with both. As Spencer Dinwiddie said after meeting them in Las Vegas, “Very confident guys. I haven’t really seen them play, so I couldn’t really evaluate them. But I know our coaching staff and organization are extremely high on them.”

Kurucs may spend a lot of time in Long Island this season as he develops his strength and learns more skills. He already has one intangible the Nets like. He is, as Dinwiddie noted, confident.

In discussing his time in the Latvian national team program, where he’s played mainly for the country’s junior team, he noted at this rookie press conference that he’s only met fellow Latvian Kristaps Porzingis once!

“I didn’t play with him. I met him once before he got drafted. After that, we didn’t meet. I hope to play with him some day on the national team,” he told reporters.

When NetsDaily asked if he was looking forward to playing against him in New York, Kurucs smiled broadly, “Sure, and beat his ass.”