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Kenny Atkinson will be real face of Nets come summer 2019

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Brooklyn Nets Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

It would be unfair to call Kenny Atkinson the Nets secret weapon in next year’s free agency. After all, he’s going into his third season as Brooklyn’s coach, but with all the discussion of the Nets assets next year focused on the market, the facilities, the culture, etc, there’s been little focus on the coach, unless of course you’re talking to players.

Guys thrive in his modernized motion offense system that sets everybody up for success with equally distributed minutes. Furthermore, it’s the confidence he instills in players that helps their development.

“I would say his confidence,” new Net Jared Dudley answered when asked what he liked most about Atkinson. “I think that you could tell the way he talks he’s a New Yorker in a sense of his confidence. Not being bold, but his attitude toward trying to get better, the hard work. He seems to me a blue-collar guy, ‘put your hardhat on here, come and let’s work, let’s have fun and let’s get better.’”

Players around the league appreciate these kinds of things. It goes back to the respect he’s earned coming up through the NBA system. It goes a long way, and with the Nets preparing to offer max sheets to big-time free agents next summer, Atkinson has to become their No.1 selling point to these players. There is no more important person on a team than the coach ... period.

Most recently, it’s been newcomers Dudley and Ed Davis, who’ve both said Atkinson is essentially the main reason why they were sold on Brooklyn. They may not be superstars, but they’re veterans that have played on winning teams.

Dudley was close to signing with Brooklyn two years back. He explained why, and this is what the Nets hope they hear from free agents next summer.

“It’s one of the reasons why two years ago I thought about this place,” said Dudley. “It was for him [Kenny Atkinson], primarily, of his coaching style. Sometimes in life stuff comes back around.”

Word of mouth is what’s crucial. Davis credits Jeremy Lin and Allen Crabbe for helping him pick Brooklyn over other teams. He heard good things about Atkinson and the coaching staff.

“I talked to Allen (Crabbe) and Jeremy (Lin) a little bit about the coaching staff and things like that and how the organization was run and it was nothing but great things.

D’Angelo Russell, of course, is seen as a foundation piece for the Nets ... and he will be critical in recruiting free agents next summer. Back in April, he had nothing but praise for his head coach.

“The adversity we went through this year was like no other. Your backcourt gets injured to start the season and that’s something that’s especially tough on our coaches. For Kenny [Atkinson] to do the job that he’s done to maintain that composure in his second year, keep the atmosphere positive in here for all of us is tremendous. I give him a lot of credit. We all know it isn’t easy to win in this league, especially with the adversity we went through this season.”

“We’re going to get better together as our time plays out. You can’t evaluate our relationship or progress off this one season,” Russell added. “Hopefully I’m here for many years to come and we can develop together. He’s been amazing since day one with me as far as letting me run the team, letting me quarterback things. I turn the ball over and he lives and dies with it.”

In particular, players like that Atkinson is hands-on, surprising newcomers by getting down and dirty in practices. It’s not surprising. Atkinson took a while to get to the NBA, moving along a non-traditional route as a development coach. Before that, he was a basketball lifer, playing wherever he could in the minor leagues and Europe. He was going to get into that NBA circle any way he could.

He graduated from the University of Richmond and played for the Wichita Falls Texans in the Continental Basketball Association. He bounced around several different leagues and several different countries for which you cannot even count on one hand (Spain, Italy, Germany, France, Netherlands to name a few).

Atkinson played until he couldn’t play overseas any longer. He started coaching in France and then got a gig as director of player development with the Rockets. From there, he went to the Knicks and the Hawks, both winding up as four year tenures. Then, Sean Marks, impressed with his player development work and knowing how critical it would be, brought him home to Brooklyn, not far from his Long Island roots.

He had to earn everything he’s gotten up to this point and that translates to his team. The Nets are a team whose identity is that of a hard working, yes gritty, team. He’s the human version of the quote of “Hard work beats talent if talent doesn’t work hard.”

When he first arrived in Brooklyn, he said, “Brooklyn is basketball.” Two seasons later, the Brooklyn Nets are Kenny Atkinson… and vice versa. And despite a 48-116 record, Atkinson gets respect around the league, not just among his players but the coaching community.

Just this past season, he received praise from Gregg Popovich, Mike Budenholzer, Mike D’Antoni and Doc Rivers.

“I just love him as a coach. I think he does a great job,” said Rivers after the Clippers defeated the Nets 114-101 in early February. “His team executes, they play hard, they play together.

“I don’t think people appreciate how hard that is when your team is not winning to get guys to play together. Most of the guys start looking at contracts, they get selfish and it’s all about numbers. Somehow Kenny has figured it out. They still play together and that’s pretty impressive.”

No doubt he’s been dealt a tough hand, but perhaps it was a blessing in disguise for Atkinson and co. because the intense rebuild allowed him to showcase his development skills, helping players like Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris go from forgotten D-Leagers to NBA rotation players ... and in Harris’ case, a big payday.

His former players remember his help as well. Paul Millsap sat against the Nets and didn’t get to say hello to his former coach, so instead he interrupted his post-game just to do so. Jeremy Lin came to Brooklyn just so he could be with his former assistant coach from his Linsanity days.

And on Tuesday, Brook Lopez credited Atkinson with his success at 3-point shooting.

“Right before that season in Brooklyn when I really started shooting a lot of threes, Coach Atkinson told me, ‘Just keep shooting.’” Lopez told Alex Kennedy of Hoopshype.

“Regardless of whether I was missing every three-pointer I attempted or making every three-pointer I attempted in games, he kept telling me, ‘Just keep shooting.’ He made it clear that they needed me out there shooting and spacing the floor, so he instilled a lot of confidence in me and just gave me the opportunity to go out there and [add that to my game]. I’m very thankful he allowed me to do that.”

All this is great but that 48-116 record is daunting and there has been criticism of his rotations as he tries to get the most out of what he’s been handed. Now, though, it’s crunchtime. His players need to show that they can turn this hard work and continuity into wins... something that stars will want to be a part of.

Whether it works out or not, it says a lot that the Nets are even in the conversation again. Just two years back they appeared to be in purgatory with no picks of their own and little assets or space to work with. So they started by developing players ... and respect.

He faces his biggest challenge next year. Nobody will be talking about development if the team isn’t improving. Now is the time to take the next step. He has a young team... again.

However, just like Atkinson at the beginning of his basketball career, the Nets are the underdogs looking to prove everybody wrong. He’s made it this far and he’ll tell you he believes anything is possible in life. He told me early this summer, “Why not us?”

So, if this team is in the running for a playoff spot next year, we won’t be talking about just gaining respect. Hopefully, we will be talking about playoff prospects as well.