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Nets and their coach growing together

Chicago Bulls v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Tuesday night’s win over the Bulls was a milestone in the Nets ongoing rebuild. Brooklyn notched its 28th win (against 24 losses), matching last year’s win total ... with 30 games to play. Its two 20-year-old starters, Jarrett Allen and Rodions Kurucs, got word —mid-game— that they had made the Rising Stars Challenge. And their star player, D’Angelo Russell, added another 30-point night to his All-Star resume. Increasingly, it looks like he will get the nod when reserves are named Thursday.

And at the center of it was Kenny Atkinson, the once maligned development coach turned head coach. With those 30 games left, he’s among the leading candidates for Coach of the Year honors, along with Mike Budenholzer of the Bucks and Mike Malone of the Nuggets.

Those two guys will certainly come away with more wins and better chances at an NBA ring when those last 30 games are tallied up, but as Newsday’s Barbara Barker notes, they haven’t strung together “a seemingly disparate group of second-round draft picks, former G-Leaguers and D’Angelo Russell, a player the Lakers had deemed a failed experiment” into a likely —94.5 percent, says ESPN— playoff team.

Atkinson admits he started out from a low bar.

“From the first day on the job to now, it’s been night and day,” Atkinson said Tuesday when asked about his own growth. “We joke that I didn’t know what the heck I was doing in the beginning, quite honestly. Now, I feel like I’m better equipped and more confident. I feel so much more comfortable. Obviously, winning a little bit more helps that.”

it started with Atkinson pulling together a solid staff, coordinating it with Sean Marks’ hires in the performance and analytics fields and then molding, sometimes ever so slowly players who others had given up on, like Russell, Joe Harris and Spencer Dinwiddie, then adding draft picks like Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen and Rodions Kurucs, all of whom had some perceived issues.

It did not come together easily. There was a talent deficit in year one, going 1-27 at one point; a spate of injuries in year two, then again this season, leading to an eight-game losing streak. Some fans began calling for his head. Since then, it’s been all lollipops and roses as the Nets have won 20 of their last 26 games, as good a run as this franchise has ever had. And he’s doing it with a starting lineup that most nights, depending on injuries, averages less than 23 years of age.

Atkinson hasn’t stopped developing his young charges while winning. Monday night was the prime example, when he pulled Russell, his best player, who had scored 24 points in 23 minutes, because he didn’t like what he was seeing in terms of hustle. The player, unsolicited, said he agreed with the coach’s decision and endorsed him generally.

“Whatever Coach’s decision was, I’m buying with it. He’s got us this far, so I’m trusting his moves,” Russell said. “I missed a rebound, a 50-50 play that set him off a little bit. I’ve got to be better.”

As Barker notes, the Nets and their coach are growing together, feeding off each other.

“I think we’re kind of on the same growth pattern,” Atkinson said Tuesday. “So I think it’s kind of a cool thing, I’m growing in step with them.

“They understand I make a ton of mistakes, they make a ton of mistakes. I keep saying, we’re both humble. I have a long way to go as a coach. They know they’ve got a long way to go as players.”

Less than if they had someone else at the reins.