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Kenny Atkinson: A modern coach in the NBA’s era of player empowerment

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NBA: Playoffs-Philadelphia 76ers at Brooklyn Nets Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

More than one player has been impressed that Kenny Atkinson actually takes part in practice. More than one player has noted how genuine he is.

That’s not just something nice to say about the boss. In the age of player empowerment, as John Schuhmann writes Friday, it’s increasingly important for a head coach to respect his players if not as equals, as partners.

“You have to collaborate with your best players and guys that have been in the league a while,” Atkinson told Schuhmann. “I want that input. I want that collaboration. But I also want to make sure that we make the right decision when we tweak something or change something.”

Atkinson also wants it known that he is approachable, ready to deal with his stars.

“I think you have to be yourself,” Atkinson added. “You have to be authentic. If you’re not authentic, they’ll see through that. Then you’re in trouble.”

Those who’ve been with the Nets throughout the Atkinson Era say he is indeed authentic.

“It’s hard not to be motivated with Kenny, because everything he does is so genuine,” says Joe Harris, one of three Brooklyn players now in their fourth season under Atkinson. “Some coaches will give you the rah-rah stuff and it’s just for show. But it doesn’t matter what Kenny’s doing, he’s trying to kick people’s ass.

“He’s a competitor, and you can feel that. You can feel that when he’s talking, when he’s going through film, when he’s talking about the Nets’ identity and those things. You know that it’s not BS. That’s what gets guys going and why he’s able to do what he does.”

“We buy in to him, because he buys in to us,” adds Dinwiddie, also in his fourth season under Atkinson. “You don’t feel like when you make a mistake, he’s like ‘Well, the coaches got it right. Y’all just trippin.’ You really feel like we’re all in this thing together. That’s the most special part about being coached by Kenny and why I don’t think that there’s a ceiling on his ability as a coach.”

And players talk ... and as we know now, they watch YouTube video of coaches, as Kevin Durant said he did before choosing the Nets.

“Once I started getting comfortable with how he approaches his craft,” Durant said, “it started making me feel at ease, even though I never even had a conversation with him. I could just see it through YouTube and through the clips that he was pretty genuine about the game.”

Now, of course, Atkinson’s challenge has changed from development (of players like Harris, Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert and D’Angelo Russell) to contention. Can he do it?

“It’s a new challenge,” Atkinson said. “We have our core values, our foundation of what we’ve built. I don’t see us varying from that nor me varying from my personality as a coach. I do think it’s figuring this new team out, and that’s an evolution. That’s going to take time.

”It’s an exciting challenge, but I don’t plan on changing just because the chess pieces have changed. It’s a similar philosophy, figure out the players you have, and then put them in the best position to win ball games.”

Atkinson’s boss doesn’t seem to have any concerns.

“I think what we’ve seen is a group of guys get behind Kenny,” Sean Marks said. “I expect nothing [different] this year because he’s a believable entity out there, which is great for our guys.”

All of them.

“What I learned from [former Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer] is to really challenge the best players, be direct with them, coach them harder than you coach anybody else on the team. I do think it’s part of my personality. I don’t mind conflict and telling guys what I see.”