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Next Man Up ... Surprise Us

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Brooklyn Nets Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

With David Nwaba joining Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Caris LeVert and Nic Claxton on the injured list, the Nets are decimated. More players will have to step up ... doing different things over longer stretches.

Garrett Temple, for example, played 39 minutes on Saturday and scored 25 points, a lot of them as back-up point guard. Temple’s been doing that all season. So it’s expected. But now, the Nets will have to relay on players who haven’t played that much for whatever reason.

The player most likely to see bigger minutes is Rodions Kurucs, who after starting 46 games —and averaging 8.5 points and 3.9 boards— fell well outside the rotation this season. It’s not just that he’s averaging only 2.4 points and 2.4 rebounds in only 14 games. He’s also been troubled by legal issues. He was arrested back in early September for domestic assault. The case continues to drag on, with no date set for a trial.

But right now, he’s next man up. The 6’10” Latvian knows it’s his time.

“I’m just waiting for my opportunity,” Kurucs told Brian Heyman of Newsday. “Of course, it’s a big, big, big opportunity for me to step up. Since last year, we have this mentality — next man up. So it’s just good to be in the rotation and help the team as much as I can. If they need me, I’ll be there and I’ll help them.”

He did well enough Saturday, scoring six points —on 3-of-3 shooting early vs. the Hawks and playing 11 minutes, the most he’s put in since December 14. Kurucs is a different player than Nwaba and five years younger. He can shoot —and in limited minutes has hit 40 percent of his three’s— and displayed an annoying brand of defense last season. Can he get in rhythm fast enough to lock down a spot in the rotation?

His fellow 2018 draft pick, Dzanan Musa, isn’t so lucky yet. Musa didn’t play on Saturday as Kenny Atkinson decided to go with his vets. Over the last five games, the 6’9” guard-forward has played only eight minutes, including two DNP-CD’s.

Immediately after the game, he was seen shooting three’s on the small practice court at Barclays.

Atkinson said Musa’s time with come.

“Especially with David being out, I think those guys will get back into the mix and have an opportunity,” Atkinson said. “ I’ve been pleased with their disposition, with how hard they play. But they’re young players still learning to get a foothold in this league.”

Still, he’s only shooting 31.6 percent, including 18.4 on threes, and is averaging 4.3 points and 2.3 rebounds in 22 games as a reserve.

It’s not just the kids and not just the swingmen who will need to step up. Other players are going to have to player bigger minutes and do surprising things.

Like DeAndre Jordan, who had a monster game on his Bobblehead night. He scored 12 points, grabbed 20 rebounds (for the 60th time in his career) and perhaps most surprisingly handed out six assists. Only two players in NBA history had put up a line like that coming off the bench.

When Jordan entered the game late in the third (with Jarrett Allen struggling), the Nets were down by 16. He and Spencer Dinwiddie dominated the rest of the way. The six assists —three of them to Kurucs early— has been a bit of a surprise.

As Brian Lewis notes, Jordan’s 2.7 assists per-36 minutes last season were a career-high. But now he’s on pace for 3.8, averaging 4.1 last month and 4.4 so far in December. He’s even adopted a new routine to celebrate when he hits a teammate with a nifty pass that leads to a score: He’ll bend over and pick up an imaginary dime.

“You know what you’re going to get out of D: veteran guy that can really protect the rim obviously, put pressure on the basket on the offensive end and get every rebound that comes off the rim,” Temple told Lewis. “That’s been his game.

“Obviously the assists, the ability to pass, play off cuts with him … that was really big for us.”

Jordan in fact has been a surprise on a number of levels. A mediocre stint at the Garden last year left many wondering about his motivation. That’s not been an issue here. He’s accepted his bench role after starting more than 800 straight games. He’s become a mentor for Allen and a veteran leader as well as a playmaker.

“We’re playing through him a little more now on that second unit, because he can pass the ball and get some more off-ball screening actions for the other guys and cut more and using his passing ability,” Kenny Atkinson said.

“He’s passed it really well. He can be a facilitator out there. So that’s definitely been an area of focus for us, and I think we’ll continue in that direction. I’m very impressed with his IQ when he has the ball.”

All of this has impressed one Nets vet...

The Nets no doubt are also looking at other ways to improve the team, applying for a disabled player exception, maybe a hardship exception as well. There’s no indication as to when Irving or LeVert will return. Neither have returned to contact practice.

Until then, expect the Nets to demand more of their 10 healthy bodies.