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Kenny Atkinson ... ‘He’s a great coach to play for’

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NBA: Detroit Pistons at Brooklyn Nets Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

On NBA TV Monday night, Derek Fisher and David Griffin, the former GM, at one point talked about the crowded field of contenders for the Coach of the Year, noting that Mike Malone of the Nuggets, Mike Budenholzer of the Bucks ... and Kenny Atkinson of the Nets all deserved consideration.

What’s the criteria ... the biggest increase in wins, the development of players, team chemistry, x’ and o’s? Atkinson, in his third year with the Nets and third year in the NBA has the resume’. Despite the Nets not yet clinching a playoff spot, the job Atkinson is doing is getting him notice ... and maybe votes in the competition.

His players think it’s deserved. “Kenny Atkinson is Coach of the Year,” said Spencer Dinwiddie post-game Monday.

And that accolade is one big reason, Mike Scotto writes, why the 51-year-old has moved into the first rank of NBA coaches. Yeah, deal with it. Players like playing for Atkinson.

“(He’s) energetic,” Nets guard Allen Crabbe told Scotto with a chuckle. “I think he’s a player’s coach. Not just a coach. He really cares about his players. He puts his players in situations to succeed. He doesn’t really hold anybody back. Obviously, he’s letting guys do what they do and play to your best abilities, but not out of control. He’s the type of coach that you want to play for, a guy that his players come first and it’s about team first, and it’s about the culture he’s created here. He’s a great coach to play for.”

It’s more than just talk for Atkinson. As Scotto and others —including surprised newcomers— have noted, Atkinson will often insert himself in drills, even play, three-on-three.

He’s also moved from development, his job in Houston, New York and Atlanta, to the core of coaching.

“He moved from just development and started learning some Xs and Os,” DeMarre Carroll said. “I tell him that all the time. I think he’s now understanding out of bounds after timeout plays. He understands those are key moments in the game and getting guys open and getting guys shots. I think that’s been big for him. That’s his next step that I think he took because Xs and Os, you’ve got to be able to do that if you’re going to be a successful coach in the NBA.”

His players openly rave about him and how he’s affected them as individuals and as a team.

“I think Kenny does a great job of just putting me in the best position just in general on the defensive end or the offensive end,” D’Angelo Russell said.

“He challenges me. He doesn’t let off. I think some coaches kind of give you a leash, and you don’t really earn it and you don’t really work for it. You don’t go through the storm to kind of develop that. Since Day One I think we’ve had so many guys that have tried to earn that with Kenny and I feel like we’ve all risen to the crop. I think the sky is the limit with that. He gives me that freedom, but I’ve worked for (it). We’ve grown over the time that we’ve been together. It wasn’t something that came easy.”

“I think you’re definitely a reflection of your coach, and he’s tough,” Joe Harris told Scotto. “He definitely is the type of guy who has that chip on his shoulder. He’s worked his way up to get to this point, and I think that’s reflective of everybody in this locker room and we kind of take on that persona.”

As for Atkinson, despite the praise of his players and from Rick Carlisle and Gregg Popovich (both of whom he’s beaten badly), he remains focused on the moment, the next game.

“I would say you’re ahead of schedule,” Atkinson said recently. “That’s how I’d look at it, ahead of schedule. That’s a darn good thing. We’re, like I said, with the schedule coming up, it’s going to be tooth and nail. I think it’s going to be a dogfight. Every game is important.”

And at the end of the season, if the Nets are in the post-season and are a big story, writers will be asked to fill in their coach of the year ballot. It will be close but Atkinson will deserve it.