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Kenny Atkinson on D’Angelo Russell, Caris LeVert, and the future

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

Kenny Atkinson is of two minds as he looks at the Nets roster. He loves the players he went to war with this season, but knows that the time has come to move forward, make the big move ... and that means a lot of his favorites will be gone.

“We are ahead of schedule,” Atkinson said in a “Full 48” podcast with Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck. “Now we’re faced with another situation with having ten players that are becoming free agents with obviously a free agent market that’s intriguing.

“Now we have a whole new canvas to work with. And we have a good core – a really good core – returning…That’s the sensation I had after the Sixers series; we improved, but have a long way to go to get to Finals, Conference Finals.”

And so now, although Atkinson can’t name names, he can talk about the future and flexibility.

“Now, the Nets are going to have options. That’s important. We understand there’s options A, B, C, D, E, F,” said the coach who was extended earlier this year. “Our organization is strong enough, our ownership is strong enough, that if any of those options come to fruition we’re still going to be in a good, solid place. Sure, there are optional situations that could swing our way; but, the B, C, D, E options aren’t too bad either. That’s a sign of a good organization.”

Atkinson spoke as well about his current All-Star, D’Angelo Russell and how he appreciates being coached.

“We got a little lucky, we got him in the right time frame and the point in his maturity,” said Atkinson who admitted Sean Marks had long coveted DLo.

“He never expected anything. When we had our first conversation with him, I was authentic with him and honest that you’re going to have to earn it. And I think that was a continuing conversation. I think our communication helped.”

Atkinson added Russell was highly coachable.

“There was nary a text, never a ‘hey coach can I talk to you. I’m not happy.’ There was zero of that. I think he knew he had to earn it, take stock of how he was playing, and was honest with himself,” said Atkinson.

“He tells me that all the time, ‘I really learned how to be a pro here.’”

Atkinson also spoke about the worst night of the season, November 12, when Caris LeVert went down, revealing that he felt the injury —which initially looked horrible— might be career-ending.

“He was on the verge of exploding, You can argue if he kept on that progression he was going to be an All-Star,” said Atkinson. “He was our best player at that point.

“The shock of the moment … You see the player who put in the most work, he was our first draft pick, so he’s like your first newborn. He was like our baby. And your baby goes down. You’re thinking career over. I hate to say it, but everybody watching on TV, you’re thinking ‘career over.’

“I remember the moment in the locker room sitting there with the staff, we were just silent. No one talked. You heard a lot of sniffles. As a staff you were just overwhelmed. There were a few tears shed and some prayers said. That’s how traumatic it was.”

Of course, by the next morning, it was determined that there was no ligament damage, no broken bones. His career was safe.

As for the team he just finished coaching, Atkinson admitted he remains connected to the players, but understands he must move on.

“My romantic ideal is to develop our own and create a superstar from one of our draft picks or someone we acquire like the Spencer Dinwiddie’s,” said Atkinson. “I think that’s possible. I know no one else thinks that’s possible, you can’t take these guys and (win), they’ll be good but (not great). I’m in our guys’ ears, Caris (LeVert), Spencer, D-Lo, let’s go to great. Just good isn’t good enough. That’s my romantic idea, my job.

“This is pro sports. In a perfect world I’d love to coach this team forever. The team we had this year, you’d love to keep coaching them for 20 years in a row,” said Atkinson. “But that’s the next challenge of the organization is to figure the next situation out, the next puzzle. From my perspective that’s probably my next challenge as a coach.”