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For Rodions Kurucs, after new challenges and new worries, things finally starting to look up

Miami Heat v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Last season, Rodions Kurucs looked like a keeper. The No. 40 pick in the 2018 Draft, he started 46 out of 63 games, averaged 8.5 points and 3.9 rebounds ... played an annoying brand of defense. He was selected for the Rookie Challenge at the All-Star Break. The Nets gave him a four-year, $7 million contract. All good.

Then, things changed —and got worse— in the summer. The Nets traded for Taurean Prince who played the same position, signed the best power forward in the game in Kevin Durant and added Wilson Chandler, a veteran who can also play the 4.

On September 3, he was arrested and charged with misdemeanor domestic abuse of his live-in girl friend two and a half months earlier. The charge sheet listed five counts: third-degree assault, criminal obstruction of breathing, second-degree harassment, attempted assault and third-degree menacing. A criminal trial and an NBA investigation were likely in his future. The 21-year-old’s immigration status could be in jeopardy. All bad.

Later that month, he suggested in a Media Day interview that he saw himself in a Draymond Green role ... a playmaking big, going forward. Kenny Atkinson disagreed ... vociferously.

Said Atkinson at the time, “tell him the coach wants him to be less ball-handler. … Me and him have to get on the same page. Someone’s talking to him, on the internet, chat room, whatever. … We have to get back to Rodi on that.

“That was for summer league, maybe he was handling it a little more. Now he’s got to come back to who we are, and put him in his role.”

It all made him less confident, more tense. The former fan favorite became an afterthought. As Brian Lewis noted Sunday, It took just seven games for Kurucs to fall out of the rotation. He appeared just three times in the next 17 games. There were rumors he was on the trading block.

He now admits his changing role, his legal issues weighed on him.

“New season. Also of course that conflict I had 100 percent impacted me,” admitted Kurucs, who started Friday and startled the Heat with 19 points, including 4-of-5 from deep. “But I got back — that’s the best thing, the most positive thing out of it. I’m back, and that’s the most important thing.”

How’d he get back? Atkinson thinks it was his G League assignment. On November 2, he was sent to Long Island for a month where he averaged just 10 points, shooting 47 percent overall and 20 percent from deep. But there was something else going on with his mindset. The 6’10” Latvian seemed to get his mojo, his love of the game, back.

“Someone told me they went to a game and said it feels like he’s having fun again,” Atkinson said back in December. “And that’s what was part of the idea. Go make mistakes, enjoy playing basketball again. I think he was super tense. Started out the season super tense. This stint’s gonna help him.”

The Nets are nothing if not patient ... and they believe strongly in the G League’s possibilities.

“I just enjoyed it. I went there, took all the shots that I could, had fun with the guys, we had a great group of guys there,” Kurucs told Kristian Winfield. “Just enjoyed it, played my game there. Coaches trusted me 100 percent. They said take your shots, play your game, relax, make mistakes, that’s why you’re here. That’s what I did.”

He also worked on that playmaking role, averaging three assists with Long Island, compared with only one last season.

“I made the right decisions in the G-League and it shows right now,” he added. “I’m shooting open shots, making the right decisions, making the right passes, and making the right plays.

He says Caris LeVert gave him some advice.

“I just have to stay locked in and just be ready to shoot every time,” Kurucs said. “Let it go and let it fly every time.”

For Atkinson, there’s some relief that their diamond in the rough has some shine again.

“I hope that’s the spark, because the talent’s there. We saw it last year,” Atkinson told Lewis. “He decided to come out and defend like he did last year. We gave him the assignment of Jimmy Butler. That excited him.

“But to see the shots go down, and he’s not hesitant. We all saw in the beginning of the year he was really, really struggling with that, really struggling with his confidence. Just seeing that thing go in, and no hesitation, it helped his whole game.”

Indeed, Kurucs is now shooting 43.8 percent on 3-point attempts up from 31.5 percent last year. And if you give him room, he becomes even more dead-eye, hitting 47 percent on his open looks.

The mechanics are there, said Spencer Dinwiddie.

“He’s got a beautiful shot with arc on it; sometimes it drops in there and never hits any rim. We want him to shoot,” Dinwiddie told Lewis. “When he shoots it — and shoots it with confidence, make or miss — he becomes so much more of a dynamic player, because then people have to key in on him, he gets those backdoor cuts, he gets those lobs.

“All that stuff opens up because he’s shooting it with confidence. When he’s out there doing that, it just highlights everything else he does with the energy, picking up full court and all that stuff. He’s playing like Rodi of last year. It’s a huge boost for us.”

Kurucs’ legal troubles are far from over. He has another court date on February 11, his fourth. His lawyer has complained that the Brooklyn District Attorney Office has been dragging its feet on producing evidence. Alex Spiro told the judge in a criminal court hearing last week that he’d been previously informed the evidence does not include recordings of 911 calls associated with the incident. Nor are there any associated photos or testimony from witnesses, he said.

There’s no word on the NBA’s own investigation whether the alleged victim has shared her story with the league. The NBA can put Kurucs on administrative leave, fine and/or suspend him irrespective of what happens in the criminal case. In the meantime, Kurucs will keep trying to put his game back in order. On the court, so far, so good. In the court, he’ll have to wait and see.