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FILM STUDY: Does Rodions Kurucs deserve second look?

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Golden State Warriors v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Things in Brooklyn are going haywire, to say the least. Spencer Dinwiddie and DeAndre Jordan both tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday evening. Before we go any further, I wish nothing but good health and as much comfort as possible to the pair of veterans while fighting off this virus. That’s what matters right now. Nothing more, nothing less.

Of course, the Nets were already down one Wilson Chandler, who (smartly) chose to sit this one out in favor of “health and well-being of (his) family.” The Nets will also be without the rehabilitating Nicolas Claxton, Brooklyn’s impressively fluid center who would’ve been one of the few exciting storylines in Orlando for this rather spark-less Brooklyn team, but alas. As it stands, Brooklyn’s front-court deck of cards consists of Jarrett Allen, the undersized Taurean Prince, maybe some Justin Anderson, and that’s… about it.

Well, almost.

Rodions Kurucs, Brooklyn’s second-year combo-forward, previously banished to the gulag­­, is on the precipice of receiving a rare thing in sports … a second-chance, an opportunity to prove the doubters wrong and tap into that upside that made him such a wonderful diamond-in-the-rough discovery just a season ago. By circumstance alone, he’s found himself a potential opening in Brooklyn’s bubble-bound rotation of underdogs. With good height —6’10” in sneakers— and a 7’2” wingspan, Kurucs has been called a “3-and-D wing in the body of a small-ball center.”

It’s been a… rather tumultuous year for Rodions Kurucs. After that impressive rookie season, in which the kid displayed a knack for picking off passes near mid-court like a Latvian Jamal Adams, he kicked off year two with an alleged domestic assault incident in late-June. That, of course, took Rodi’s stateside journey down an unexpected path of turmoil. Since September, Kurucs has appeared in court five times. His most recent appearance, which would’ve been hearing number six, was adjourned because of the COVID-19 outbreak according to the New York Post’s Brian Lewis.

I was in attendance for his November 11th, 2019 hearing and let me tell you: it was a morning full of angst and nervous anticipation. Even as one of the first names called off the court docket, Kurucs, his lawyer Alex Spiros, and the two accompanying Nets’ personnel were on the Kings Criminal Court premises from 7 AM to nearly 12 PM during that chilly November morning. Kurucs himself was rather cool and collected, discussing the upcoming coming game –– a November 20th 7:30 PM home meetup against the Charlotte Hornets –– with the Brooklyn staffers while waiting in the courtroom hallway.

But look, to put this bluntly… composed affect notwithstanding, I don’t think it’s absolutely bonkers to assume that appearing in court for multiple hearings during an NBA season may have been a little… distracting for the 22-year-old. Hot take, I know.

To further complicate matters, Kurucs came into training camp with the expectation of “Draymond Green”-like ball-handling duties on a team stuffed to the brim with capable creators like Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie and, you know, Kyrie freaking Irving. This, of course, prompted the infamous lighthearted rub from then-head coach Kenny Atkinson.

“Tell him the coach wants him to be less of a ballhandler,” Atkinson said to Greg Logan of Newsday. “Me and him have to get on the same page. For Summer League, maybe he was handling it a little bit more. Now, he’s got to come back to who we are and put him in his role.”

And there you have it: Put all of these ingredients together and you’ve got yourself the perfect recipe of failure for a young player who was expected to “earn minutes” in the eyes of his head coach.

Which, um, he didn’t exactly do.

In his mere 501 total minutes of play, Rodions did everything but dissuade Brooklyn’s coaching staff from slashing his playing time. The Nets were a full two points per 100 possessions better with Kurucs’ rear end glued to the pine according to NBA stats. Errant turnovers and indecision with the ball in his hands plagued much of Kurucs’ sophomore performance, resulting in 25 DNP-CDs in his 64 total games of availability and a brief stint with the Long Island Nets.

Now look, to play devil’s advocate, there is a chance that we’re looking at a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg situation. Was it Rodi’s poor play that prompted such sporadic minutes? Or did that lack of consistency in floor time add fuel to Rodi’s blazing fire of ever-abundant uncertainty while attempting to find his place on this specific iteration of Nets basketball?

Regardless of that answer, his 2019-2020 performance has been –– thus far –– a fall from grace for the one-time potential building block, an eight-month disaster that knocked every bullish projection to the wayside and replaced them with a heavy downpour of doubt. And yet, after three months off, what better way to alter the tides of these suddenly choppy waters than with a shocking comeback performance in the Orlando bubble.

Let’s start with the positives: The hallmark of rookie Rodi’s game was his ability to leave defenders’ mouths agape following his near-endless supply of cunning cuts. And guess what? Kurucs only improved as a backdoor specialist, jumping from the 40th percentile as a rookie to 70th percentile cutting among all NBA players this season. So how exactly did Brooklyn’s already formidable sneak-attacker further fortify his most chiseled skillset?

The answer is simple: Thanks to the threat of his blossoming 3-point shot (more on this in a second), Kurucs was able to diversify his backdoor-cutting portfolio and play off the expectations of his defenders. Here, he feigns a rise to the wing, causing his defender Chris Paul to sheepishly tag along behind him. Then, without notice, Kurucs whips out his version of a “reverse card,” rerouting tactically like the Waze app to dart behind the suddenly pant-less Thunder defense, providing for a modest two-handed flush.

The threes. Let’s talk about ‘em. After shooting just 31.5 percent as a rookie, capably stretching the court was perhaps his biggest and most necessary area of growth in the next handful of seasons. Good news: While 65 total attempts is by no means a reasonable sample to fully extrapolate, Rodi stroked the long-ball with 38.5 percent accuracy as a sophomore –– a possibly promising precursor (whew!) for good times to come.

This was no mere accident, by the way. Below, I’ve provided two video clips of Rodions Kurucs shooting 3-pointers. The first snippet is from his rookie year, the second occurred early this season. Almost immediately, you should notice a massive change in his mechanics. At some point, Kurucs altered his release-point; rather than loading up at chest-level and obstructing his vision right smack-dab in the middle of his release, sophomore Rodi let it fly from slightly above his noggin, providing for a clearer picture of the rim throughout the entirety of his three-point shot. The result? Instead of hurling absolute laser-beams at the basket, Rodi 2.0’s three-pointer features a much friendlier parabola with a higher accuracy of sailing through the twine. I mean, c’mon, McDonald’s logos across America have gotta be jealous of that arc!

If anything, there were moments when I wished Kurucs was a little more willing to just... you know… chuck ‘em up from behind the line with unflappable confidence (perhaps a session with Brooklyn’s other 2018 draftee would do the trick). The literally-couldn’t-be-more-wide-open-pump-fake-into-a-travel became an unfortunate staple of Rodi’s year-two offense. Please! Let it fly, big guy!

Of course, these cumbersome pump-fake’n’mistakes only comprised a portion of Kurucs’ never-ending live-ball blunders. According to Basketball Reference, Rodi’s 19.3 percent turnover percentage led his Nets by a healthy margin (the next closest was DeAndre Jordan with a 17.8 percent giveaway rate). This is, of course, some “major slippage” (in Ian Eagle’s famous words) from his rookie year, in which the kid coughed up the rock on a still-not-great 13.6 percent of his total possessions –– 6th-worst among Brooklyn’s 2018-2019 roster.

With the confidence that only a 22-year-old could have, Rodi took it upon himself to regularly flash fancy dribble moves and gutsy crossovers much like a (gasp!)… Draymond Green-like point-forward. The results –– a traveling circus full of bloopers and face-palms across the nation –– didn’t exactly match Kurucs’ charisma. Self-realization is needed; he’s nowhere close to fulfilling the pace-pushing forward duties he’s been lusting for at this point in his career. This no-look behind-the-back dribble is just a forced-fumble waiting to happen:

No play exemplifies Rodi’s overzealous cognitive dissonance more than the one below. Taking on one of the most versatile, life-sucking multi-positional defenders in the league (Ben Simmons) with a series of high dribbles while wedged deep in the corner is just… man, just so disheartening.

Kurucs also displayed a tendency to pick up his dribble a beat or two early. These lifeless finger rolls could’ve very easily been lay-ins off glass, but I digress.

One last point on Rodi’s turnovers before this article becomes a lesson on internet bullying. After recording a minuscule 0.68 assist-to-turnover rate as a rookie, Kurucs did damn near nothing to improve this deficiency as a sophomore, leading to a 0.94 AST/TO. He’s by no means an expert floor-reader, and adding a live-dribble to the equation was more often than not a disaster-in-the-making.

Sometimes, he was a healthy second late on finding the open man (here, a sprinting David Nwaba), making for some truly glorious telegraphed passes…

Other times, Kurucs outright failed to scan the floor while pushing the pace in transition, completely missing his open teammate Wilson Chandler streaking toward the open corner. Richard Jefferson, calling this game for YES Network, can’t even hide his disappointment. Just listen to that sigh!

Here, Kurucs barfs up a wildly inaccurate lob-pass to a rolling DeAndre Jordan –– a blooper that’s quickly spiked away by a 37-year-old Tyson Chandler doing his best Misty May-Treanor impression.

All in all, I’m dubious that Kurucs’ playmaking improves much –– if at all –– in the near future. He’s just got such a long way to go and very little instinctual feel as a passer. But at the very least, he can certainly mitigate for some of these errors by playing even slightly more controlled.

I think now is a good time to lighten up the mood: Rodi’s dexterity as a rebounder is an absolute treat. With ample grit and tenacity, and with an innate sense of timing for when to jump and where the ball may bounce, Kurucs regularly skied for boards he had no real business grabbing for the second-straight season. Still fairly slender even after putting on ten pounds of muscle last summer, Kurucs’ per-36 (to compensate for sample size) rebounding average of seven per game is a great starting point at his position as he continues to bulk up.

To close things out, the 6-foot-9 forward’s defensive package is –– like most things Rodions Kurucs –– a mixed bag. WinsAdded’s defensive player impact plus-minus graded rookie Rodions Kurucs as the 102nd-best defender in the league of 530 players. In 2019-2020, that ranking rose all the way to… spot 101 of the 516 players polled.

During his young career, Kurucs has proved to be a fundamentally sound one-on-one defender that can guard multiple positions. January’s home game against the Heat was a great example of that, as Kurucs forced Miami’s most potent offensive player (Jimmy Butler) into multiple tough shots all by moving his feet admirably and staying in his defensive stance regardless of the All-Star’s movements.

Where Kurucs struggles is guarding in space, showcasing very little understanding of the concept of “team defense.” Ironically enough, Rodi tends to lose his matchups if they cut backdoor, and it almost appears as if he subconsciously expects his teammates to “switch over” automatically without any communication from his end whatsoever. In this specific clip, a rolling Bam Adebayo drags Kurucs away from his left wing quadrant of Brooklyn’s zone defense. Rather than continuing to keep tabs on Adebayo (now parked in the left dunker’s spot), Kurucs ignores his logistical reasoning and (wrongly) sprints over to his original left wing zone of coverage for fear of breaking orders and bursting a hole in Brooklyn’s zone, but this leaves poor Taurean Prince stuck on a Bam-sized island. Sometimes, a brief break in scheme is needed if it means stopping the easy bucket.

Here’s another great clip of Kurucs’ struggles with switching: On this specific play, it took a rather forceful Spencer Dinwiddie shove in the back to break Rodi’s apparent 1000-year-long slumber and force the correct rotation onto Tobias Harris. Without Spence’s (semi-) friendly push, would’ve Rodi even put a hand up?

And then of course, in classic (early season) 2019-2020 Brooklyn Nets fashion, Rodions Kurucs was –– at times –– a notorious ball-watcher. Here, his attention is drawn in by JJ Redick, who makes a flash cut from the right wing into the painted area. And in that split second, the damage is more than done, as Rodi’s original assignment Kenrich Williams catches and pops for three in the 22-year-old’s grill. Ay yi yi.

Set to appear in court on November 24, 2020 for yet another hearing (per Public Record), August represents the perfect clean slate for young Rodions Kurucs to gets his career back on track. As it stands, the kid’s shortcomings far outweigh the modest positives he brings to the table. And yet, I still can’t help but wonder: Perhaps a little sprinkle of Walt Disney World magic and some high-stakes basketball seasoning are exactly what the 22-year-old needs to ascend into that jack-of-all-trades role he once seemed destined to fulfill.

Consider me cautiously optimistic.