Kenny Atkinson makes his first return to the Barclays Center Tuesday since he parted ways with the Nets back on March 7.
Atkinson, who is also a Long Island native, was replaced by current Nets lead assistant, Jacque Vaughn, then after a few interviews for open head coaching jobs signed on as an assistant with the Clippers, a role he played before in his career, with New York and Atlanta.
The 53-year-old is in a familiar role — as a development specialist - focusing on improving all players from Kawhi Leonard on down to the last man on the roster.
Despite a surprising exit, at the time, from the Nets organization, Atkinson is, if not the sole reason why Brooklyn is where they are today, with championship aspirations, he’s a big one. He took the lead chair on the bench, inheriting the NBA’s worst team in 2016 and led a three-year rebuild that included a playoff berth in 2019 which in turn led to Brooklyn eventually landing Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in June of 2019, putting the Nets squarely back on the NBA map.
In rebuilding the Nets into one of the most promising teams in the league, when it comes to developing talent, Atkinson turned D’Angelo Russell from a Lakers castoff to an All-Star, Caris LeVert from a high-risk high reward rookie into a rising star, Joe Harris from a free agent few wanted into one of the league’s most feared shooters, Spencer Dinwiddie from a G Leaguer to a near All-Star and Jarrett Allen into arguably the league’s youngest, yet best, rim protector.
Like Atkinson, four of those five players are now with different NBA teams but his list of accomplishments as the head coach of Brooklyn will go on. None of those guys are 30 yet.
Although Atkinson didn’t speak prior prior to Tuesday’s game , his new boss, Tyronn Lue, was asked if there was anything extra for Atkinson facing his former team. Lue laughed and followed up with a smiling “No comment. No comment.”
“He’s done a great job everywhere he’s been,” Lue said earlier via Zoom. “Player development was always a strong suit in how he developed these young guys and other players; we’ve seen how good they’ve gotten.”
Bret Brielmaier, who served as an assistant coach under Atkinson throughout his five years as a Net —and is the new coach of the Long Island Nets, spoke highly of his former coach Monday. When asked about the biggest thing he took away from learning under Atkinson, he replied with what the 53-year-old did best: trusting the process and sticking with it.
“The biggest thing I have taken from Coach Atkinson, well there are countless, he is an incredible coach,” Brielmaier said. “Probably his focus on how important the process and our habits are. It was something that he spoke on almost on a daily basis and we have kept that as a foundation - having great habits, our process is going to be right, and we are going to be very strategic on how we handle each and every day.”
Atkinson finished his Nets tenure going 118-190 (.383). Aside from his overall coaching record, the Long Island native should be recognized for taking the Nets from the worst team in the NBA to a championship favorite in only five years and making Brooklyn one of the most popular landing spots for players across the NBA.
If there were fans in the arena tonight, Atkinson would have gotten a big ovation. Too bad.
Lue was willing to talk about one of his former players, if not Atkinson. He praised Landry Shamet who played for the Clippers last year. He urged fans to have patience with the 23-year-old.
“Fitting into a new system is tough because he is used to running off screens and playing a different way so I think he will be fine. The way he shoots the basketball, he is going to be okay. He is just trying to find his niche and with a new team and a new system, it can take some time.”