There is no question that the Nets’ definitive leader this season was Jeremy Lin, who signed on last season as a free agent to join the rebuild initiated by general manager Sean Marks and coach Kenny Atkinson. But after working to come back from injuries that limited his first Nets season to 36 games, the star-crossed point guard saw his second season end when he suffered a ruptured right patella tendon in the fourth quarter of the team’s season-opening loss Wednesday night at Indiana.
“We feel awful the injury will cost him the season, however, our entire organization will be there to support Jeremy in every way possible throughout his recovery,” Marks said in a statement announcing the diagnosis on Thursday.
The day before Friday night’s home opener against Orlando at Barclays Center took on the feel of a wake — not for the Nets’ season, but as a means of paying tribute to Lin and the example he set in terms of work ethic and team bonding over the summer.
“My sole, singular thought is for his health, his well-being, his family,” Atkinson said. “It’s a tough time, and I’m really thinking about him. I’m not even thinking about coaching or what our rotations look like. I told our guys today that today is about supporting him . . . You just feel sick about it. You are physically sick.”
Atkinson grew close to Lin as a Knicks assistant working with him in the 2011-12 season, which featured his “Linsanity” breakout performance. The coach marveled at how much Lin has grown into a more complete player since then. The Nets will miss that, and Atkinson addressed the issue before Thursday’s practice.
“I think it’s something you’ve got to put out on the table,” he said. “It’s not something you hide or say, ‘Hey, let’s move on.’ No, I think it was good we talked about it.
“The thing where he really sets the standard is his competitiveness. I think we’ll miss him from a competitive standpoint; I think we’ll miss him from a defensive standpoint and just his leadership example and understanding what the coaching staff wants. You’ve got to call it what it is. It’s a big blow.”
Regarding who will start in Lin’s place next to newcomer D’Angelo Russell in the backcourt, Atkinson put off that discussion for a day because he felt the focus should remain on Lin. But the coach said Lin commented on the flight home from Indianapolis that the Nets are “better equipped” than they were last season to handle his loss after adding Russell, Allen Crabbe and DeMarre Carroll during the offseason.
“That’s the type of guy he is,” Atkinson said. “He’s obviously going through a tough time, and to say that shows what kind of leader he is and how much he cares about the organization and his teammates.”
Like many of his teammates, Carroll offered prayers for Lin’s recovery via social media, and he said he will step up even more as a leader. “I feel like we still are going to try to do good, big things,” he said. “We’re going to try and compete at a high level, do the things we need to do and be better than we were last year. That’s our goal. Just because Jeremy got hurt, we’re not going to lay down.”
Atkinson’s choice to replace Lin in the starting lineup likely comes down to second-year player Caris LeVert or Crabbe, the sharpshooter the Nets acquired from Portland. Carroll suggested Sean Kilpatrick or Joe Harris, neither of whom played at Indiana, might move into the rotation.
“We’ve got to step up for him, and that’s what he wants for us to do,” LeVert said. “Last year is a different story. We have a couple more guys this year. But it [expletive] losing a guy with that much talent, that much leadership, that much experience. But it’s next man up, so we’ve got to figure out how to do it.”