It struck Kenny Atkinson as he addressed the New York media for the first time. There was his family, including all seven brothers, gathered in front of the podium, Nets general manager Sean Marks by his side and his old coach, St. Anthony’s legend Gus Alfieri, in the crowd.
After a long journey — one that started in his hometown of Northport, carried him through Europe and eventually to the NBA — Atkinson is home.
“This press conference was ‘Wow,’ ” said Atkinson, shortly after being introduced as the Nets’ new coach at their Brooklyn practice facility. “I think that’s why I got a little emotional, just seeing all the familiar faces and family.”
Atkinson’s homecoming is the latest move by the Nets to get the franchise moving in a positive direction. The Nets are coming off a 21-61 season and don’t have control of their draft picks until 2019. Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov hired Marks away from the Spurs in February and Marks picked Atkinson as his coach over about a half dozen other candidates last month.
Marks is hoping that Atkinson’s international experience, work as an assistant under Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer and knack for player development will help usher in a new era for the Nets. Atkinson was also an assistant with the Knicks for four seasons, and played in four European countries from 1990 to 2004 as a point guard.
“It was pretty clear that Kenny was my No. 1 choice,” Marks said. “Going into it, there was a familiarity with Kenny. I loved what he stood for and what he was all about — his determination, his work ethic, but above all, the person that he is.”
It appears Marks and Atkinson already have a plan. Nets power forward Thaddeus Young, who attended the news conference, said he’s been assured that he will not be traded in the offseason. Marks made no promises, but it appears likely center Brook Lopez will return as well. Marks and Atkinson said the Nets will exercise patience with their younger players while being aggressive in the free agent market, both in the United States and abroad.
“I definitely have” been tapped to recruit players, Young said. “I’m not at liberty to say who, but we definitely want top tier guys and we definitely want key guys, key aspects of what we need to win basketball games — which is a point guard and a wing.”
Atkinson agreed, saying a point guard would be a top priority. While with the Knicks, Atkinson was pivotal in developing Jeremy Lin, who will be a free agent this summer. And though both Marks and Atkinson are fully familiar with the international market, it will not be their sole focus, Marks said.
Atkinson, who attended St. Anthony’s High School in Huntington Station before playing four years at the University of Richmond, originally had pause about the Nets job because of the high turnover, but was assured that he’d be given time to help build a sustainable winning team.
“We’re going to build something for the long term, so that excited me and convinced me,” he said.
Now the Long Island product is ready to take on a rebuilding job in New York.
“I embrace the pressure and I know that comes with the territory, especially here,” he said. “I say to myself, I’m going to have patience. I’m going to be sending a positive message unless it’s necessary to send a different message. I don’t fear that. I welcome it. And I hope our players do too.”