If Kevin Durant were healthy, the Nets would have a two-time NBA Finals MVP playing power forward, which is as huge an upgrade as coach Kenny Atkinson could want for a position that has been problematic. But since Durant will miss all or most of the coming season while recovering from right Achilles tendon surgery, Atkinson must choose from a variety of other options to give the Nets the “stretch four” they have desired for so long.
When training camp opened Saturday, Atkinson made it clear he expects fourth-year veteran Taurean Prince, who was acquired from the Hawks for Allen Crabbe in June, to start at that critical position and provide a combination of three-point shooting and tough defense. The Nets have other options, including second-year man Rodions Kurucs, who finished last season as the starter, along with Wilson Chandler, David Nwaba, Lance Thomas, two-way player Henry Ellenson and rookie Nic Claxton.
But it’s Prince’s job. “Better shooter than I thought,” Atkinson said of Prince. “He’s 38.0 [%] career. The ball should go in. That piece is going to be huge for us. The challenge for him is to be the defensive stopper. In his early years in Atlanta, that was who he was, he was a ‘three-and-D’ guy.”
Although the 6-8 Prince also played small forward with the Hawks, he noted that he played the four-spot most of his college career at Baylor and is comfortable there. “The league now is positionless, unless you’re a five-man,” Prince said. “A lot of teams play four-out, especially in the playoffs. It’s a four-guard game. Just being on the floor is the most beneficial thing for me.”
Although Prince often will face a size disadvantage, he welcomes the stopper role Atkinson put on him. “I’ve had that responsibility since my rookie year,” Prince said. “I’ve guarded Marc Gasol, Kyrie Irving, Paul George, LeBron [James] since I got in the league, and it’s been that way every year . . . It’s all about gaining the intellect and just building on that every single year. I didn’t know coach said that, but I was going to demand that, and it’s something I look forward to.”
When it was suggested he also is likely to cover reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Bucks, Prince smiled and said, “I’ve been guarding Giannis since I was a rookie, so that’s no different to me.”
One key aspect of the Nets’ defense this season will be the combination at center of the shotblocking talent of third-year man Jarrett Allen and the physical presence of former All-Star DeAndre Jordan, who came as part of the free agent coup the Nets pulled off when they signed Durant and Irving.
“I look at it as our biggest strength,” Atkinson said of the center position. “We have real depth there and we have real choices there.”
Prince echoed that sentiment when asked how it might help to have either Allen or Jordan behind him in the paint. “It’s going to be great knowing that I have a great line of defense behind me, guys that can make people second-guess themselves,” Prince said. “If I can just do my part and, when it does get to them, they do their part, that’s what a great team is. I think we can do that.”
Notes & quotes: After suffering a left-side facial injury when hit with an inadvertent elbow in a pickup game Tuesday, Irving did not take part in the practice. Atkinson declined to offer a timetable for his return but called it “precautionary” and said he expects Irving to wear a protective face mask when he first returns . . . Atkinson also praised Nwaba, saying, “We felt him defensively today. That’s how you make your mark as a role player in this league.”