Whenever Rodions Kurucs’ name comes up around Kenny Atkinson, the Nets’ coach can’t help but smile.
In his rookie season, the 20-year-old forward from Latvia has gone from being a G-League fill-in to a key contributor in the NBA.
Kurucs played nearly 39 minutes in the Nets’ 134-132 double-overtime victory over the Hornets at Barclays Center on Wednesday night. In one of the game’s many crucial plays, with the score tied in the final seconds of the second OT and the Hornets holding for a last shot, the 6-9 forward found himself at the top of the key, staring at quick 6-3 guard Malik Monk.
But neither Kurucs nor Atkinson was concerned with the matchup. Kurucs, relying on his scouting and video study, expected Monk to try to go past him toward the basket, but he was ready. Kurucs got just enough of his finger on the ball to jar it loose. Joe Harris recovered it and took it the rest of the way, hitting the winning layup with 3.4 seconds left.
“I knew he wanted to go by me. I just tried to fake a little bit because he was trying to get his rhythm,” Kurucs said at Thursday afternoon’s practice at the Nets Training Facility before the team departed for the second half of a home-and-home with the Hornets on Friday night. “I knew he would try to go by me.”
Before Wednesday night’s game, Atkinson said he is comfortable with Kurucs defending against guards, citing his wingspan and athleticism as strengths.
Atkinson said he noticed Kurucs’ potential early in training camp but added that early in the season, coaches can “take it with a grain of salt,” with the unknowns of how hard veterans are playing. But since Allen Crabbe has been sidelined with right knee soreness, the Nets are 6-1 with Kurucs in the starting lineup.
In that span, the versatile forward is averaging 12.9 points and 6.0 rebounds per game in 29.1 minutes, including 17.7 points and 8.3 rebounds in 35.3 minutes in the last three contests.
Kurucs has done all this after being taken in the second round of the 2018 NBA Draft (40th overall) and playing only 44 minutes with Barcelona’s main team in Europe last season — only five minutes more than he played Wednesday night.
“Surprising, shocking, you have to put it in those terms,” Atkinson said Thursday. “It’s hard to think about the context of another situation like that in the NBA where a 20-year-old guy wasn’t playing a ton of minutes in Europe . . . so I call that shocking.”
Even Kurucs said he expected to spend most of the winter playing on Long Island for the Nets’ G League affiliate. But ever since he got the opportunity in the NBA and had his role expand after the Crabbe injury, he is trying to prove he’s here to stay.
“It surprised me, of course, because I didn’t play [much] last year,” Kurucs said. “And now I’m here in the best league in the world and now I’m playing more than in Europe.”
Notes & quotes: Crabbe was a full participant in practice for the first time since his injury, Atkinson said, but he wasn’t sure whether the guard can play Friday night at Charlotte. “We’ll see how he reacts,” Atkinson said. “He kind of had a hard day, but it looks like he’s going well.”