It was fourth-quarter garbage time of the Nets’ preseason opener Wednesday night at Barclays Center, and they trailed the Knicks by 12 points after blowing a 15-point lead in a disappointing showing. But to 20-year-old second-round rookie Rodions Kurucs, the opportunity to show what he could do in his first taste of NBA action felt like a playoff game.
Over the ensuing 12 minutes, Kurucs showed why he originally was projected as a first-round pick in 2017 before withdrawing his name and returning to Barcelona, where he was relegated to that club’s second-tier team and played sparingly. The 6-10 Kurucs led a comeback that pulled the Nets within one point in what became a 107-102 loss. He made 4 of 6 shots and finished with 13 points, four rebounds (three offensive), dished out two assists and made four steals.
After the game, Kurucs posted a joyful Tweet that said: “Still can’t realize what happened tonight!” When he met the media for his first post-game interview, Kurucs was bubbling over.
“It was actually really emotional for me because I didn’t play last year,” Kurucs said. “That was a really good moment for me. I really enjoyed every minute on the court.”
Nets coach Kenny Atkinson, who recently suggested Kurucs could be a “stretch five” because of his shooting ability and athleticism, was equally pleased with such an efficient performance. “I loved his energy,” Atkinson said. “I think he’s a talented guy. He’s got nice length. I like how he drove it. He showed some good things defensively. In training camp, he’s been a little bit of a surprise. He’s a multi-position player.”
The Nets were off on Thursday, but after the opener, Kurucs’ teammates said he displayed the same traits they’ve seen from him in practice. Caris LeVert called Kurucs “an exciting player to watch.” D’Angelo Russell might have paid Kurucs the highest compliment, saying, “He knows how to play.”
That much was evident, especially on the defensive end, where Kurucs repeatedly got into the passing lanes to force turnovers. “I’m used to it because I have long hands,” Kurucs said of his defensive prowess. “I’ve got to use that, you know.”
The Nets were interested in Kurucs when he first declared for the 2017 draft. But he had a buyout of about $5 million, and he said Barcelona gave him a deal that led him to believe he would play more. It didn’t happen.
Asked if he had any regrets, Kurucs said, “No. I mean, they’re a good club. It’s a good club for grown players. They have to play who is mature. I maybe wasn’t ready for that.” With a sly smile, Kurucs then added, “But I think I was.”
Atkinson generally prefers to break rookies in gradually, but Kurucs might fill a critical need if he continues to play with the same energy and savvy he displayed against the Knicks. “He showed good instincts passing the ball, and maybe the thing I liked [most] is that he doesn’t have any fear,” Atkinson said. “He’s barreling in there. He’s hitting guys. I just liked how aggressive he was. His overall energy was just a real bright spot.”