He was drafted in the second round, 40th overall, after barely playing for Barcelona’s second division team last season in Spain. But after first becoming a cult figure whose every move was celebrated by passionate Brooklyn Brigade fans, 20-year-old rookie Rodions Kurucs gradually has forced his way into the Nets’ regular rotation and likely will get his second straight start against the Hawks on Sunday afternoon at Barclays Center if injured Allen Crabbe (sore knee) can’t go.
Suffice to say, Kurucs’ rookie year is going far better than he ever allowed himself to imagine. “I thought I would play in G League more,” Kurucs said before making his first start Friday and scoring a career-high 15 points in 30 minutes in a win over the Wizards. “It surprised me, and I can see that I can play here.”
Kurucs first caught attention with his energy in the preseason and then tantalized by scoring in double figures in the second and third games of the regular season. But an ankle injury sidelined him for five games and playing time was scarce when he returned to health. Then coach Kenny Atkinson determined the Nets could use a dose of the energy and effervescence that Kurucs provides not only with his game but with his personality.
On Wednesday in Philadelphia, Atkinson put in Kurucs in the fourth quarter and left him on the floor the full 12 minutes in the Nets’ upset victory. “To be honest, my thinking was we’ll finish with a more veteran guy, but he was playing so well that I just left him in there,” Atkinson said. “Are we planning on finishing with him? That’s going to depend on the game. But he’s earning his minutes.”
Kurucs made two key steals while covering 76ers star Ben Simmons and scored 13 points in that game. Two nights later, he was on the court for the final nine minutes as the Nets beat the Wizards for their fourth straight win.
“It’s a great feeling,” Kurucs said. “Of course, I’m just happy to help the guys. I want to reach the playoffs with them . . . because that’s our goal this season. Who knows? Maybe we will go further. Maybe we will pass first round, second round and we will go to the finals. I really want it, and I will do everything for that.”
That irrepressible nature has come through to teammates and coaches since Kurucs arrived last summer. Atkinson said Nets general manager Sean Marks and the scouting department pegged him as a first-round talent before the 2016 draft, but he took himself out to return to Barcelona. In terms of development potential, Kurucs barely has scratched the surface.
“It’s like a flower starting to sprout,” Atkinson said. “You don’t know how colorful it’s going to be and how big it’s going to be. Right now, what we’re seeing is his talent. I don’t think we’ve had a ton of time developing him. We’re working with him, but right now, he’s going a lot on his instincts and he’s just out there playing. I just hope I don’t screw him up.”
Atkinson often has marveled at how “fearless” Kurucs is no matter whom he’s playing. That was evident against Simmons, who Kurucs said was “provoking” him.
“He was always like hitting me, trying to push me hard like I’m rookie and maybe I won’t respond, but I always responded,” Kurucs said. “You can’t let someone hit you even if you respect him and he has more respect in the league or whatever. You have to hit back.”
Kurucs’ adjustment to life in Brooklyn and the NBA has been facilitated by the diverse culture of the Nets’ organization. “I think that helps him feel a little more at home perhaps, but I do understand the culture differences,” Atkinson said. “I asked him about American food. He didn’t give it a Zagat Rating, a Michelin Star rating. I think he likes the food at home better. He doesn’t have a car yet. I think it’s fun having a guy like that around.”
Of course, Kurucs still is a rookie, and that requires certain obligations. “I have to bring the game cards to every flight and to every travel game, carry bags to the planes, to the bus,” Kurucs said with a smile. “Nothing else.”
Told that center Jarrett Allen sometimes donned a pink backpack as a rookie last season, Kurucs laughed when asked if he’d suffered similar humiliation. “No, Kenny didn’t like it,” Kurucs said. “They said Jarrett had it last season, and Kenny said no. So they don’t do that anymore. That’s good. I wouldn’t like it either.”