Brooklyn Nets: Take the training wheels off Rodions Kurucs already

Brooklyn Nets Rodions Kurucs. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
Brooklyn Nets Rodions Kurucs. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images) /

Brooklyn Nets rookie Rodions Kurucs provided a spark in Monday night’s loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, nearly helping Brooklyn to a comeback win.

The Brooklyn Nets will not be a playoff team this spring.

Since losing leading scorer Caris LeVert to a gruesome dislocated right foot on Nov. 12, the Nets are just 2-9 after a 6-8 start.

In those 11 games, the Nets are averaging 107.8 points per game and surrendering 112.2. They’re shooting 42.8 percent overall and 31.9 percent from 3-point range. Their opponents are at 47.1 percent and 33.3 percent, respectively.

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Brooklyn has averaged 15 turnovers and 19.9 assists over that span after averaging 14 turnovers and 24.3 assists in their first 12 games, along with shooting 45.1 percent overall, 36.5 percent from deep and scoring 109.1 points per game.

The Nets are relying heavily on D’Angelo Russell of late, as the young point guard’s usage rate is 32.2 percent over the last 11 games after it was 28.3 percent in the first 12 games.

Not surprisingly, his efficiency has flown out the window — he shot 41.3 percent overall and 40.2 percent from behind the arc on averages of 14.9 shots and 6.6 3-point attempts per game in the first 12 games.

Since then, those numbers are 40.2 percent and 30.5 percent, respectively, while averaging 19.9 shots overall and 7.5 attempts from deep.

Russell’s 31 attempts on Monday were a career-high, topping the 27 he took on Nov. 25 in a loss to the Philadelphia 76ers.

But there has been a constant for the Nets, a source of hope for the future that has been largely ignored by the coaching staff — second-round pick Rodions Kurucs.

The 20-year-old Latvian was taken 40th overall in June after he was rated as a late first-round pick in 2017 before withdrawing from the draft and spending a year being kept on mothballs by Spanish club FC Barcelona, which was none too happy about Kurucs’ NBA aspirations.

Kurucs earned a rotation spot in the preseason and in the first three games of the season scored 26 points in 43 minutes before spraining his left ankle against the Indiana Pacers on Oct. 20.

Since he returned on Nov. 2 after a five-game absence, he has become the forgotten man. He’s played in just six games, taken nine DNP-CDs and spent played four games with the Long Island Nets of the NBA G League.

Against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday night, Kurucs entered the game with 1:58 to go in the third quarter and the Nets trailing by eight points.

He scored four quick points to close out the third and added eight more in the fourth, including a game-tying putback with 18.9 seconds remaining.

In 14 minutes, Kurucs posted 12 points, four rebounds and a steal on 6-of-10 shooting.

In the fourth quarter, as the Cavaliers surrounded Tristan Thompson with four guards, Kurucs took on Jordan Clarkson, who entered the fourth quarter with 16 points and had blown by his defender much of the night.

Kurucs showed surprising lateral quickness and kept in front of Clarkson, who was just 2-for-7 with four points in the final period. Kurucs reached a paw into a passing lane and picked it clean.

On his game-tying offensive rebound, Kurucs came from the offside corner to catch D’Angelo Russell’s airball near the rim.

He’s always around the ball. His instincts are usually spot-on and phenomenal for a player whose development was stunted by the political games played by FC Barcelona and, frankly, by the way he’s been used by the Nets.

In nine games in which he’s gotten an opportunity, he’s never played more than 21 minutes, yet has scored in double-figures three times and is averaging 7.3 points and 3.3 rebounds while shooting .500/.300/8-for-8. All that in an average of 12.3 minutes a night.

Any hopes LeVert coming back will save the season are pure folly. By the time LeVert is back — and he’s expected to miss another month or two at least — Brooklyn will be out of playoff contention.

Jared Dudley has gotten 20 starts and 22.2 minutes per game at the 4 spot this season. He’s averaged 4.4 points and 2.7 rebounds per game and shot .354/.294/11-for-16.

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has gotten five starts at the 4 and one at the 5 in 21 games. He’s averaged 9.8 points and 5.8 rebounds in 23.0 minutes per game and shot .411/3-for-19/.622.

Allen Crabbe has made 11 starts, eight at the 2 in place of LeVert and three at the 3 since Joe Harris has been out. He averaged 8.1 points and 3.3 rebounds in 25.3 minutes per game and shot .312/.343/.840.

Even taking the median of those three players, the 23 minutes per game of Hollis-Jefferson, and Kurucs projects to 13.7 points and 6.2 rebounds a game.

Coach Kenny Atkinson hedged after Monday’s game, saying Kurucs would be “in the conversation for more minutes,” per Brian Lewis of the New York Post.

In the conversation?

Here’s some conversation points: The Nets are sliding out of playoff contention faster than a boulder sinks to the bottom of a lake. They’ve lost their last seven games, have lost seven in a row at home and are clearly struggling to find a spark.

Look down the bench. See No. 00 sitting there. That, coaching staff, is a spark. Good things happen every time he’s on the floor. His teammates play with more energy when Kurucs is on the floor. Then they do good things, too.

So here’s the conversation:

Rondae, love you lots. Grab a chair.

Jared? Man you’ve had a nice journeyman’s career and are a pro’s pro. Slide down a bit, wouldja?

Rodi? Go get ’em, kid. Show us what you’ve got.

Or, if you’d rather keep Hollis-Jefferson at the 4, give Kurucs a look at the 3 until Harris is back. I mean, can the rookie shoot worse than Crabbe at this point? Considering no one in the NBA is shooting as poorly as Crabbe for as many attempts per game as he has, that would likely be a “no.”

And if he can stay in front of the 6-foot-5, lightning-quick Clarkson, I’ve gotta say I like Kurucs’ chances at holding up defensively.

His instincts at reading plays for a 20-year-old kid with 111 NBA minutes under his belt are phenomenal. Ride that. Use that. Let’s see if Kurucs can join LeVert and Jarrett Allen as another foundational piece of the rebuild.

The Nets aren’t making the playoffs this season, anyway, so those minutes of experience would be much better used on a kid who needs to grow and learn than on veterans that we already know.

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Make the move, already. Take the training wheels off and let’s see what this kid can do with some real burn.