Brooklyn Nets: Rodions Kurucs again answers the call

Brooklyn Nets Rodions Kurucs. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images)
Brooklyn Nets Rodions Kurucs. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images) /

Rodions Kurucs has been listed as a DNP-CD for the Brooklyn Nets 11 times this season, but it seems coach Kenny Atkinson is leaning on the kid more and more.

For Rodions Kurucs, the second-round pick who has been dubbed “Air Latvia” by YES Network’s Ian Eagle, his first year with the Brooklyn Nets has been a strangely up-and-down one.

Sure, that could describe his play considering the depths of the shooting slump he his in mid-January, but it’s more fundamental than that.

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Kurucs has started 32 games for the Nets this season. He’s also been a Did Not Play-Coach’s Decision casualty 11 times as his minutes have been a bit of feast and famine at different times.

He emerged as a surprise member of the regular rotation after a head-turning preseason, but when he sprained his ankle in Brooklyn’s road loss to the Indiana Pacers on Oct. 20 — just the Nets’ third game of the season — things changed.

After missing five games recovering from the injury, Kurucs’ rotation spot was gone by the time he was declared fit to play in early November. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Shabazz Napier had returned from their preseason ailments and over the next month, Kurucs was a forgotten man.

From Nov. 2-Dec. 5, Kurucs took 10 DNP-CDs, missed two games while assignment to the NBA G League and saw action in just six contests.

After the Nets lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Dec. 5 — another DNP-CD for Kurucs — and their losing streak had reached eight games, coach Kenny Atkinson put the rookie back into the rotation.

Brooklyn won its next three games.

When Allen Crabbe went down with a knee injury against the Philadelphia 76ers on Dec. 12, Kurucs was tabbed as a starter for the first time in his fledgling career, and he would start the next 29 games. Brooklyn went 18-11 in those games.

Kurucs turned some heads as a starter, playing well enough to earn a spot in the Rising Stars Challenge at All-Star Weekend in Charlotte last month. But he sat out the final game before the break with a sprained left elbow.

When the break was over, Kurucs was again a DNP-CD, as Caris LeVert had returned from a 42-game absence with a foot injury and was reinstalled in the starting unit.

Kurucs came off the bench — early — in the next five games — before Atkinson again shuffled the rotation after three straight one-sided losses.

The most significant change was installing Kurucs as the starter at the 4, a trouble spot for Brooklyn all season.

The Nets are 3-0 since Kurucs took on that role and after Brooklyn beat the Atlanta Hawks in Atlanta on Saturday, Atkinson acknowledged how important the rookie’s contributions have been in the turnaround, telling Brian Lewis of the New York Post:

"“Listen, he’s saving us a little right now. His play has been huge since we put him at the 4 spot. He’s really responded well and I don’t think we win these games without him.”"

His teammates adore him. Fans love him. His energetic style of play gives teammates a boost and he won’t back down from anyone. He goes to the rim with reckless abandon and deploys his 7-foot-2 wingspan defensively to make passing lanes a dangerous place for opponents.

Spencer Dinwiddie put it this way:

"“Rodi ain’t no punk.”"

Atkinson also praised the kid’s toughness.

"“I don’t know what neighborhood he grew up in in Latvia, but that’s a tough neighborhood. That’s a tough dude.“He might not look the part, looks like a good-looking choirboy, but him and (Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins) were going at it the whole game and he doesn’t back down from anybody. That’s Rodi from Day 1. No fear.”"

Brooklyn’s productivity at the 4 spot has been a problem all season, but — even with the appropriate small sample size warning bells sounding — Kurucs is providing an answer.

Brooklyn Nets
Brooklyn Nets /

Kurucs will face his biggest challenge to date on Monday when the Nets host the surging Detroit Pistons in a showdown for the head-to-head tiebreaker between the teams.

Blake Griffin was an All-Star this season, his first selection in four years, and is averaging a career-high 25.3 points per game while shooting more from long-range — 6.8 attempts per game — than he ever has, and he’s hitting a respectable 36.4 percent of those attempts.

Griffin will have a significant size advantage over Kurucs — 6-foot-10 and 250 pounds to just 6-foot-9 and 210 pounds — but Kurucs should have the edge in quickness.

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And Rodi won’t back down. Like Dinwiddie said, the kid ain’t no punk.