The Nets found an unlikely spark over the holiday season. Brooklyn was left for dead in early December, when it bottomed out at 8-18 and seemed headed for the Zion Williamson sweepstakes. But the team has gone 12-4 since moving rookie second-round pick Rodions Kurucs into the rotation, pushing itself to the no. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference. It’s not that Kurucs is carrying the team by himself, it’s what his presence on the floor allows his teammates to do. His two-way ability creates more balanced lineups that put everyone around him in a better position to succeed. The Nets have had to look far and wide for quality players over the past few seasons. Their latest find may finally allow them to turn the corner.
Kurucs doesn’t seem like a flash in the pan. The 20-year-old Latvian has already shown enough in his first 25 games in the NBA to make him a steal after being taken at no. 40 overall. The biggest thing is just how big he is. At 6-foot-9 and 210 pounds with a 7-foot-2 wingspan, Kurucs is a wing with the size of a small-ball center. There aren’t many guys his size who can cover ground as quickly as he does, and there are even fewer who can shoot 3s and put the ball on the floor. The intangibles are there, too. He’s a smart player who plays extremely hard, a combination that allows him to make plays on both sides of the ball. There are times when he gets ahead of himself and tries to do too much, but he usually finds a way to make up the difference.
Rookies, especially ones drafted as low as Kurucs, have to make the most of any opportunity. He wasn’t in the plans for Brooklyn this season. The Nets expected him to spend most of the season in G League, and they spent a first-round pick (no. 29 overall) on Dzanan Musa, a more highly touted wing from Bosnia. He jumped ahead of Musa in the preseason, and he was ready when Caris LeVert and Allen Crabbe went down with injuries. Kurucs made an immediate impact once he began to play, almost forcing Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson to move him into the starting lineup. He has the best net rating (plus-1.9 in 490 minutes) of any player in their rotation other than backup center Ed Davis.
Kurucs has had to earn everything he has gotten. The Nets don’t run many plays for him, and he’s rarely asked to create his own shot. His job is to space the floor, knock down open shots, and move the ball. Anything else has to come off his own energy. He has had a few breakout performances, including 24-point games against the Celtics and the Pacers, but he has averaged only 8.2 field goal attempts in his 14 games as a starter. The key is what he has done with those chances: He’s shooting 47.8 percent from the field and 39.1 percent from 3 (on 3.3 attempts per game) in that span.
He wouldn’t be playing if he weren’t a good shooter. The Nets are no. 6 in the NBA in 3-point attempts per game (34.2), and need their wings to make 3s for their offense to function. Kurucs has attempted only 71 in his NBA career, but there are signs that he will be able to sustain his shooting. He’s 37-of-41 (90.2 percent) from the free throw line, and he’s made more difficult types of shots when given the opportunity. He certainly doesn’t act like a player who’s afraid his shot will stop falling anytime soon. Kurucs has a green light to shoot in his own mind, if nowhere else:
His activity generates the rest of his offense. Though he spends most of the game at the 3-point line, Kurucs has a shot profile more typical of a guy who plays closer to the basket. A lot of his offensive possessions come from getting out in transition (20.5 percent), cutting off the ball (10.7 percent), and crashing the offensive glass (7.4 percent), per Synergy Sports. He has bought into the analytics-oriented philosophy in Brooklyn: almost everything he shoots is either a 3-pointer (39 percent of his field goal attempts) or within 5 feet of the rim (51.6 percent). He has surprised more than a few defenders with how quickly he gets off the ground once he’s close to the basket:
That athleticism also comes in handy on defense. Kurucs has the versatility to slide between a number of positions. His most frequent defensive matchups this season, according to the numbers at NBA.com/Stats, are a wide grab bag of players, from 6-foot-1 point guards like Kemba Walker to 6-foot-4 combo guards like Victor Oladipo and 6-foot-9 combo forwards like Kyle Kuzma. His length and activity make him useful even when he doesn’t have a difficult assignment. Kurucs is a more effective help-side defender than most rookies:
A player with his size, athleticism, and shooting ability can cover up holes in a rotation. The Nets, after starting the season with a 6-7 record, went 2-10 in their first 12 games after losing LeVert, who was having a breakout season before suffering a gruesome foot dislocation on November 12. He wasn’t just their best scorer and playmaker; he was also a good rebounder and shooter, as well as one of their best perimeter defenders. LeVert did so much on his own that Brooklyn could afford to put more one-dimensional players around him and still create effective lineups. D’Angelo Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Shabazz Napier filled in for him as ball handlers, but they couldn’t replace the rest of his game.
The Nets don’t have many other two-way wings besides Kurucs. He is much bigger and faster than Crabbe, Joe Harris, DeMarre Carroll, and Jared Dudley, and he is a far better outside shooter than Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Atkinson spent much of the season robbing Peter to pay Paul with almost every lineup decision he made, creating a domino effect up and down their rotation. He didn’t have a huge margin for error, even with LeVert. His team had to create more efficient types of shots on offense and take those same shots away on defense, winning on the percentages to make up for their lack of elite talent.
That is the philosophy the entire organization adopted to get through one of the most difficult rebuilding jobs in the league. The Nets have been a lottery team without lottery picks for the past three seasons. All the players in their young core came with red flags. LeVert slipped to the no. 20 overall pick because of a history of injuries in college. Jarrett Allen fell in the draft because he was underutilized in college, and there were concerns about his love for the game. Hollis-Jefferson couldn’t shoot. Russell was a former no. 2 overall pick who was dumped to clear cap space. Dinwiddie and Harris were second-round picks who both spent two unremarkable seasons with the team that drafted them before being given more opportunities in Brooklyn.
Kurucs took an equally nontraditional path. Latvia doesn’t have the same basketball tradition or infrastructure as Lithuania, its neighbor to the south on the Baltic Sea, so many of its best players, like Kristaps Porzingis, Kurucs, and Davis Bertans, have gone to Spain as teenagers to develop. The problem is they don’t always end up in situations in which their best interests are taken into account. Kurucs played for FC Barcelona, who knew he wanted to play in the NBA as soon as possible, so they did everything in their power to hide him. Instead of playing for Barcelona’s A team, which competes in the Spanish first division (ACB) and the EuroLeague, he spent the last two seasons on their B team.
Drafting Kurucs was a risk. He wasn’t tearing up the Spanish second division (LEB Gold) last season, averaging 10.7 points on 44.5 percent shooting, 2.6 rebounds, and 1.5 assists per game. The level of competition is not high. I talked to one European scout who compared it to low-level Division I basketball. The history of European teenagers drafted without playing a major role overseas is not promising. The ones who tend to succeed early in their NBA careers, like Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, have typically already proved themselves in Europe. Fringe players in Europe, like Dragan Bender, aren’t usually much better once they get to the NBA.
It’s hard to know how high Kurucs’s ceiling is. He has been as good as his limited role allows him to be as a rookie. There is plenty of room to grow. He has one of the lower 3-point rates on the Nets roster, and he might develop into a player who can shoot 3s off movement, a really unusual skill for a guy with his size and speed. Kurucs is in the 59th percentile of scorers leaguewide coming around screens off the ball, albeit in a very limited number of attempts (18), per Synergy. Creating for others is probably farther away, since he so aggressively looks for his own shot that he rarely makes plays on the move. He can also improve physically. He has a frame that should allow him to put on weight without losing athleticism, now that he’s in an NBA strength-and-conditioning program. A 20-year-old who can already contribute on both ends of the floor before tapping into his athletic upside has the chance to be really good at 25.
The Nets won’t give Kurucs more than he can handle. They have a lot of promising young players who can grow together over the next few years. The key is LeVert, a 24-year-old who looked like he was making the leap to stardom before his injury. Russell, who is still only 22, could be a great no. 2 option, and both players shoot well enough to play off each other. Allen (20) has the chance to be one of the best roll men in the league, while Dinwiddie (25), Harris (27), and Hollis-Jefferson (24) could anchor their bench for years to come. Kurucs fits perfectly as a 3-and-D wing who can play either forward position. Brooklyn reminds me of Toronto in 2013-14, the first season the Raptors made the playoffs with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.
This recent push could help the Nets in free agency, too. Stars typically prefer to sign with teams who already have other stars and figure the rest out later. The Nets don’t have that. What they can offer is a ready-made team that fits perfectly around a high-usage player who can score and pass out of the pick-and-roll. They will chase Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard, but the guy who might be most intrigued is Jimmy Butler. They were on the first list of teams that he gave the Wolves when he asked to be traded, and they offer a cleaner fit around him than the 76ers. They still have a long way to go to prove they’re an attractive option for a max free agent, but there is a path to getting there that didn’t exist a month ago. Kurucs cost them a shot at Zion. He might give them a chance to sign Butler.
Synergy Sports stats current as of Wednesday afternoon.