Kenny Atkinson: 'I really believe that I have to pay my dues, and it's great'

‘We’ve only touched the beginnings of this, and it’s going to take time,' Kenny Atkinson says.
‘We’ve only touched the beginnings of this, and it’s going to take time,' Kenny Atkinson says.

NEW YORK – The Nets’ practice facility in Brooklyn is carved into the eighth floor of a once-abandoned warehouse in Sunset Park, a magnificent facility replete with all the modern amenities. Framed 16-foot windows offer panoramic views of Manhattan and Brooklyn, and a 3,000-square-foot lounge gives the Nets, for years stuck in aging offices in northern New Jersey, the type of player-friendly facility that rivals any other.

Kenny Atkinson loves coming here. Even as the losses pile up — Wednesday’s loss to Atlanta dropped Brooklyn to 11-52 — the practice center is a beacon of hope for the future. It’s a metaphor for the team, really: an old building slowly refurbished into something spectacular.

Hope. Atkinson admits: He came into the season with a lot of it. He knew what he was taking on — a rebuilding team devoid of future draft picks. But like any first-year coach, he believed he could exceed expectations.

“You’re naive, you know?” Atkinson told The Vertical. “I didn’t think we were going to win 60 games, but I felt like coming out of camp, we were going to be better than people thought. I’d be lying to say that it wasn’t in the back of my mind to beat all the [predictions], to overachieve a little bit.”

The Nets haven’t, though coaching isn’t to blame. Jeremy Lin — Brooklyn’s biggest free-agent acquisition — has been limited to 19 games this season. General manager Sean Marks’ efforts to rebuild Brooklyn’s draft stock have stripped the Nets of usable vets. Thaddeus Young was traded last summer for the draft rights to Caris LeVert; Bojan Bogdanovic was traded last month for a 2017 first-round pick. It’s a sound strategy, but one that leaves Atkinson with few proven options.

Yet it’s allowed Atkinson to showcase his strengths. As an assistant, Atkinson had a well-earned reputation for player development. In Brooklyn, with a roster full of young players and no draft pick for which to tank, squeezing everything out of them is the only priority.

GM Sean Marks and coach Kenny Atkinson are on the same page when it comes to rebuilding the Nets. (AP)
GM Sean Marks and coach Kenny Atkinson are on the same page when it comes to rebuilding the Nets. (AP)

“I think whether you’re coaching the Warriors or whether you’re coaching the Nets, it’s the same mentality,” Atkinson said. “It’s like you just say, ‘How can we help these guys?’ I think the challenge for us is to keep coaching in a positive way and not beating them up every day.”

Signs of progress, Atkinson says, are there. LeVert, who didn’t make his debut until early December, looks like a long-term starter. Sean Kilpatrick, an undrafted free agent signed at the end of last season, has developed into a solid scorer. Joe Harris, a former second-round pick, has become a steady rotation player. Atkinson says he is on the hunt for the next Paul Millsap or Kent Bazemore, unheralded players who developed into established starters.

“We’ve only touched the beginnings of this, and it’s going to take time, but I’d like to see what Caris looks like in two years, what Joe Harris looks like in two years; what Justin [Hamilton], even though he’s a little older, what can he be as he gets more comfortable with the system,” Atkinson said. “I believe so much in development, and I believe that guys can improve, and so I just throw myself into it. When you’re in it every day and you’re like, ‘Man, this guy can be better than people think. This guy can be better than that,’ that’s really what drives you every day. And you know in the back of your mind, ‘Can Joe Harris eventually be a starter or rotation player in this league?’ It pushes you.”

Support from management, Atkinson says, has been unequivocal. During a recent interview Atkinson pulled out his cell phone and scrolled through dozens of supporting texts from Marks. “He always says, ‘Mate,’ ” Atkinson says of the New Zealand-born Marks. “I love that.” Atkinson was Marks’ first coaching hire, and the coach has thrown his full support behind him.

“He’s amazing,” Atkinson said. “I’ve seen it on other teams, where if you’re getting pressure and negativity from above, that would be really hard. I’m usually the one that’s negative. I’m usually the one that’s like, ‘Man, we’ve got to do this better, that better,’ and he has been the positive one. He feels like we’re trying, we’re pulling out all the stops. The great thing about Sean: He’s coached before. So he was with Pop [Spurs coach Gregg Popovich]. So he gets it. He’ll come into our coaches’ meeting, and I always ask him, ‘What do you think we should do in practice today?’ And I mean the guy’s been in a great program, coached with a great coach, and so a lot of times, I use his suggestions.

“We are really in it together, and he’s been a big help. He’s not going to sugarcoat anything, either. It’s not like, ‘Hey, don’t worry, everything is going to be all right.’ He knows the task is difficult but he’s been amazing. I mean the text you get after a tough loss, and he’ll try to pick out a positive or say, ‘Hang in there, we’ll get this thing moving in the right direction.’ Just little words like that of encouragement when you think, ‘Oh man, we’re not going to win another game for the rest of the year,’ or something like that. It’s huge.”

Caris LeVert has flashed potential with the Nets. (AP)
Caris LeVert has flashed potential with the Nets. (AP)

Atkinson admits the losing can be overwhelming. He marvels at Brett Brown, the Sixers coach who absorbed three straight sub-20-win seasons before the team started to turn the corner. He has not discussed his situation with Brown — “I kind of wanted to experience this for myself,” Atkinson said — but adds that he would love to sit down with Brown at summer league and pick his brain. As for how he handles the mounting losses now, Atkinson says, “Routine is my savior.”

“I love just being around here on a daily basis,” Atkinson said. “Seeing, like, the buzz on whatever day it is, like whether it’s in the analytics department or video over here, and going into the performance room. It’s almost like a startup. Everybody’s scurrying around and we have a plan in place.

“I look at it like I deserve … like I deserve to start at the bottom. This is how it should be. I shouldn’t be handed some prime job. This fits. It should be, I think, a guy like me that’s got a lot to prove. I deserve this, to start at the bottom. I really believe that I have to pay my dues, and it’s great. It’s funny the situation we are in, without our picks, we never use that as a crutch. We never talk about the past. We’re talking about getting better in the here and now, and getting better in the future. That’s the only talk that’s around here. We’ve completely put [the past] in a box and are focused on moving forward.”

As the interview wound down, Atkinson pointed to the practice floor, at a handful of players filtering in well before an afternoon session was set to start. If he feels any frustration, it’s for them, a group he says has been committed from the start.

“You want it so bad for those guys because they are really putting everything into doing everything we ask,” Atkinson said. “They listen. I’ve been on other teams where you come into the locker room after a 15-point loss, and there are guys scattered, sad faces, little groups huddling up. These guys have been amazing. I’m just blown away.

“Sean and I knew this wasn’t going to be an easy task. We needed guys that were going to be able to keep pushing through and guys with high character that, despite the won-loss record, they’re going to come in here with a smile on their face and keep working their tails off, and that’s exactly what we’ve gotten from one to 15. The positive attitude helps you get through. I use the word spirit a lot, because it’s such an important word to me. A negative spirit, you feel it when you walk in a gym or a film session. I have rarely felt that here. We push these guys pretty hard, but everyone wants to be coached, accepts coaching. That attitude, that work ethic, that’s eventually going to pay off.”

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