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Net development: Kenny Atkinson balancing winning now with an eye toward a KD-Kyrie future

NEW YORK — The pressure is going to ratchet up dramatically next season, and Brooklyn Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson knows it.

Increased responsibilities. Increased expectations. Increased scrutiny.

Yet Atkinson, who should finally be able to utilize the superstar duo of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant in 2020-21 — assuming they’re both healthy — will always be in player-development mode.

That much was apparent during a December practice in Brooklyn, when the Long Island native issued a physical challenge to Jarrett Allen, going mano-a-mano with his tantalizing 21-year-old center during an intense contact drill.

“‘We’re gonna give you a puzzle, f---ing figure it out,’” Atkinson said he told Allen, who was tasked with scoring against his coach out of pick-and-roll sets with an assistant.

The 6-foot-11 Allen has 10 inches on Atkinson, but Atkinson held “defender extender” basketball training pads so he could get aggressive and physical with Allen, as the young big man practiced finishing under duress.

“We wanted him to finish with more physicality,” Atkinson told Yahoo Sports. “And sometimes you just have to coach with an edge, even when you’re in development.”

Atkinson, 52, is now in his fourth season at the helm in Brooklyn and is the longest-tenured coach of any major professional sports team in The Big Apple. He made his way up the NBA coaching ladder by working with the likes of Aaron Brooks, Jeremy Lin and Jeff Teague as an assistant in Houston, New York and Atlanta, respectively, before helping Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris, D’Angelo Russell and Caris LeVert take quantum leaps with the Nets.

Atkinson’s player-development chops — combined with shrewd moves from GM Sean Marks — enabled Brooklyn to become an attractive free-agent destination for Irving and Durant last summer.

Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson never stops trying to develop his players. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)

But injuries have continually prevented the Nets (26-30) from making significant progress heading into their title-or-bust window, while perpetually putting Atkinson’s preferred lineups and rotations in flux. Irving played just 20 games before undergoing season-ending arthroscopic shoulder surgery.

“That’s my comfort zone. I love jumping in drills. It’s just my personality,” Atkinson said. “When I got this job, someone told me, ‘Don’t change.’ Don’t all of a sudden be in the office all the time. But I can’t do that. It’s not who I am. And I’ve embraced that.”

It makes Atkinson something of a rare breed in today’s NBA, where assistants are typically in charge of running individual contact drills.

“It’s great seeing him out there,” Allen said. “It makes me feel special because he’s working with me. You hear a lot of stories that head coaches don’t do that. He puts everything into it and makes it simple for you.”

In a 2019-20 campaign that hasn’t exactly gone as anticipated following a massive free-agent windfall over the summer, Atkinson continues to give it his all.

“I would describe him as intense,” Allen said. “He wants the best from everybody. He’s obviously a great coach in my eyes.”

Whatever it takes

In 1988, Richmond became the Cinderella Story of the NCAA tournament — reaching the Sweet Sixteen as a No. 13 seed — with Atkinson serving as the team’s starting point guard.

The Spiders’ storybook run featured back-to-back upsets of Indiana and Georgia Tech. In the second round, Richmond held Yellow Jackets freshman sensation Dennis Scott to 3-of-13 shooting from 3-point range en route to a 59-55 victory.

But despite matching up against one another in college, Atkinson says that wasn’t the reason for using Scott on a sign that went viral when the Nets played the Rockets in November. The sign featured the former Magic sharpshooter and a crossed out symbol.

“I didn’t even think about that,” Atkinson said with a laugh. “That was a helluva Georgia Tech team. I think we beat them twice that year [they did]. For little old Richmond, that was unbelievable. But it wasn’t for that.

“It was actually [assistant] Jacque Vaughn’s idea. He had to come up with a sign. We weren’t communicating this ‘No 3-D’ [defensive concept] correctly, so he brought me like three prototypes, and I saw the Dennis one. And I think [I picked] Dennis because I have a history with him.”

The sign worked, as the Nets ended up getting their act together defensively down the stretch in a surprising victory over Houston. In that same game, Brooklyn also utilized a variety of zone defenses against isolation threat James Harden.

An example of zones the Nets have played this season: 2-3 matchup, 1-2-2, 3-2, Box-and-1, Triangle-and-2.

Anything to win — short-handed or not.

“I think you have to work on the margins, trying to find any little edge,” Atkinson said. “Especially when you’re undermanned, I’m willing to take more risks to find an edge.

“You have to be flexible, pliable, and I don’t think I’m the only one,” Atkinson said. “As fast as the games come, and with guys being in and out, you’ve got to be willing to adapt and change, and that’s why it’s so important to have a darn good staff around you.”

It's going to be different when Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving play for the Nets next season. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

A championship future?

Irving (shoulder) and Durant (Achilles) will both be coming off significant injuries, but next season is going to come with championship expectations regardless.

“I think I’ll just prepare like I’ve always prepared,” said Atkinson, who signed a multi-year contract extension with Brooklyn in April 2019. “I think that changes things, but I have enough confidence in myself and my staff that we’ll prepare the guys correctly, and we don’t talk about wins and losses.

“The results will come if we follow this process we’ve followed all along. So keep doing that. Why change?”

Atkinson certainly got a taste of what’s to come while essentially being the team spokesman as Irving missed 26 straight games due to a right shoulder impingement. The organization was criticized at the time for a lack of transparency.

“That’s a new challenge for me because I think I’m more sensitive to saying the wrong thing,” Atkinson said. “In the beginning, [the media] didn’t really care that much if I slipped up. And that puts you a little more on edge but also makes you a little more prepared. But in general basketball is basketball.”

Atkinson also found himself frequently defending Irving from critics. Durant and Irving’s talent is off the charts, but the former is known as “sensitive” and the latter is known as “mercurial.” The coach, known for his out-of-timeout sets, will also have to incorporate his team’s analytics-heavy “drive or get a corner 3-pointer” offense with Durant and Irving’s mid-range/isolation exploits.

“He doesn’t get caught up in any of that ‘Real Housewives’ drama,” Atkinson’s oldest brother, Michael, said.

“I just want to coach. That’s the comfort zone,” Atkinson said. “What you do have to deal with with those guys a little bit more is they have opinions — and really good opinions most of the time. At practice, Ky or KD might say, ‘Why don’t we do it this way?’ Some coaches can be sensitive to that. I’m OK with it. This is the next step in my development, coaching a team with more veterans.”

That doesn’t mean Atkinson is perfect. Fans wish he’d call timeouts quicker during opposing runs, and often complain that he can be too married to his rotations. But as Nets longtime radio color commentator Tim Capstraw points out, Atkinson isn’t afraid to admit when he’s wrong, an endearing quality.

“He comes across as confident, competent and humble,” Capstraw said. “The modern coaching trifecta.”

Added former Nets front-office executive Irina Pavlova, who went with Marks and Atkinson to a Duran Duran concert at Barclays Center and gave Atkinson a tour of the team’s new practice facility days before he was hired in April 2016:

“He’s incredibly hard-working. He’s his own harshest critic — 1,000 times worse on himself than anyone else can be. He’s a perfectionist. He lives and breathes the job. He loves his players. He’s a nice, fun guy, but he knows his s--t.”

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