December 7, 2018, 8:17 pm
Hello Hoop Ballers and welcome back to another installment of our International Spotlight weekly feature where we will be studying the tape and breaking down the game of Latvian rookie forward Rodi Kurucs!
Back in the summer, the Nets made it clear that they wanted long and versatile athletic wings on their roster and that’s exactly what they got with both their picks in the draft. While Dzanan Musa is more of a scorer who can shoot from outside or finish with either hand at the rim, Rodi Kurucs is a two-way, 6’10” forward with intriguing ball handling skills for his size and a talented skill set overall.
Kurucs is from Latvia and he has always attracted a lot of attention because of his talent, first seen on Latvia’s junior teams. Several scouts felt that he had lottery-level talent in 2017, but his draft stock was hampered due to silly basketball politics when his team learned of his plans to leave for the NBA and refused to play him. The transition to the NBA level has been smooth so far and the future looks really bright for him.
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The Nets, Player Development and Analytics
The Nets, and Kenny Atkinson specifically, put a lot of emphasis on player development and Rodi Kurucs is a 20-year-old kid whose fundamentals, even though he has played professionally since an early age, need a lot of work. The term “development” with the Nets isn’t just about improving free throw shooting or shot blocking technique – two elements where Jarret Allen, for example, has progressed significantly since his rookie season – it’s about players taking the crucial next step in their and for the most part the results have been extraordinary in Brooklyn. NBA teams can’t require players to spend time working out, but they can encourage it, and Nets players mostly do as they enjoy all the attention from the special teams.
The team employs a performance team led by Zach Weatherford, an analytics team lead by Glenn DuPaul and a player development team led by Adam Harrington (who is also the team’s shooting specialist). Each of those teams play a role in the development process and players note how the different aspects of the process are slowly being integrated. The Nets had to be creative due to their lack of draft picks in recent years and they have been successful in turning “diamonds in the rough” into NBA rotation players.
Here is what Joe Harris has to say: “A lot of that is the emphasis that Sean (Marks) and Kenny (Atkinson) have put on skill development and individual development. I’m a byproduct of that, as is Caris, Rondae, Spencer. We’re all here and got a lot better. We improved from a skills standpoint, but then physically our performance staff did a good job as well making improvements athletically and from a health standpoint.” Each player meets not just with Atkinson and Marks, but especially with the analytics team that gives them a personalized look at where they improved in the past year and what they need to work on and Rodi has already gotten his homework.
A Mystery Due to Lack of Playing Time
A 6’10” combo forward who was projected to go in the first round, Rodi saw his draft stock drop significantly due to injuries and a lack of playing time with Euroleague powerhouse Barcelona. His combination of size, polished scoring instincts and versatility was always attractive for many scouts who considered him to be the third-best international prospect in last summer’s draft.
Kurucs’s fate in Barcelona was sealed last year after his camp opted against signing a long-term extension and things went to extremes. Barcelona, known for its in-house politics, worked hard to keep Kurucs from being seen by NBA scouts, with a handful of European-based talent evaluators failing to catch him playing in meaningful games. Scouts repeatedly inquired but weren’t allowed into Barcelona practices and as Mike Schmitz reported, one NBA team in particular assigned an international scout to follow Kurucs around to every game, hoping to catch a glimpse of him. It was never confirmed but it’s very possible that the Nets were that team.
In the 2017-18 season, the 20-year-old appeared in 16 games, averaging 10.7 points, 2.6 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.5 steals in 20.8 minutes per game with the youth team of Barcelona while he had brief stints with the senior squad in Liga ACB and in Euroleague competition. Barcelona, aware of his NBA ambitions, decided they would rather focus their development on other prospects and gave him little time on the senior team.
Aggressive and Fearless Play
The Nets signed Kurucs to a multi-year contract for four years and $7 million, showing their faith in him even though under the CBA they were not required to provide him with a guaranteed deal or money beyond a rookie minimum.
“He comes from a basketball family,” said Atkinson. “His background is incredible when you really look at it. I still think, he’s erring on the side of being super aggressive, which we need right now. But I do think he understands the game. I think he has a good IQ. Right now, he’s erring on the side of aggression.”
The 20-year-old has shown confidence and energy in his limited minutes so far and he has been extremely active on defense while showing an adept ability to constantly find putback opportunities on offense. Rodi has the ability to play above the rim thanks to his athleticism and length, but the second chances he creates are more a result of his above average basketball IQ and overall feel for the game. He ended up playing the final 14 minutes against the Cavs a few days ago and he was the one to tie the game after D’Angelo Russell air-balled a long three.
Rodi is an above average athlete; he has size and length for a wing and is really versatile as his coaches in Europe used him at both forward positions and even as a shooting guard. Brooklyn has tried to increase their pace and shoot as many threes as possible over the past couple years and Kurucs has fit nicely with this concept. He can score from inside and outside while he has a short memory on offense and even if he misses a few shots in a row he will continue shooting, which is a good sign for his level of confidence. His shooting mechanics are excellent but he remains a streaky shooter for now due to the lack of usage. I’m not worried though and his per-36 minutes look really good so time will only work on his side. Look at how well he has his feet set while also being ready to pump fake and drive to the basket before eventually taking the open shot.
What’s really impressive though is how he possesses an above average first step that helps him blow by opponents and drive hard to the basket. He is not afraid of contact and he has a good understanding of his body, finishing nicely around the rim. This is such a beautiful sequence; Rodi moves around to spread the floor as Russell drives to the basket and then quickly recognizes the opening in the lane and drives past by a good defender in Cedi Osman, finishing with the long layup as he uses nicely his length and extension.
He goes almost exclusively right when driving to the basket and is easy to read though, while he occasionally suffers from tunnel vision and fails to make the extra pass.
On top of everything, his ball-handling skills might be underrated as he has the ability to start the fast break, fill the lanes nicely running transition opportunities and successfully finish coast to coast, something that looks easy on paper but is not a given for a 6’10” forward – unless of course your name is Giannis Antetokounmpo! Here is another aggressive attack to the basket all the way from the other side of the floor after he secures the defensive rebound.
Still, Rodi can’t really create for his teammates and he is an average passer for now, having problems passing on the move or while being double-teamed. The lack of exposure at the European level has also hurt his ability to be used in pick-and-roll situations as he prefers to look for his shot instead of exploring the matchups created by his size. At the same time, he has shown the ability to move without the ball nicely, creating spacing opportunities effectively. Look at how he slowly moves far away to spread the floor form the corner and then immediately sprints back to the paint for the easy putback. And how about that defense from John Wall, huh? Wow!
The Injury Bug
Kurucs already had two major injuries while in Europe and unsurprisingly he has been labeled as an injury-prone guy. While he started the season in the Nets rotation, he briefly missed some time (six games) with an ankle sprain, and he will have to work hard on his body in order to be able to play at this level as he hasn’t really been tested against elite competition. Like most Euros he needs to add some muscle (he barely weights 200 lbs) as, even though he isn’t afraid of contact, he can’t really absorb it at the moment. One thing I have noticed is that he has a thin frame, but wide shoulders, something that suggests that he can add considerable weight without hurting his speed or versatility long term.
Very Raw Defensively
At this point Kurucs depends too much on his physical tools on defense and it’s imperative that he works on defensive fundamentals. Look at how he easily gets called for the foul on John Wall, failing to apply the verticality rule effectively on this play.
His lateral quickness is average and he doesn’t always have a good low stance, while explosive wings deeply expose him. He also gets too often caught behind screens, unsuccessfully following his opponent, while his help defense is atrocious since he either over-helps or doesn’t help at all. The following sequence captures all the above. Kurucs fails to close in on Rodney Hood as he penetrates, causing Ed Davis to provide help defense while the rookie is late in closing in on Larry Nance.
Overall, even though he is a below average rebounder for his size, he has all the necessary tools to become a solid defender in the future and a two-way player. Atkinson has been relying on Jared Dudley in the first few months of the season and the reason behind that is that veterans tend to avoid the defensive breakdowns that lead to easy opponent baskets. Rodi, on the other hand, has very active hands and is someone who can manufacture a lot of steals because of his length and his aggressive style on the defensive side of the ball. He has consistently averaged over one steal and almost one block throughout his career every time he got 20 minutes of playing time, making his present contributions look like a fluke. Look at the sneaky defense against Jordan Clarkson at the very end of the game against the Cavs as he steals the ball and quickly runs for the open layup.
Scouting players can be tricky with international prospects, but every time Rodi has stepped on the court his presence has been impactful and his coaches have loved his energy and overall play. “He just plays hard,” Atkinson said after Kurucs ended up playing the final 14 minutes of the game against the Cavs last week, helping bring the Nets within one possession of a win and finishing with a career-high 12 points and four rebounds in just 14 minutes. “He’s got extreme energy, but he turned the game for us and got us back in it. His energy was contagious”.
Rodi is a really skilled player and a great teammate who can bring a lot in the table, especially on the offensive end of the floor. His scoring ability and physical attributes are undeniable and if he’s able to remain healthy, work on his body and fix some of his weaknesses (ball handling, court vision, defensive concentration) he might be a starter in this league.
Thank you for reading and please don’ t hesitate to let us know about an international prospect that you would want to learn more about in the next few weeks. Feel free to reach out to me on Twitter @philysstar and stay up to date on all the breaking news and rumors posted on our website and on our Twitter account @HoopBallFantasy.
Stats are courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com and are accurate as of December 7th.