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Rodions Kurucs adding defensive versatility in crunch time

Rodions Kurucs does the little things for the Brooklyn Nets. Whatever play he can make to give his team a better chance to win, the rookie does not hesitate.

More times than not, he does not have the ball in his hands for these plays.

Offensive stars dominate today’s NBA while defense often takes a back seat.

However, late in games, defensive stoppers are invaluable. With the ball in the hands of each team’s star down the stretch, stops are hard to come by.

Each of the Nets’ late-game collapses had one recurring theme: the opposing team’s star took over and Brooklyn had no answer.

Paul George scored 25 points in the fourth quarter to lead a 23-point Oklahoma City Thunder comeback on Dec. 5 and Victor Oladipo torched the Nets in the final minutes of Brooklyn’s last loss.

Kurucs gives Brooklyn coach Kenny Atkinson the ability to throw a different look at those high-powered offensive threats. The rookie has become a defensive weapon that Atkinson is beginning to lean on.

He has the length, quickness and intensity to serve as the defensive stopper Brooklyn desperately needs late in games.

At 6-foot-9, the rookie can guard any position on the court. His ability to stay with quick ball handlers and make them uncomfortable has surprised and impressed Brooklyn’s coaching staff.

Kurucs has been called on to cover the opposition’s best player down the stretch in recent games. The rookie matched up with Devin Booker in Sunday’s win and the red-hot Kemba Walker in Wednesday’s double overtime thriller.

Atkinson told Brian Lewis of the New York Post about what Kurucs brings defensively.

“We put Rodions on Booker. This guy was playing on Barcelona last year in Europe, 20 years old. I’m really excited about his defensive potential. He did some good things out there, his length and athleticism and, quite honestly, how hard he plays.”

In the final seconds of the win over Charlotte, Kurucs was isolated guarding Malik Monk. The rookie held his ground and forced a turnover, leading to a game-winning Joe Harris layup.

Monk was uncomfortable while handling the ball. Kurucs’ length and range make it much harder for ball handlers to blow by and find a clean layup. He can pressure and recover for a block, forcing the offensive player out of his comfort zone.

Kurucs also made a huge defensive play in the first overtime when he switched onto Tony Parker. Coming off a screen, Parker accelerated to the basket, but Kurucs stayed in his hip pocket and rose up to block the shot with 50 seconds remaining.

Spencer Dinwiddie was often handed the assignment of covering the opposing team’s star down the stretch. Kurucs is a significant upgrade over Dinwiddie because of his size.

The 20-year-old’s length gives him a number of options on how he plays based on the type of player he is covering and the situation. He can play off and contest on the pull-up or aggressively pressure the ball handler and recover for a block if he gets beat.

That length can also serve Kurucs well to trap the basketball to get the ball out of the opposing star player’s hands. Brooklyn used Kurucs to double Walker with Dinwiddie and it worked to perfection.

When doubling, Kurucs’ length does not allow the ball handler to see or complete difficult passes across the court.

Following an outburst from emerging superstar Kemba Walker, Atkinson switched to a number of different defenses that open up interesting possibilities for Kurucs to play a key role.

The Nets played a 2-3 variation that they have played throughout the season as well as a box-and-one zone on Kemba Walker.

Kurucs serves an important role in both because of the ground he can cover. In these zones, there are always holes in the middle, but the ability of the players to hedge into different zones and recover to a man is what makes the defense work.

The rookie does a superb job in this area. He can deflect passes and cover more ground than passers think a defender would be able to cover.

This makes it difficult for offensive players to get in a rhythm and move the ball quickly within the offense.

Kurucs’ defensive contributions, along with everything he does on the offensive end and rebounding, have shown in the stat line. The rookie has posted a team-best plus-3.1 Box Plus-Minus in 19 games.

“I’m just playing basketball. I was hungry. I didn’t play for years; Now I’m enjoying it.”

The rookie has proved to be a versatile weapon in all aspects of the game. He can drive, shoot from the outside, rebound, defend, and skillfully find open areas off of cuts without the ball. His defensive skill and intensity have given Brooklyn new life when closing out games.

If Kurucs can blossom into a consistent defensive stopper late in games, he could be the piece that propels Brooklyn into the playoffs.