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Nets now cool team; chance for more success with new players

By BRIAN MAHONEY

AP Basketball Writer

NEW YORK (AP) What was apparent in July became clearer to Nets coach Kenny Atkinson in September.

With Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving on board, things are looking up in Brooklyn.

"People showed up to our press conference. My press conference the first year, it was like crickets," said Atkinson, joking about the team's media day last month.

Nearly 200 media were credentialed for the first public glimpse of Durant and Irving wearing their Brooklyn black uniforms. The next morning, there were so many fans outside the practice facility for the first day of training camp that Atkinson had to drive around in the other direction, only to find more fans. One held up the coach's picture.

The team that had trouble attracting attention while based in New Jersey until 2012 is suddenly the cool team in New York.

"It's a different excitement with the fans," Atkinson said.

Though Durant is not expected to play this season while he recovers from surgery to repair the Achilles tendon he ruptured in the NBA Finals, Irving is set to take control of a team that won 42 games last season and reached the playoffs.

Caris LeVert could be even better this year, after returning from a dislocated right foot last season to become Brooklyn's leading scorer in its first-round loss to Philadelphia. DeAndre Jordan signed along with Durant and Irving, his friends and 2016 U.S. Olympic teammates, and will rotate with Jarrett Allen in an upgraded center spot.

That should tighten up the defense and rebounding, and the Nets' versatility and creativity on offense means there may be plenty of firepower even without Durant.

"We know how much we have," forward Taurean Prince said. "I think that's why the front office did a great job of putting a great team together and we know what we can do. We know what we're capable of."

The real results may not be seen until 2020-21, when Durant expects to return at full strength. Even if the Nets have to wait, they can maintain the ascent of the last few seasons with the other talent assembled in Brooklyn.

"Obviously, Kevin got hurt, but you think about adding him again next year and how much better we'll be with us just jelling together and guys getting better over the course of the season," Jordan said, "and you don't really get opportunities like this. So we wanted to take advantage of it."

Other things to know about the Nets:

IRVING'S INJURY

Irving was sidelined for much of his first preseason with the Nets after sustaining a facial fracture shortly before camp, then aggravating the injury barely a minute after making his debut during an exhibition game in China. He's had to wear a mask for a similar injury in the past.

PRINCE'S POSITION

Prince, a former first-round pick of Atlanta who was acquired in an offseason trade, is the likely starter at the forward spot that would have been manned by Durant. He averaged 13.5 points and shot 39 percent from 3-point range last season.

LEVERT LOOKS FOR A LEAP

LeVert was averaging 18.4 points when he was hurt on Nov. 12, missed 42 games and then got back into top form in time for the postseason, where he averaged 21 points in the five games. The Nets are betting on him staying at that level, signing the fourth-year guard to a contract extension this summer.

HARRIS' HOT HAND

Joe Harris will probably be a marked man by Nets opponents after producing his best NBA season in 2018-19, averaging 13.7 points. He led the NBA in 3-point shooting at 47.4 percent and had eight 20-point games after scoring 20 just twice in his first four seasons.

PRESSURE'S ON

The Nets are slowly building, largely free of expectations and criticism - a rarity in New York - under Atkinson and general manager Sean Marks. But the spotlight will be upon them after their big summer acquisitions. Even without Durant, they'll likely hear about it if they struggle.

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Follow Brian Mahoney on Twitter at https://twitter.com/briancmahoney

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Updated October 15, 2019

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