Posted Aug 7, 2013 11:08 AM
Editor's note: This is the latest in a series on first-time coaches in the NBA for the 2013-14 season. Tomorrow: Steve Clifford of the Charlotte Bobcats.
As coach Norman Dale famously pointed out to the boys from Hickory High in "Hoosiers," nothing fundamental about the game changes when you move up through the ranks of basketball. The hoop is still 10 feet off the ground. The ball is still round and filled with air.
Yet there was one question that Brad Stevens, the new Celtics coach, asked when he showed up for his first day at the Orlando Summer League.
"Where's the court?" he asked.
Oh, Stevens might be young, but he's hardly lost. He might be new to the NBA, but it won't take long to find his footing.
That's the belief of Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, who surprised everyone by naming Stevens to shepherd the most storied franchise in the league into its next era.
Stevens, a 36-year-old whiz at Butler University from 2007-13, was given a six-year, $22 million contract to become the 17th coach in Celtics history and the task of hanging the franchise's 18th championship banner.
Of course, the last part is not expected to happen soon. Stevens takes over a vastly different Boston team than the one that's been an Eastern Conference power the past five seasons. Gone are veterans Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in the wake of coach Doc Rivers' departure for the Clippers.
"I couldn't be more thrilled for the opportunity to take on the challenge," Stevens said.
It's a challenge that has been a daunting one in the past for other college coaches trying to make the jump to the NBA. Big names like Rick Pitino and John Calipari come to mind as those college coaches who have had poor or mixed results in the NBA.
"Look, we all understand that there's going to be a transition that Brad has to make from college to the NBA," Ainge said. "But we plan to give him all the support that he needs."
Ainge has said all along Stevens was his No. 1 choice to replace Rivers. Ainge had been convinced Stevens was an elite-level coach ever since watching the 2010 NCAA title game when Butler lost to Duke. He won no fewer than 22 games in each of his six seasons at Butler, led the Bulldogs to consecutive berths in the NCAA title game and coached Gordon Hayward into becoming the first player from the school drafted into the NBA since 1950.
Stevens is known for his sharp mind, intense preparation and especially for making in-game decisions and changes that seemed to always pay off.
Hayward, entering his fourth season with the Jazz, has no doubt about Stevens' readiness.
"Man, in my opinion, he's extremely prepared," Hayward said. "He does his research on guys and knows what he's doing before the ball even goes up. If they make an adjustment, he's already decided in his mind what he's going to do. If that doesn't work, he has a backup plan for that and then a backup plan for that.
"That's why he's so poised. He's done his work early. He knows basketball that well. He's played it his whole life and he's a student of the game. He knows it inside and out.
"He knows what he's doing. He realizes everything that everybody is saying about it, the challenge that he's going to face. It doesn't matter. He'll be successful wherever he's at."
Stevens knows that one of the keys to his success in his rookie season will be in developing a relationship with point guard Rajon Rondo, who had his testy moments with Rivers and is returning from ACL surgery.
"There is no bigger fan of Rajon Rondo than me," Stevens said. "I like the way he plays, his instincts on the court and the way he can make other people better."
No less than a authority than Celtics legend Larry Bird, now back as president of the Pacers, gave his approval.
"I don't know Brad Stevens personally, but I know he did a good job in Indianapolis," Bird said. "The people really like him there. I'm not surprised. I knew two, three years ago -- he wasn't -- but he had a guy sniffing around the NBA to see what was out there. I'm not surprised by it. He'll do fine. It just takes time. It takes time for everybody.
"He's very patient. He doesn't get too excited. When the players watch their coach and they don't get excited, they play with that demeanor to keep pushing. He's going to be alright. It carries over to his players, and that's why they got so far in the last few years."
It could be a perfect situation for Stevens. He isn't walking into a situation where the Celtics will be expected to win immediately and he can learn the NBA ropes while the team is restocking talent. Every loss won't be considered a disaster as long as there is player development and steady progress.
While the new coach cautions that there will be plenty of bumps along the road, Ainge has already taken stock.
"We're investing in Brad Stevens," he said.
Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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