Atlanta Hawks players could learn a thing or two from Nick Van Exel.
That was the reason the Hawks hired him as a Player Development Instructor.
Van Exel was the fiery gunner at the point for University of Cincinnati teams that reached the Final Four in 1992 (losing to Michigan's Fab Five) and the Elite Eight in 1993. He then began a 13-year NBA career, with the first five years in Los Angeles, where he'd be an All-Star in 1998 and become the bridge for the Lakers between Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant, before becoming a hired hot hand for the Denver Nuggets, Dallas Mavericks, Golden State Warriors, Portland Trailblazers and finally the San Antonio Spurs.
He had been coaching at Texas Southern. Last summer, he was in Las Vegas at an AAU event when he heard news of Larry Drew's hiring by the Hawks.
Van Exel did what he does best, take the long shot. He sent a text congratulating Drew then asked him for a job.
"I texted him while I was in Vegas and he happened to be in Vegas," Van Exel recalled. "So I just told him, 'Congratulations, it's been a long time coming.' Then, at the end of the text I asked him if he had anybody working out your guards? He was like, 'Yeah, my staff is full, but let's keep in touch'"
What happened in Vegas didn't stay there, as they stayed in touch and soon after, Van Exel was on the staff and back in his element.
"Here, on the NBA level, I think it's easier for me because guys can grasp what you're feeding them a little bit faster," he said. "For me, personally, it's what I wanted so I'm very happy that Larry Drew and the Hawks gave me an opportunity."
He's taken several Hawks under his wing, ranging from guards Jeff Teague to rookie forward/guard Pape Sy to veteran small forward Marvin Williams. Each has required a different adjustment, but Van Exel, who scored more than 12,000 points while shooting 40.5 percent for his career (35.7 from three), has been a master of working toward fixing each his way.
For Teague, it's been trying to get him to more aggressive.
"Guys with the pitbull mentality, guys like a [Russell] Westbrook, Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, those guys, a guy that is always going to keep attacking and keep attacking, if you come at him he's going to keep attacking and keep attacking. They have a certain kind of pitbull in them that dog in them as we say," said Van Exel. "We're trying to put that dog in Jeff Teague. The way I try to do it is instill confidence in him. Let him know it's the same as when he was at Wake Forest. Play the same way. Be aggressive. Don't be afraid to make mistakes. Don't be afraid to miss shots. I would like to see him be a little bit more aggressive because if he's aggressive it helps his mental, helps his confidence."
"We've been talking about that pitbull mentality and he's trying to instill that in me," said Teague. "Just every day in practice go hard and play at a high level. I think that's helping my game overall. He knows so much about the game of basketball. He's a great coach."
Van Exel has also proved to be a kind of father-figure to the Hawks youngsters, especially Sy. The French-born rookie got a look in training camp, then was assigned to the NBA's Developmental League for more seasoning. Van Exel was asked to accompany him to Utah. The move was appreciated by Sy.
"It was nice to be with people from Atlanta so I wasn't by myself," he said. "That was a big thing not to be by myself over there. It was good to be with him."
Van Exel has provided as much guidance on the floor.
"He's helped me a lot with my skills, with my shot. He was a point guard, so I'm trying to learn a lot about him, talk a lot with him," Sy said. "It was good because the type of game in the States is not the same as in Europe. So he was helping me a lot to learn how to play the game."
The mission in Utah was cut short due to a family issue, but when Van Exel returned to Atlanta he found peace of mind on the court as a coach.
"I think his getting back to basketball took his mind off things," said Teague. "Working with us is something he loves to do. We never really talked about it. He's always been happy and upbeat with us. So we never talk about anything like that but I think basketball helped him the most."
Van Exel's ability to insert humor into his lessons makes him fun to work with. His ability to shoot the lights out has made him a popular sounding board for slumping shooters, like Williams.
"The last few games (early in March) I haven't made shots I'm used to making. My shot doesn't feel any different, I don't feel any less confident than I normally am," he said. "I guess I'm just in one of those stretches where they're just not falling. So you just continue to get a lot of repetition and just kind of shoot your way out of it."
Care to guess where that mindset might have originated?
"I tell Marvin, 'You've just got to keep shooting," said Van Exel. "Because one thing about being in a slump, the only way you get out of it is keep shooting. Marvin's always getting extra reps, always getting extra shots, always asking me what do I think is wrong. I think his shot is right on. He's just missing. I just tell him don't lose your mental. Don't think that your shot is off and you need to correct something because it looks good. Just stay mentally focused and keep getting extra shots and you'll get out of it."
Those words meant a lot to Williams, who remembered Van Exel, the shooter, quite well.
"He was blazing quick and he had a shot. I remember because he was lefty," said Williams. "I remember him playing with those great Lakers teams and he could play. He could definitely play."
He still can.
"He's shot with us a few times in practice. He plays some of these guys one-on-one and he'll still get a game or two," Williams said. "It's not like he's 50 or anything like that. He's a young guy. He's 36."
"Guys can always shoot it," Van Exel said. "When I was a rookie and Larry Drew was my assistant, he always used to beat me in shooting games. That's one thing I'll always remember, that the coaches still can shoot it.
"[Drew] actually taught me a couple of trick shots. I still remember them," he said, adding with a laugh, "The same trick shots he used to do on me I do on these guys. They don't understand."
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