Player development program crucial to Pelicans' offseason

by Jim Eichenhofer
@Jim_Eichenhofer

During Monty Williams’ first season in coaching, San Antonio Spurs assistant Brett Brown – now Philadelphia’s head coach – told Williams something about the profession that still sticks with him a decade later.

“He used to say, ‘You’ve got to get a win every day,’ ” the New Orleans Pelicans’ coach recalled. “You have to figure out a way to improve the players you work with every day.”

Although the lengthy NBA schedule consists of 82 games, along with the preseason and postseason, that still leaves 200-plus days in a calendar year. How a team’s coaches and players spend that time can be the difference between a phenomenal season and a disappointing one.

Look no further than the NBA’s most improved clubs this season. Of the five squads with winning records in 2013-14 that finished below .500 in 2012-13 – Phoenix, Charlotte, Portland, Washington and Toronto – much of that progress came from players improving who were already on the roster. Every member of the five-team group had at least one player receive a vote in Most Improved Player balloting, highlighted by the Suns, with a whopping three players in the top 10. MIP award winner Goran Dragic, Gerald Green and Markieff Morris helped Phoenix nearly double its win total from 25 to a shocking 48. Toronto’s backcourt duo of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan were sixth and eighth, respectively, spearheading a Raptors turnaround from 34-48 to 48-34 and a division title.

Injuries largely prevented the Pelicans from generating a similar leap in the standings (34-48 after 27-55 in 2012-13), but with power forward Anthony Davis making the jump to All-Star status and earning third place in the MIP vote, it was the second straight season New Orleans had a top-three improver. In 2012-13, point guard Greivis Vasquez was the runner-up to Indiana’s Paul George. In 2011-12, point guard Jarrett Jack also garnered mention in MIP balloting.

Though those are three well-known examples, New Orleans’ year-round player development program under Williams has received praise around the league for its ability to transform players of various skill levels. San Antonio guard Marco Belinelli, Memphis forward Quincy Pondexter and New Orleans center Jason Smith are other cases of role players whose pro careers greatly benefited from NOLA’s “PD” program.

“What we’re all really proud of is we’ve been able to take guys whose careers were headed in a downward spiral and change that,” Williams said. “When we got Marco, he didn’t really have a position in the league. Jason Smith was on his way out of the league. When I was in Portland, (forward) Travis Outlaw was on his way out of the league. Those are the guys you don’t hear about or see on ESPN. But you see them now and say, ‘These guys can play.’ I was blessed to be around some of them at a time when nobody thought they could play.”

“You look at someone like Brian Roberts,” added New Orleans assistant Dave Hanners, referring to the Pelicans’ point guard who broke into the league here after playing overseas. “He was a guy (as a 27-year-old rookie in 2012) where not many NBA teams wanted him. But that was a year and a half ago. Now there are a lot of other teams who think, ‘He can make shots. He makes plays for other people.’ You take a guy who has a certain skill set and improve it. That comes through repetition, every day.”

In his position as a second-year USA Basketball assistant on Mike Krzyzewski’s staff, Williams now has the opportunity to work with the sport’s elite talents. Williams is cognizant of the fact, however, that the greatest impact a coach can make is not with that world-class caliber of player. Many of Team USA’s players are already multi-time All-Stars with lengthy resumes.

“I’ve tried to teach our guys, especially young coaches, don’t try to work with the Brandon Roys,” Williams said, referring to the three-time All-Star who was Portland’s franchise player in the previous decade. “If you get a chance to work with them, that’s great, but they’re going to be OK no matter what. Instead, go take a guy who is struggling and help him with his game. If you want to make a name for yourself as a coach, turn that piece of coal into a diamond, and people will notice your work a little bit. You don’t do it for that (specifically), but that’s just the way things work sometimes.”

The program
Williams’ staff of assistant coaches is the backbone of the team’s PD program. At the beginning of the season, each assistant is assigned specific Pelicans players, usually two or three apiece, to work with and develop ways to improve or enhance aspects of their skill set.

“What can a player add to his game?” assistant coach Bryan Gates said of a primary focus of PD work. “We talk about that all the time. To be versatile, which you want to do as a player, you have to add things. The strength of the program is players’ willingness to accept the challenge that they can still get better.”

Gates used one recent example of how Pelicans forward Darius Miller spent extensive time last season working on improving his ball-handling. Although Miller never could’ve anticipated that he’d have to play some point guard in 2013-14, that extra work came in handy March 26, when injuries led to New Orleans having no backup available. Miller slid over to point guard in a pinch and helped the Pelicans upset the Clippers, 98-96.

Significant internal improvement is even more critical – and realistic – for NBA teams that have numerous players in their 20s, who still haven’t reached their primes. New Orleans entered 2013-14 as the league’s sixth-youngest team, with an average age of 25.2. None of the Pelicans’ top five scorers last season were over 25.

“One of the most important things on a young team is development from within,” assistant coach Kevin Hanson said. “We have so many young guys who need attention and need their games broken down to the fundamental process. Whether it’s their shot being deconstructed and improved upon, or their footwork, basically re-teaching them the appropriate way to do it in the NBA, which is a little different from college or from what they’ve been taught.”

“We’ve found that one-on-one time after practice or on off days, with this new generation of player, they value that time,” Williams said. “That’s so important, because you have a young league that doesn’t really understand one, how to work, and two, what to work on to become a player. It’s not that they’re not talented and don’t want it. Part of PD is showing them what they have to work on and getting them to buy in.”

Throughout Williams’ tenure, it’s been common to see New Orleans players staying long after practice concludes to put up extra shots or watch game film of themselves. In-season, however, the hectic nature of the NBA schedule makes it difficult to spend as much time on development as coaches would like. That makes the offseason even more important for players as they try to improve.

“Summer is really the best time to address issues,” Hanson said. “It’s hard to do it during the course of the season – you focus more on the team. The summer is about individual growth. Coach (Williams tells players), ‘This is your time.’ We take that very seriously, developing a program that works for each player and making sure everyone gets the attention they need.”

Williams wishes there were fewer restrictions on how much NBA teams can work with players during the offseason. Under the current rules, teams often draw up summer plans for their players, who must maintain the discipline to follow them. However, the Pelicans now have a steady stream of players who return to Louisiana throughout the summer to work out together. The team’s gleaming, year-old Metairie practice facility is also a nice incentive for players considering coming back during the offseason.

“You can’t force guys to come back, and we never want our guys to look at the summertime as something they have to do,” Williams pointed out. “We always want them to look at it as something they get to do. That, to me, is the privilege of playing in the NBA.”

Culture change
When Williams was named New Orleans’ coach in the summer of 2010, he quickly noticed something about the team’s practice gym: No one seemed to be using it. Williams immediately called the team’s on-court leader and point guard, Chris Paul, to ask why the then-Hornets weren’t spending time in Louisiana to prepare for the 2010-11 season.

Williams: “Chris said, ‘Coach, I’ve been trying for years to get guys to come.’ It was the most disturbing thing I’ve ever seen from a summertime basketball standpoint. Nobody was here at all. Not one player would work out here.”

Four years later, the Pelicans now even have players from other NBA teams coming to New Orleans to work out in the summer. Periodically, former New Orleans players who’ve gone elsewhere thank Williams for the impact he and his coaching staff made on their careers, a testament to the team’s emphasis on work ethic and year-round improvement.

Pondexter, who played his rookie season for New Orleans before being traded to Memphis for Vasquez, has developed into a key member of a Grizzlies team that has reached the playoffs each of his three seasons there.

“He left us and was disgruntled about that, but a year later he called me out of the blue,” Williams recalled of the ’10 first-round pick. “He said, ‘Coach, I just want to thank you for what you did for me. I didn’t like it at the time, but now I’m starting to see how important all of those things were that you were telling me and pushing me to do.’

“That makes you feel good,” Williams continued. “Not just as a coach, but as a mentor. A lot of our PD program is about mentorship as well (off the court).”

Amid persistent uncertainty and question marks about the franchise’s future during its transition to being the only league-owned team in NBA history, the then-Hornets lost several key players to the chaos, including All-Stars Paul and David West. However, despite those players’ departures, their positive feedback about their past experiences in New Orleans has benefited the Pelicans’ current PD program.

“Word of mouth has helped us a ton,” Williams said. “When you have the Chris Pauls and the David Wests talking to people around the league after they’ve left here about our coaching and our PD, it really helps your program. It makes guys want to come back here. Now, they know when they come back, they’re going to have to work. But I don’t think anybody in the NBA wants to regress. They want to continue to get better.”