Early Risers

Under Frank, Pistons staff is undefeated vs. sunrise

Pistons player development coach Steve Hetzel does most of his work for head coach Lawrence Frank before the sun comes up.
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images
Steve Hetzel admits his body clock has undergone a radical adjustment since Lawrence Frank began occupying the office at the other end of the hall along the first floor of the Pistons’ practice facility.

If NBA coaches weren’t late-night creatures naturally, the schedule ultimately makes them so. They’re accustomed to checking into hotels at 3 in the morning after flights whisk them from one stop to the next following the many nighttime tipoffs.

But Frank is an inveterate early riser who can’t wait to get to the office to tackle his unquenchable thirst for answers to every conceivable question, for solutions to every possible contingency that could arise over the course of any 48-minute game in an 82-game NBA season.

So Hetzel, who came to the Pistons two years ago from Cleveland with former coach John Kuester as player development coach, now gets to bed before 10 p.m. so he can get to the office long before sunrise and start providing the answers Frank craves.

And he loves it.

“The phrase ‘no stone goes unturned’ is him,” Hetzel smiles as he recalls his first weeks on the job under Frank, named Pistons coach in early August. “From his playbooks to his roles and responsibilities that he’s given us, that’s how his mind works and what makes him successful.”

What could Frank and his team of assistants – there are still a few formalities to clear, but the interview process has concluded and the staff is completely on board – find to occupy them in the predawn hours of the off-season?

“It’s like a shooter,” Frank says. “When you have time, you take time.”

“The good thing about Lawrence is he’s always thinking,” Hetzel said. “He wants to know everything about everything.”

One example: Frank came to Hetzel one day to hand him the assignment of putting together an “edit” – a compilation of videotaped clips to illustrate a coaching point – that would reveal how a team can exploit the opponent’s aggressive use of double teams or overloading to the strong side of the court.

“It’s what he calls ‘punishing the help,’ ” Hetzel said. “For us on the offensive end, if the defense is guarding us a certain way and we make a play and they have to help, well, how do you hurt that help? How do you counter the defensive help? To show examples of that, I’d spend a day just watching film, trying to find examples of those clips. I remembered playing New York two years ago when they did a great job flaring the weak side vs. our overhelp. I went to the game and found that play.

“When I was in Cleveland, we would run an iso on the wing. The way teams would defend that, they’d tilt the floor to show help and we had a scheme to counter that.”

Frank conducted a thorough search to fill his staff, which will include three assistants on the bench with him and two others besides Hetzel behind it. Hetzel’s spot was only secured after he impressed Frank during Frank’s unique “working interview” – watching assistant coaches put players through drills to gauge their ability to teach and communicate concisely.

“I haven’t done anything like that and I’ve never seen anybody do it, either,” Hetzel said. “But I’ll tell you, it was just another look at how thorough he is in his evaluation of everything.”

Hetzel borrowed Oakland University assistant coach Saddi Washington, a terrific player at Western Michigan in the ’90s, to serve as the subject of his workout drill. For an hour, he put Washington through the paces as Frank watched.

“It was very good for me, because he was capable of doing all the drills I was putting him through,” Hetzel said. “For Lawrence, it was looking to see our command over a workout, our presence during the drills and, most importantly, our teaching points. Not just putting a guy through drills, but why are you putting him through drills? Why is this going to help him be a better player?”

Hetzel again will work with younger Pistons before games and before and after practices to hone their basketball skills, but he’ll hardly be alone. Another of Frank’s new assistants comes highly motivated as a teacher of skills and Hetzel is looking forward to learning his techniques.

And during games, Hetzel will be charged with tracking offensive efficiency. He kept a chart during games last year, too, he said. But the one Frank wants him to keep will include greater detail. No surprise there. The coach who beats the sun every day to the practice facility lives for the details.