After working with Thunder stars, Cheeks helping Monroe, Drummond

Maurice Cheeks
Head coach Mo Cheeks has the chance to shape young players here in Detroit.
David Liam Kyle (NBAE/Getty)
Oklahoma City won 23 games the year Philadelphia fired Maurice Cheeks 23 games into its season. The next year under Scott Brooks and his new lead assistant, Cheeks, the Thunder won 50 games.

It was Kevin Durant’s third year and Russell Westbrook’s second, that 2009-10 season, and Cheeks will be the first to tell you that the radical U-turn OKC navigated had much more to do with their transcendent talents than did the addition of an assistant coach.

But down in Oklahoma City, which comes to The Palace on Friday night, they’ll tell you Cheeks’ steady hand helped nurture their young stars and moved them down the path to stardom at an accelerated pace. His presence – the calming aura Cheeks projects – struck just the right note with players who already possessed the drive required of greatness.

“I loved being around him,” Durant told me in July at USA Basketball’s minicamp in Las Vegas, where the two young pillars Cheeks now coaches – the Durant and Westbrook of the Pistons – Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond auditioned for future Team USA roles. “He’s helped me so much as a player. There were nights I’d be playing so terrible and he calmed me down and I turned my game around. He was a great teacher for us and he’s going to do so well with those younger guys in Detroit.”

“I don’t remember what I said,” Cheeks laughed, brushing off Durant’s praise. “But Kevin and Russell are obviously two of the best players in the league. I’m not trying to change them in any way. If I pull ’em aside and say anything, I’m just trying to enhance their games.”

Cheeks was especially linked to Westbrook’s development as someone who came to the NBA viewed as a phenomenal athlete but a long way from ready to run a winning team.

“I thought Russell was going to be great anyway,” Cheeks said. “Both are. They’re learners. They’re listeners. And when you tell them something, they try to take that knowledge and put it on the floor, put it to the test. That’s the reason they are as great as they are. They trust the things they hear and try to implement them.”

Cheeks is getting Monroe and Drummond at almost exactly the same stage he joined Durant and Westbrook, in Monroe’s fourth year and Drummond’s second. He hasn’t been shy to share with his two young stars the blueprint he saw Durant and Westbrook follow to elite status.

“Oh, yeah. Oh, a lot,” Cheeks said. “The way they approached practice, the way they approached their games. They’re very, very serious about their craft. What I mean by that is the way they come to practice, they do it every day, same way, same work. And it pays off for them in the game. If anything, I’ve told them the way they practiced and transfer it over. They practice the way they try to play.”

Cheeks sees in Monroe and Drummond the same serious bent, the same desire to become great and carry their teams to the same heights, but it’s a process that must be fed by experiencing the type of consistent success that breeds supreme confidence.

“I think they’re working that way,” he said. “They’re working toward that. For them to be as good as these two guys are, that’s what it takes. I think they’re on their way. Kevin and Russell, when they started out, had to figure their way out and figure how to get to the level they are now. It’s the same thing with these guys. They have to figure out how to get to the highest level and Russell and KD have figured that out.”