Hornacek's Teaching Methods Already Making an Impact

NBAE/Getty Images

When the Suns hired Jeff Hornacek as their new head coach, the first quality they said qualified him for the job was the his ability to teach.

Classes commenced with the summer league. Informal workouts followed, and then came training camp and the preseason.

Five games later, the rookie head coach appears to have a handle of — and respect from — a student body that boasts the second-least amount of playing experience in the league.

“He’s been there before, so we’ve got choice but to listen,” Eric Bledsoe said. “He’s been to the Finals, been to the playoffs, won games and he’s played with great players. We’re just listening to him, and the response in his actions means a lot.”

“I think a lot of guys, if you’re too cool [with the players], you don’t get the respect. I think that comes with him and his playing career,” added Miles Plumlee. “We really respect him and what he’s accomplished. We all know he’s a smart guy, a hard worker. We value that as a team and we’re going to follow him.”

Hornacek’s experience as a former NBA player directly affects how he coaches. The former Suns All-Star remembers lessons both learned and unheard as a player, memories that help him identify when to teach and when to unleash his players.

His coaching style has already manifested itself during live-game action. Rarely will Hornacek be seen prowling the sidelines during a live play, not unless the team is in obvious need of additional direction.

Communication with his players usually happens during a timeout or a dead ball. Yelling during live play, he says, isn’t something he deems productive.

“When I played, I rarely heard the coach,” Hornacek laughed. “It’s kind of a wasted breath if you’re up there yelling and screaming.”

The players appreciate Hornacek’s down-to-earth realism. In a matter of months, Plumlee has gone from seldom-used bench player to starting center. The transition has been made easier thanks the head coach’s availability to the team on an individual basis.

“Not only does he stop his plays and explain his things to the whole team, but on an individual basis I feel like I can always, on the side, approach him,” Plumlee said. “He gives me information that way, or whenever there’s a break. He’s really good one-on-one.”

First-round pick Archie Goodwin was one of the first Suns to find that out. The rookie guard starred on the Phoenix summer league team and has steadily progressed in the minutes doled out to him in the regular season. It didn’t take Goodwin long to appreciate Hornacek’s approach. Not coincidentally, the first-year player has earned plenty of praise for his ability to learn in return.

“I think a lot of guys, if you’re too cool [with the players], you don’t get the respect. I think that comes with him and his playing career. We really respect him and what he’s accomplished. We all know he’s a smart guy, a hard worker. We value that as a team and we’re going to follow him.”

— Miles Plumlee

“His demeanor has been what I really like about him,” Goodwin said. “A lot of guys feel like they have to be so intense to get the most out of guys. That’s just not the case…He doesn’t force or put too much pressure to do something. He tells you what he wants you to do and then he expects you to go out there and do it. I really like that about him. He’s a direct coach.”

Directness from a former player has produced accountability, the players say. Since the team gathered for workouts in September, Hornacek has been open and unrelenting in what he expects: effort and energy, fueled by a desire to help the team more than themselves.

“That’s the thing we stressed throughout training camp and preseason is to play as a team,” Hornacek said. “If they do that they should prove some people wrong, that they’re better than anticipated.”

The team-first concept necessitates a repeated emphasis that personal success takes a backseat. Some nights, Hornacek says, one player may take another’s minutes for the good of the team. It could be vice versa the following game. Either way, personal pride and hurt feelings have no place if the team’s well-being is truly the first priority.

Hornacek has backed that up through the first five games. When Portland played their starters heavy minutes in the season opener, the Suns were forced to do likewise. When Phoenix needed a dash of energy and outside shooting against Utah, it was Dionte Christmas and Ish Smith who answered the call – and received the unexpected bonus of crunch-time minutes. After Markieff Morris got hot at New Orleans, he was asked to sit out and watch Marcus Morris play at power forward instead for matchup purposes.

“Every night’s going to be how the game plays out, for me,” Hornacek said. “I’m not a guy who says, ‘okay, at the five-minute mark you’re going to go in. at the nine-minute mark, you go in.’ If they’re keeping some of their guys in or one of our guys is hot, I’ll keep him in. I think all our guys know that and I think they know to be ready at all times.”