UCLA’s Alford: Snell always early to work on his game
UCLA coach Steve Alford recalls coaching Bulls first round draft pick Tony Snell at New Mexico and shares why he believes his former player has what it takes to make an impact at the NBA level
Not that he needed one, but for the last three years former New Mexico men’s basketball team coach Steve Alford got an almost daily signal when practice was about to start.
That’s because he could hear the ball bouncing off the hardwood and swishing through the net. He didn’t have to look to see which player had arrived before everyone else.
Snell was named MVP of the 2013 Mountain West Tournament after leading the Lobos to both a regular season and postseason conference title.
(Harry How/Getty Images Sport)
“The thing I’ll remember most about Tony is that he literally was usually the first one to practice,” said Alford in a phone interview this week. “I always knew practice was 20 to 30 minutes away by when Tony came into the gym. He was always early to work on his game.”
This work ethic is one of several reasons Alford believes Snell, whom the Bulls selected with the 20th overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, will be successful as he begins the next chapter of his basketball career.
Just as Snell decided to forego his senior season, Alford has also moved on, currently preparing for his first season at UCLA. Recruiting commitments prevented him from watching Snell in action at the NBA Summer League last week in Las Vegas, but he kept tabs on his former player as he averaged 11.8 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.2 assists in five games and the Bulls went 4-1.
It wasn’t that long ago Alford recruited Snell, whose versatility caught the coach’s eye in a hurry.
“When we were recruiting him, we saw that he was long, athletic, and had a very good skill set,” said Alford of Snell. “In high school, he was one of those guards who could play multiple positions. Fortunately, in the three years we had him at New Mexico, he continued to develop. He matured as a person and he matured in the game. It worked out perfectly, not just for New Mexico, but for him as well.”
Upon arrival in Chicago, Snell credited Alford for helping him improve in areas such as footwork, defense and mental toughness.
“Those were the areas we felt he needed to improve on,” said Alford. “To his credit, he was highly, highly coachable, as coachable of a kid as I’ve ever had. As I mentioned before, he was first in the gym and the last to leave, a tireless worker. So it’s not surprising that each year he got better and better. That’s a tribute to him. If you look at him as a freshman to a sophomore to a junior, he just kept getting better. It’s a tribute to how hard he works at his game.”
As a freshman, Snell averaged 4.4 points and 1.9 rebounds in 17.5 minutes per game. Those numbers increased across the board the next year, when he posted 10.5 points, 2.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists in 25.6 minutes per game. While his scoring increased again as a junior (12.5 ppg), he also proved early on that year he was capable of taking – and making – big shots.
In the Lobos’ third game of the season, Snell drilled a three-pointer with 1.8 seconds left to give New Mexico a 70-69 come-from-behind victory over George Mason in the Paradise Jam.
“We were down and out in that game and he made a shot to win it for us,” recalled Alford of Snell, who finished with 27 points that night. “Then the next night we beat UConn to win the tournament championship. He had several games like that for us where he made big shot after big shot.”
"To his credit, he was highly, highly coachable, as coachable of a kid as I’ve ever had," said Alford of Snell. "[He] was first in the gym and the last to leave, a tireless worker. So it’s not surprising that each year he got better and better."
(Joe Robbins/Getty Images Sport)
Never was that more true than on March 16, 2013, when New Mexico hosted UNLV with the Mountain West conference championship on the line. Again it was Snell who stepped up, recording 13 straight points during a second-half run and finishing with 21 in the game, including 5-of-7 from three-point range, as the Lobos knocked off the Runnin’ Rebels to enter the NCAA Tournament with a 29-5 record.
“He obviously had big moments and big games for us,” said Alford. “But more than anything about Tony, I’ll remember who he was as a person and how coachable he was.”
Gar Forman and John Paxson were on hand at the Mountain West Tournament to watch Snell, a player whom they had been scouting all season long. Then, following the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago, Snell was in one of the first workouts the Bulls hosted. Obviously, the team liked what it saw.
“There were a lot of phone calls in the weeks leading up to the draft so I knew Tony was doing well in his workouts,” said Alford. “I think when Tony made the decision to stay in the draft, the workouts were a big key for him, and he had a lot of confidence going into those. It’s a great credit to him because those are like on the job interviews and they aren’t easy. There’s a lot of pressure, but he obviously handled them very well.”
While the first thing that jumped out to Forman and his staff was the fact that Snell could shoot the ball, Chicago also became enamored with his length, wingspan and overall skill set. But he also possesses the intangibles so many teams desire—work ethic and the ability to maximize potential. They are all reasons why Alford sees Snell fitting in so well.
“I think he’s just like a lot of what the Bulls are about—a high character guy who is big on integrity. He’s very coachable and he can be a very good defender because he’s versatile,” said Alford. “He’s going to be one of those role guys who will complement his teammates and he’ll buy in from Day 1 what the Chicago Bulls organization is all about.”
This offseason, the Bulls have been all about shooting, placing a heavy emphasis on that with the drafting of Snell and Erik Murphy in addition to the signing of free agent Mike Dunleavy, all of whom will complement former NBA MVP Derrick Rose as he returns to the lineup. The team wants to give Rose an open court with which to work, and having threats to score from the perimeter will do just that.
Snell's best summer league outing came on July 19 against the Mavericks as he scored 20 points on 6-of-13 shooting, including 5-of-8 from behind the arc, and recorded seven rebounds in 34 minutes.
(Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images)
“He can definitely space the floor,” said Alford of Snell. “He’s got a great skill set and probably the best part of that skill set is his ability to shoot the ball and make shots. He was the best shooter on our team last year and he makes big shots. He’s not afraid to take big shots. But I think one of the reasons he is such a good shooter is that he takes good shots. He doesn’t take bad shots.”
Snell returned home to the Los Angeles area following summer league, but he won’t be there long. He plans to resume workouts at the Berto Center next week until he heads to New York for the NBA’s rookie transition program in early August. Upon its conclusion, he’ll be back in Chicago to work with Thibodeau and the Bulls off and on until training camp is underway.
As for what to expect from Snell at the NBA level, Alford believes he’ll have a long career. And when his former player calls to talk, he’ll simply reinforce some of the things that have helped Snell get to this point.
“The advice I’ll be giving him is the same as what I told him going into each of the years at New Mexico—continue to develop, which you do first and foremost by listening and having a maturity about you whether it’s a good day or bad day. If you can take something out of it, it’s about growth. He’s been able to do that over the last three years and I think he will continue that maturation process.
“If he listens and works, he’ll see growth,” added Alford. “When that happens and Tony sees that, he is going to get more and more confident. But that’s what he needs to do at the professional level. He’s a winner and he’ll compete. He gets those types of things. I think he’s got the potential to have a long and very good pro career.”
“I think he’s just like a lot of what the Bulls are about—a high character guy who is big on integrity. He’s very coachable and he can be a very good defender because he’s versatile,” said Alford of Snell. “He’s going to be one of those role guys who will complement his teammates and he’ll buy in from Day 1 what the Chicago Bulls organization is all about.”