Coach Udoka Already Has Bonds Established With Celtics’ Core
Ime Udoka has been hired to be the new head coach for the Boston Celtics, though the term “new” is subjective considering the relationships he has built over the years with several of its core players.
Even though the 43-year-old is just stepping into an NBA head-coaching role for the first time, more than one-third of Boston’s active roster has already played under him in some capacity in the past.
Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Jayson Tatum all played for Udoka during the 2019 FIBA World Cup when Udoka, a longtime Spurs assistant, was serving on Team USA head coach Gregg Popovich’s staff. He had also previously coached Smart on the USA Select Team in 2016, for which C’s forward Jabari Parker also played. More recently, Udoka coached Al Horford, whose lone season in Philadelphia happened to coincide with Udoka’s 2019-20 stint on Brett Brown’s coaching staff. On top of all of that, he has also known fellow Oregonian Payton Pritchard since the second-year point guard was a young kid.
Being familiar with the majority of Boston’s core players is one of the many reasons why Udoka believes that his new partnership with the Celtics is a match made in heaven.
During his introductory press conference at the Auerbach Center Monday morning, Udoka explained how he’s already hitting it off with his “new” group. And judging by his comments, he’s also gained their respect.
“We’ve all talked already - they’re excited,” said Udoka, who played 13 years professionally and has been an NBA coach since 2012. “I thanked them for the kind words they’ve said about me, pushing me. It was a natural bond … Just a natural connection with those guys that I had. They’re going to allow me to coach them, push them. They know I’m going to be on their ass, and that’s what they like about me. They want to be pushed, they want to be directed towards winning.”
As the man who will be doing the directing, Udoka hopes to be a player-oriented coach who can get the most out of everyone on the roster. “They all have different personality traits,” he explained. And it’s his job to find out what coaching style benefits each of them.
“It’s all relationship-based,” Udoka said of his coaching philosophy. “We have to build that foundation off the court somewhat. Also, understand that you can’t coach everybody the same way. What motivates others might embarrass others. So you find that balance there. But it comes down to trust, respect, and being in alignment with our goals. And I think the players, it comes down to their character ultimately also, the way they want to be pushed and taking constructive criticism. And I think we have a group that has done that so far in the times I’ve been with them, and I think just in our conversations lately, they are looking forward to that.”
Udoka’s ability to connect with players beyond just the X’s and O’s of the game is one of the many reasons why Popovich had him on his Spurs staff for seven seasons.
"He exudes a confidence and a comfort in his own skin where people just gravitate to him," Popovich said in a 2015 ESPN article. "He's a fundamentally sound teacher because he's comfortable with himself, he knows the material and players read it. Oftentimes I'll say, 'Ime, can you go talk to so-and-so? Go talk to Patty Mills, go talk to Timmy (Duncan), go talk to Kawhi (Leonard).' And he'll do it better than I would do it.”
Having such an ability to connect with players outside of the game is what stood out most to Celtics President of Basketball Operations Brad Stevens during an extended search for his head-coaching successor.
"He has a great basketball acumen, a great understanding, but that’s, to me, something a lot of people have,” Stevens said. “It’s his authenticity, his ability to be tough and yet very warm, and it’s his experience. Not only the experience of playing but being 8 through 15 on the roster a lot, and then being in San Antonio all those years, and then the last two years seeing totally different things up close in Philly and Brooklyn is a great thing.”
Even prior to his coaching career, Udoka gave off such an impression throughout his seven years as an NBA journeyman. In the midst of grinding away for minutes, the 6-foot-6 wing went out of his way to connect with his peers, which made him stand out in a unique way.
“Whether I was a role player on a team, I always connected well with the guys,” Udoka recollected. “When I was with the Knicks, Isiah Thomas was probably the first coach to mention that I would be a coach one day. He said you connect with the young guys. You're not a 25-point scorer, but they relate to you well, and you push them in the right way. So I took that into my coaching career, not just relationship-wise as a player but as a coach.”
One example of his pushing of players was how he helped to shape Leonard into an NBA champion and Finals MVP by the age of 22. Now, he hopes to do the same for a couple of other young stars in Brown and Tatum.
“Talking to Kawhi Leonard as a young guy, I used to tell him, 'Why wait? What are you waiting for? These guys, don't give them too much respect.' And I'd say the same thing to Jayson and Jaylen," he stated. "The sky's the limit. The fact that you're not All-NBA (this past season), that should be a chip on your shoulder. You should play with that edge and want to prove people wrong. But my message to them would be, 'Why wait?'”
As for the wait for Banner 18, Boston’s 18th head coach hopes it won’t last much longer, as he will do his part by pushing his players and getting the best out of them every day.
For Udoka, that process has already begun with the relationships he has established with his players and the respect that he has gained from them in the process.