C's Drawn In by Udoka’s ‘Contagious Personality’ at Day 1 of Camp

BOSTON – Ime Udoka had been looking forward to Sept. 28 for the past three months, as it would mark the first day of Celtics Training Camp and the official beginning of his journey as an NBA head coach. The day finally arrived on Tuesday, and it was everything he hoped it would be.

The longtime Gregg Popovich assistant slid into his new role as if it wasn’t a new role at all, working with a commanding presence and making a solid impression upon his new players at the Auerbach Center.

“It was fun,” Udoka described of the experience while speaking to the media after practice. “I enjoy our group, and obviously I know our coaches well. Nothing I haven’t done before, just in a different capacity now … It’s fun to implement your stuff, get the group together. Good to get out there for the first day.”

Part of the reason why Udoka’s first day went so well is that this team isn’t entirely new to him. As he mentioned, he already has close relationships with many of his assistants, but he also knows several of Boston’s players, including a handful of core guys whom he coached previously in various capacities.

For instance, Jaylen Brown, Jabari Parker, Marcus Smart, and Jayson Tatum have all played under Udoka with Team USA, including this past summer when he and Tatum captured a gold medal together at the Tokyo Olympics. He also coached Al Horford and Josh Richardson when he was an assistant coach under Brett Brown in Philadelphia.

Though, as a coach who loves to build new relationships, he’s even more excited to be around the players who he is just meeting for the first time.

“It’s good to see guys I’ve coached in the past, like Josh and Al, as well and Jayson and some of those guys,” Udoka said. “Familiar faces is good, but I’ll enjoy getting to know some of the other guys as well. We’ve made some good additions in the offseason. The relationship part goes across the board, and that’s where I come in handy. It’s good to get to know Juancho and Enes and some of the guys I haven’t gotten to know personally.”

One of those new guys is Aaron Nesmith, a second-year wing who thoroughly enjoyed his first day under Udoka.

“He’s a very upbeat guy, a very fun guy, loves to compete,” said the 21-year-old. “I think his personality is contagious and it’ll continue to trickle down throughout the team.”

Payton Pritchard already knows all about Udoka’s love for competition, having grown up under Udoka’s wing in their shared hometown of Portland, Oregon. Therefore, the second-year point guard already knew exactly what was in store for Day 1 of camp.

“I loved it,” Pritchard said. “We just got after it. That’s what Ime likes to do: he likes to get after it and compete. That’s how he was as a player and now as a coach. So, it fits us perfectly.”

Being a former NBA journeyman is another helpful trait that should help Udoka in his transition. Having prior playing experience helps him to connect with his players on a level that not all head coaches can.

“It helps a lot,” said Pritchard. “He’s been through it. He understands what goes through a player’s head, his thoughts, what he’s going through mentally and physically. So there’s an understanding there.”

The 44-year-old has also been through many training camps throughout his career – both as a coach and as a player – so he already knows exactly how to ramp his players up for the upcoming season. On top of that, he’s aware that it will take time for the team to internalize his new system, so he’s “taking it slow” at first.

“We’re not in a rush to try to put 100 plays in,” Udoka said. “It’s more so getting the concepts across and getting the coverages and different schemes and terminology across. It’s not reinventing the wheel. It’s nothing these guys haven’t already done or seen before. It’s just a matter of us getting our terminology and some of the things we want them to do.

“So we’re going to take it slow and build this base up day by day, offensively and defensively. We don’t want to skip any steps starting over like it is Day 1, especially with a new staff and new players added. So we’ll take that slow and really use these first practices and preseason games to implement the stuff we want to get to. Then we’ll get to more specific sets and things guys do naturally already.”

Soon enough, Udoka’s new system will come naturally to the players, and they’ll be ready to roll for the 2021-22 season. Just like Day 1 came naturally for their new head coach.

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