Inside Access: Becoming a Head Coach

BOSTON – Coaching is a wild profession. It is unstable at best, and more often than not, those who roam the sidelines are judged solely upon wins and losses.

Their jobs are always on the line.

Every July, about 30 up-and-coming assistants around the NBA are given an opportunity to become a head coach for a portion of the month. Fortunately for them, their jobs don’t hang in the balance based upon their team’s performance.

These opportunities are unique, as each coach takes hold of the reigns of his franchise’s Summer League team while the actual head coach sits back and observes the development of his youngest players.

Wins are great, but development is better.

Jamie Young, who is entering his sixth season as an assistant coach with the Celtics, was one of the young coaches who stepped into head coaching shoes for the first time this July. He learned quickly that being a head coach is a juggernaut of a job.

“For me, really, I already had a lot of respect for head coaches,” Young tells Celtics.com, “but after doing it I’m like, ‘Wow, that’s another level.’ There’s so much that’s going through your head.”

Even the decisions that may appear to be elementary are able to cloud a head coach’s mind.

“Like, who should we have in the game?” Young recalls asking himself. “During the game you’re out there and you don’t know who to sub and you need to be reminded, ‘Hey, get so and so out of there,’ or, ‘Get so and so in.’”

Many other intricacies of the job popped up over Young’s eight days and five games at the helm in Vegas, including some that are entirely unique to Summer League action. We were on the bench and inside the huddle on July 13, during a 98-94 loss to the Cavaliers, to track some of his coaching lessons.

Communication was undoubtedly the crux of coaching for Young. Summer League is all about teaching very young players how to improve on the court. However, with only three days of practice before the team’s first game in Salt Lake City, not all of those players fully understood the Celtics language by the time Summer League tipped off.

Take Guerschon Yabusele, for instance. Yabusele, a native of France who only began learning English within the last year, was drafted 16th overall by the Celtics just six days before the team’s first summer practice. Twenty days after being drafted, he sat in a chair at the center of a critical timeout with 2:37 left in the game, with the Celtics trailing 88-87.

“We’re changing the pick-and-roll coverage on the next possession,” Young said as he looked Yabusele and his teammates in the eyes. “Blitz the ball screen.”

“All we need is one stop right here!” assistant coach Micah Shrewsberry added from the second row of the bench.

Yabusele and four of his teammates stood up and walked onto the court, knowing full well how important the next defensive possession was. Yabusele, however, missed the meat of the message that Young had relayed during the timeout.

“I knew right away. As soon as it happened, I said to myself, ‘He probably doesn’t even know what blitz means,’” Young remembers thinking on the sideline. And with that, Young had learned a coaching lesson that he’ll never forget.

“It’s something that I should have been more aware of myself,” he says. “I should have just asked him, ‘Do you know what blitz means?’ I should have done a better job of asking.”

Another aspect of communication that stood out in Young and his staff’s coaching efforts was how brief their coaching messages were. Most messages were relayed in only a few words, or at most a sentence.

With 5:50 left in the third quarter and during a timeout, Young told his guys, “They just scored five points off of offensive rebounds.”

Later, he told Celtics.com, “That was just a mental reminder that we were smaller than a lot of teams.”

Nearly every other message relayed from the coaches to the players was brief.

“Yabu,” Young said to Yabusele during an early timeout. He then stood up and motioned along with his following words. “Look back door.”

“Play basketball,” Walter McCarty told DeMetrius Jackson during the first quarter, encouraging Jackson not to allow aggressive defense to dictate his offensive play.

“When the ball is in the middle and he calls weak, which way do I force him?” Jaylen Brown asked assistant coach Brandon Bailey with 2:44 left in the third quarter.

“To the left,” Bailey quickly responded before Young drew up an after-timeout play.

Young says that coaching messages must be relayed with both composure and urgency.

“I try to be as calm as possible,” he says. “I think you’re better off – especially at this level, you don’t need to scream and yell at them – so just try to be as calm as you can be and get your point across quickly.”

Doing such can be a challenge for Young, as he considers himself to be “quick-triggered,” but remaining calm and precise is a part of the job when you’re at the helm. That’s just one of the many lessons Young took away from his brief experience as a head coach.

Serving as head coach of the Summer Celtics wasn’t just an opportunity for Young to teach; it was also an opportunity for him to learn. Now he has first-hand experience of just how wild being a head coach can be.

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