Coach Lloyd Pierce: A Reputation For Successful Development
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Author: Kevin L. Chouinard
Linsanity began when Jeremy Lin appeared seemingly out of nowhere and jumped onto basketball's biggest stage.
After getting skipped over in the 2010 NBA Draft and amassing 340 unremarkable career minutes in 38 NBA games, Lin took New York by storm when he took control of Mike D'Antoni's offense and helped the Knicks reel off seven straight wins, averaging 24.4 points and 9.1 assists during the streak.
But the reality is that Jeremy Lin was there all along, albeit working on smaller platforms. He won a state championship is high school, before moving onto Harvard where be became the first player in Ivy League history to compile 1,450 career points, 450 rebounds, 400 assists and 200 steals. After a fourth-quarter showdown with John Wall in his first Summer League game, Lin took his work mostly behind the scenes for the next 18 months.
Lloyd Pierce, then an assistant coach specializing in player development, played a meaningful role in that unseen process.
Lin actually started the season studying game film and working on his pick-and-roll plays with Golden State Warriors assistant coach Stephen Silas, practicing skills like putting a defender on your hip, finishing a floater and finding the open man in a pick and roll. But when Paul Silas was hired as an interim head coach of the Charlotte Bobcats in late December 2010, Stephen left the Warriors to become his father's top assistant. Enter Pierce.
"I didn't get on the job until Christmas Day," Pierce said. "I was handed off to Jeremy and to Monta and Steph and Reggie Williams."
At that point in his rookie season, Lin wasn't playing much for the Warriors and he was about to begin seeing the court even less. Pierce helped fill the gaps and then some for the then-rookie who often showed up at the facility three hours before practice.
"Every day I was working with Lloyd," Lin said. "We played a ton of one-on-one. We were always playing. We would work out before shootaround, do shootaround, workout after shootaround, play after shootaround, then we would go back and play before the game and then warm up – and then I usually wouldn't play in the game. But before every practice, after every practice – we were getting after it."
Pierce brought plenty of experience as both a player and a coach to the job. He played collegiately at Santa Clara with Steve Nash and current Hawks assistant coach Marlon Garnett. He also spent four seasons playing overseas before returning to his alma mater as an assistant coach in 2002. Eight years later, at the time of his workouts with Lin, Pierce was 34 years old.
"Back then he would have been an elite NBA defender."
Lin looked up and paused to emphasize his point.
"Elite defensive player. Amazing defensive player."
Pierce demurred when asked about the victor of the contests.
"I definitely won some of them. I don't know who won (the majority)," he said with a defensive smirk. "But I don't walk out and take L's all day."
When asked about his former coach's style back in 2011, Lin described Pierce's competitiveness.
"He was a dog, a junkyard dog. He gets after it. He's a competitor. It's not a surprise to me that he climbed the coaching ranks so fast. He is very detailed, very thorough, level-headed. He's just a dog."
As for the skill development session, Pierce started Lin with work comparable to what he did a season earlier with Danny Green, when Green was a rookie with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Pierce was in the last of his three seasons as a player development specialist under head coach Mike Brown.
"Lloyd was very good at (skill development)", Green said. "Ballhandling, floaters, finishes, getting into your shot."
With Steph Curry, the work that Pierce did was tailored – as it was for every player – to Curry's needs. When Curry was kept off the court by an ankle issue, Pierce studied film with him to help him understand how to avoid taking the basketball into crowds, traps and other situations baited by a defense where a turnover might be a likely outcome.
"I wasn't going to help him with his shooting," Pierce said with a laugh. "So you try to find something else to make an impact."
But unlike Curry, who will likely go down as the greatest shooter of all time, the 2010 version of Lin did need help with his outside shot. He only attempted five threes as a rookie, and he didn't make one until the last day of the season.
"The difference then was Jeremy never shot threes," Pierce said. "He just wasn't comfortable. When the season ended he had a knee procedure, which was kind of one of the best things for him because he couldn't do anything physically but spot shooting and form shooting."
At that point in the offseason, Pierce was the only coach remaining on the staff after head coach Keith Smart was let go and before Mark Jackson was hired to replace him. Pierce helped Lin and Ekpe Udoh with their jump shots while also running the Warriors group workouts leading up to the 2011 Draft. When the 2011 lockout began, Lin kept on working on his jump shot with a private trainer, and by the time he got his opportunity with the Knicks, he had developed it into enough of a weapon where opponents had to respect it.
Mike Brown gave Pierce his first NBA opportunity back in 2007 on the recommendation of St. Mary's College head coach Randy Bennett.
"Randy called me and said, 'Hey, I've got a guy who you should hire. He's overqualified for me. He'd be good on your level.' "
At the time Pierce was working as a volunteer assistant at St. Mary's. Brown brought him in as a provisional hire, but it didn't take long for Pierce to make an impression.
"If you're around Lloyd, in the first few minutes, you'll feel that he has a presence," Brown said. "If you interact with him, you know that he knows what he is talking about."
In Cleveland, Pierce and current Hawks assistant coach Chris Jent worked together for the first time. Their respective playing abilities – Jent played in Europe for a number of seasons and won an NBA Championship with the Houston Rockets – didn't go unnoticed. Both scrimmaged and practiced with players more often than assistants typically did.
"We really didn't call them Lloyd or Chris," Brown said. "We called them Sixteen and Seventeen because we felt they were roster players. When we were down bodies, they got out and scrimmaged with guys. You have fifteen guys on your roster. And so we were like, 'Hey Sixteen, we need you today. Or, 'Hey Seventeen, can you play today?' And they were always ready to go."
At one point in the 2010 Playoffs, Pierce played the role of Rajon Rondo for the scout team to help the Cavaliers prepare for their playoff series with the Boston Celtics.
"He simulated a lot of guys. Anybody with any quickness at all, he was the guy," Brown said before breaking into a laugh. "Now, anybody who could shoot, CJ was the guy. CJ wasn't quick, but he could shoot. Lloyd was quick, but he couldn't shoot."
Green added an important note on Pierce's playing style.
"He would dunk on some people," Green said. "Coaches and players played each other quite a bit back then. We had so many young coaches and they'd get up and down. It was fun. Lloyd was good, too, at what he did and at playing."
After his tenures in Cleveland and Golden State, Pierce worked as an assistant coach for two seasons for the Memphis Grizzlies and five for the Philadelphia 76ers. In Memphis, he was again tasked with the goal of developing players. With the Sixers, he eventually took the reins of the defense. Tony Allen, Marc Gasol, Joel Embiid, and Robert Covington all made NBA All-Defensive Teams while he was an assistant.
Current Miami Heat guard Wayne Ellington worked with Pierce as a member of the Grizzlies.
"He's a great dude, man. He is," Ellington said. "He was actually the guy who I worked with. We got to know each other pretty well. I was only there for half a season, but in that half a season, he helped me out tremendously. He deserves exactly where he is at now. It makes me happy to see him at that head coach position."
Ish Smith echoed the exact same sentiment from his time with the Sixers.
"Me, him, Isaiah Canaan, and Robert Covington spent a lot of time in the gym just working on everything that we were struggling with. We built a great relationship with him, his wife –everybody. We're really cool. I'm happy for him. He deserves it."
As a head coach, Pierce's role differs somewhat from what he did as a player development specialist.
"We're defining roles, and then we're trying to help them get better within their roles."
Helping players succeed within their given roles is what Pierce has done for his entire career. It's the role definition that is new to him.
"We're doing (player development) collectively as a staff. We're grabbing our guys and we're helping them get better. And then we're giving the team concept and we're hoping – that's our job – to put them all in spaces and spots where they'll flourish in their roles."
The roles on the Hawks are becoming more and more clear. Trae Young has shown the ability to run an offense against the world's best defenses. John Collins is an elite roll man and an Energizer Bunny on the glass. Kevin Huerter can shoot, pass, defend NBA wings while also functioning as a secondary playmaker. Pierce and his staff are helping these young guys decipher their roles at the NBA level and improve at them.
While Pierce is the executive managing the day-to-day tasks of 17 players and six assistants and dozens of other staff members, Ellington was pleased that his former tutor still utilizes a hands-on approach to teaching.
"I actually went to the practice court (in State Farm Arena) before the game, and I was getting some work in, and I saw him down there working out with the guys before the game. You know, that's amazing to see that. I love to see that he's still doing that even though he's the head coach."