Prior to the 2011-12 season, Lakers head coach Mike Brown was pretty excited about one of his (many) new coaching hires.
Phil Handy, a former NBA player who had spent eight years playing professionally in Europe before returning stateside to run his own basketball training business, was set to be Brown's new player development coach. His mission statement simple, if not easy: make the players better.
When the lockout was lifted in December, Handy packed his bags from his Bay Area home and departed for Los Angeles, eager to start working individually with every Laker from rookie Andrew Goudelock to Kobe Bryant.
Handy joined us earlier this week to discuss how footwork and balance are the key to hoops success, how Kobe uses footwork before dribbling to create space (just like Michael Jordan), what drills he does with the rookies, how you improve a super-skilled player like Pau Gasol, what Metta World Peace must do to sharpen his jumper and more:
MT: Hey Phil, let's rewind a bit: how did you get into player development?
Handy: After retiring from playing myself about 12 years ago, I started my own basketball training business. Tony Delk, Eddie House, Shawn Marion and Penny Hardaway were some of the first guys I worked with, and Tony encouraged me to make it a business. He liked the stuff I was doing for him; he said it made him a lot sharper as a player, so from that point forward, I started digging in. Over a 13-year period, I developed a really nice business working with a lot of NBA guys like Blake Griffin, Arron Afflalo and so on out of my training facility in San Francisco.
MT: How did you establish your connection with Mike Brown?
Handy: We have a mutual friend named Randy Bennett, who coaches at St. Mary's College; I trained the players from St. Mary's for about five years in the offseason. Randy was really happy with the progress his guys were making, and when Mike got the Lakers job, Randy and some others - like Hornets GM Dell Demps, (Hall of Famer) Chris Mullen and (agent) Bill Duffy - put in a good word. Mike had never seen my work, but my reputation was such that he called me, and I came down for an interview with all the coaches that went well. I just had to wait the lock out ended, which was tough.
MT: And your background as a player? I know you spent a lot of time playing in Europe.
Handy: I grew up in the Bay Area, played community college ball for one year, then played at the University of Hawaii for two. I was picked up as a free agent by Golden State, where I stayed for half a season until going over to the CBA. The next year I played in Portland for half a season before going back to the CBA, and then I went to Europe for eight years. I played in Israel, France, England, Germany, Italy and Australia. There wasn't much opportunity for me in the NBA because I was the 12th or 13th guy, playing behind guys like Latrell Sprewell, but I got to really play in Europe. My first year in France was tough - I was just on the fringe of going back to the NBA, so it was a shock at first, but once I got acclimated I loved it.
MT: Now, all of your work is behind the scenes. People don't really get to see what you do with the players, but for example: I've noticed you spending extra time with Andrew Goudelock on a crossover dribble he just started using more in games. Your primary responsibility is just to try and get guys better?
Handy: That's my passion. That's my job. Coach Brown has me sit in on meetings where I can learn our terminology and know what we're doing, but my No. 1 job is to work with guys on the floor to make sure they're getting what they need from skill work to shots and everything else. Our whole staff works with players, but I've been doing skill workouts and training for 13 years, and it's in my blood now. This is what I do.
MT: Let's get a little more specific on the actual skill work. It's ball handling, shooting, passing and everything. But do you have an area of focus?
Handy: My two biggest things are footwork and balance. Every player needs to have good footwork and balance to be able to do anything. I've had a chance to work everybody out on the team, and over time I've developed the ability to be able to teach any position. Whether you're Andrew Bynum or Derek Fisher, I try to cover every aspect of the game that I can.
MT: When you mention the focus on footwork and balance, it's hard not to think of Kobe Bryant right away, one of the best there's ever been from that standpoint. Your early impression?
Handy: When I came here, I was excited for the opportunity to both have a chance to work with him and also just see what he does. You know I'm really big on footwork, but I immediately started learning things from Kobe. I've never seen more of a technician with the footwork than him. He has a lot of stuff down that a lot of people couldn't even attempt to do.
MT: Some of that No. 24 footwork seems ingrained from growing up with a professional hooping dad (Joe "Jellybean" Bryant), being around the game constantly, watching tape obsessively, all mixed with unordinary talent. But how do you get from the point of seeing what Kobe can do to teaching it?
Handy: Kobe shows some of everything: reverse pivots, inside pivots, spin outs, jabs - he puts it all together. So to explain or teach it to a kid like Goudelock, I basically break it down in parts. Goudelock has good footwork for a guard, but to try and get him to do some of the stuff that Kobe does, it would have to come in stages, then put it together as you go.
MT: You might see all of those pivots and turns and jabs from Kobe in one possession. How would you describe the purpose of all his footwork?
Handy: Kobe uses his footwork like some people use their dribble. A lot of people use their dribble to create space, but Kobe is just the opposite. He uses footwork to create the space that he needs, and then if that doesn't work, he can use the dribble. But his footwork is so good that a lot of times he doesn't need the dribble.
MT: That's an interesting way of putting it, Phil. And that's how Michael Jordan used to play, right?
Handy: Exactly. A lot of people look at Kobe and Mike, and the biggest difference is that while Mike was great with his footwork, he wasn't as big of a ball handler as Kobe. If you ever saw Mike put the ball on the floor, it was for one or two dribbles, max, then he'd explode up or to the rim. (Jordan) would set everything up with his footwork, but Kobe also has the ability to go to the dribble if the footwork doesn't work. Not to say that Mike couldn't handle it, he just didn't most of the time.
MT: MJ got right to the point...
Handy: Yes, and Kobe does too. He gets to it in his own way. He's just a different animal. Trying to work with a guy like that even from showing him something different or now - if he sees it is going to work for him, he will apply it.
MT: In this sense Kobe's really an exception, because he's got so much in the tool kit, what are you really supposed to teach him or help him improve upon or add to his game?
Handy: Traditionally you try to get players to shoot on balance, but Kobe practices those off-balance shots, so they're better shots for him than for others. Sure, that might be the one thing where you'd try to get him to be more balanced at times, but to him, every shot he takes is a shot he can make. That's how he thinks. So it's an interesting dynamic trying to suggest, or teach, or critique Kobe's game; it's really more of 'What do you like to do,' and see if you can enhance that.
MT: To state the obvious, that's a bit of a different conversation than you'll have with the rookies?
MT: Going from skill to skill, you have one of the league's most crafty bigs ever in Pau Gasol. What stands out about the Spaniard from a development standpoint?
Handy: Pau has every tool in the book. He has every one you can think of. He has jump hooks, he has runners, he has floaters, spin offs, face ups, range on his jumper - so many different things. The biggest thing that (assistant coach) Darvin Ham and I do with him is try to get him to sit down in the post. He's such a vertical player, with such skill, that holding his position on the block when he gets smaller guys on him is an emphasis for us. His length can be a huge advantage if he sits in down there on the block.
MT: How much do you think comes naturally to Gasol?
Handy: He's definitely a worker, but a lot of it does come naturally. In some of my sessions with him, I can just see how quickly he picks things up. He has great feet, great hands and a great feel for the game. Also, he's a great passer, a great facilitator, that I call him a 7-foot 2 guard that can play on the block.
MT: And that facilitating has been good for Andrew Bynum's game. You've told me it strikes you that for how big Bynum really is, that he's so naturally skilled as well.
Handy: No question. He's even a better shooter than you'd think, and like Pau, he has really good hands and feet. He's very skilled on the block, and if you don't double him, you're going to have problems. He can shoot a prolific jump hook with either hand and go off either shoulder, and that's not something you see from many big men in this league.
MT: On the other hand, is the next step for him really figuring out how to pass out of double-teams effectively? That's been tough at times for him this season.
Handy: Yes, and the coaches are working on that with him frequently, and he's getting better. Darvin has spent a lot of time with him, and I do as well, where we try and set up simulations. In a 1-on-1 work out, you can have someone pass to him and help him simulate learning how to get away from the double, how to see over it, how to anticipate it and just get used to the whole concept. Even if you don't have any contact, just him going through the motion of catching on the block, looking over his shoulder, taking a dribble away from the rim when the double comes so he can pass out and repost, getting used to that action is key.
MT: This makes me think of soccer or hockey, because the best players can anticipate where the next pass needs to go, or where the ball needs to travel by dribble/skating, before it happens. Is there a fair parallel there between anticipating where the double comes from and how to beat it?
Handy: Sure. That's basketball too from every position. You should be able to see two to three plays ahead. Or football as the quarterback drops back and looks at the coverages. Andrew should already know where the double is coming from before the catch. But sometimes it's harder than it looks, especially if a guy isn't used to doing it. That is similar to getting reps and shooting jump shots; it just takes practice. Some guys do have a natural ability to look ahead of plays and some really struggle with it.
MT: How fluid are your work out plans with guys?
Handy: It's generally a combination of several things that I tailor to specific players. For example, with guards, I like to do a lot of ball handling, sometimes with two balls to make sure they're equally balanced with both. I like to help them with their hand speed, so there are a lot of fast-moving drills I'll have guards do in a short space, working on their base, keeping their chest up. And again, everything requires good footwork, so there are so many drills I have in my head.
MT: I'd imagine you also have to change your workouts on a daily basis if, for example, a guy like Goudelock goes from playing backup point to backup shooting guard as he did when Steve Blake returned?
Handy: Right, it changes on a daily basis. And for him, I'm looking for the loosening up on the handle, because as teams start to scout him they are going to try and take away the things he does well. Before that can happen, we want to add something else. If they take away one thing, you already have developed a counter.
MT: I know that Metta World Peace works out and practices a ton, but has at times struggled with inconsistency in that practicing. What is the challenge presented there?
Handy: The first thing was that he came in out of shape, which he'd tell you himself, but yes, the second thing is he takes a lot of off-balance shots. Having said that,I feel like we've made progress in the last couple of workouts. I'm working to gain his trust so that he buys into it, so he knows that if he listens to me, he will become more efficient. I like to get on the floor and play with guys, beat them up, work with them, and with Metta it's been not just about balance but also how to really use his body to take advantage of the smaller guys that are guarding him. He has not been fully taking advantage of that, and that's because he's not balanced. It's the same way when he's shooting threes, where he's not balanced or is hesitating. So I try to do drills with him where I take all of the thinking out, where it's rapid fire and he only needs to get his feet ready, catch and shoot and follow through. He's been receptive, and I hope we can continue. It's about simplification and removing bad habits so he can get back to being the player he was.
MT: Generally, how do you decide whom you're going to work with and when?
Handy: This season has been crazy. It's my first chance to be a player development coach on a team, and I'm learning as I go, but first of all I have the young guys come in early every morning. Morris and Goudelock are here 30 minutes before report time for extra work. Then I'll try and pick two other guys on any given day to come in a bit early, and we'll get 15 minutes of work in. Pau was in yesterday. My goal is to see everyone once a week at least, but with the way the schedule has been, it's been a scramble at times.
MT: I've seen 37-year-old Derek Fisher working out with you quite often - he doesn't seem to ever take a break.
Handy: He's a monster. That dude takes great care of his body. He is somebody I tell young guys all the time to just watch what he does. Start doing what he does now. There's so much information to soak up around here just by watching what guys do and don't do. It's a good education.
MT: If someone doesn't show up, I'm guessing that player wouldn't want to see Mike Brown?
Handy: Mike's been great, and he's given me free reign as long as what I'm doing helps our guys get better. He's asked me several times if I've had any problems getting guys into the gym, but I haven't had one, with anybody. The players have been great.