Where Are They Now: Nick Van Exel

Former Denver Nuggets point guard pursues coaching career in Atlanta
by Aaron Lopez

To this day, Nick Van Exel shakes his head at the reputation that preceded him.

Hot-headed, selfish, uncoachable.

“A lot of people have a lot of misconceptions about me,” the former Nuggets point guard said during a visit to Pepsi Center. “I’ve said it from Day 1: I was a different player on the court as I am in my real life. My emotions and competitive spirit came out when I was on the court.”

In truth, Van Exel was widely considered by his NBA coaches and teammates to be a smart, confident player with a lethal three-point shot and an ability to make young guys feel comfortable in the locker room.

“Nick was an unbelievable teammate,” said Ryan Bowen, who played with Van Exel in Denver from 1999-2002. “He was great to be around. He really helped me out my rookie year and was great at making me feel welcome.”

Van Exel, a second-round pick who played for six teams in 13 NBA seasons, is now using his basketball knowledge and leadership skills in his role as a player development instructor for the Atlanta Hawks. He just completed his second season with the Hawks following a stint as an assistant coach at Texas Southern University.

Ultimately, Van Exel would like to be an NBA head coach.

“You always want to move up the ladder,” he said. “I’m learning my craft right now. This is a new area for me, as far as coaching, so I’m just trying to get better.”

Atlanta coach Larry Drew said he often received strange looks when he brought up Van Exel’s name in conversations about coaching. He, too, has discovered that a person’s reputation is not always accurate.

“Most people think of Van Exel and they think of that arrogant guy that always walked around like he had a chip on his shoulder,” Drew said, “but he’s going to make a really, really good coach.”

During his days in Denver, Van Exel was a really, really good player. He averaged 17.7 points and 8.4 assists in four seasons; his 2,047 assists still rank fifth in franchise history, as do his 425 three-pointers.

Unfortunately, team success did not come as easy as the Nuggets were unable to reach the playoffs during Van Exel’s time in Denver. The memories, however, remain positive.

“I always said losing was kind of tough for me, but other than that, that city was great and the fans were great,” Van Exel said. “I tell people to this day that Denver has some of the best weather in the United States. Everybody thinks it’s cold and snowy but it’s beautiful.”

Van Exel said he still keeps in touch with former Nuggets teammates such as Antonio McDyess, James Posey and George McCloud. In Denver, he was able to cross paths with Bowen, who is the Nuggets’ video operations/player development coordinator.

“It didn’t surprise me Nick could be a coach because he knows the game so well,” Bowen said. “He was a true point guard directing everybody where to go. If guys weren’t in the right place, he would get upset with that. He was a very heady player out there. Coaching is an easy progression for him because he knows the game so well.”

At 40 years old, Van Exel can still play a little bit, too.

“He’s still got a little bit something in the tank,” Drew said.

Even though Van Exel can still knock down the three, teaching is now his most valuable contribution, and he takes the same no-nonsense approach to coaching as he did to playing.

In other words, when Nick speaks, players listen.

“I think the guys can respect a guy who’s played,” he said. “They always want to talk to me and pick my brain a little bit. That’s always a good feeling.”

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