About midway through the Phoenix Suns’ season, Monty Williams passed screwdrivers out to his players.
“We’re all like, ‘What is this?’” veteran forward Jae Crowder recently recalled. “We’re all holding screwdrivers. He’s like, ‘We’ve got to continue to tighten the screws,’ and that just stuck with me.”
And with the help of that physical representation, the latest Monty Mantra was born.
That saying has returned to the forefront of Crowder’s mind as the 51-21 Suns prepare for the first round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs, which begin this weekend at Phoenix Suns Arena. Providing actual screwdrivers, Williams acknowledges, was an unorthodox tactic designed to grab players’ attention. But the “tighten the screws” concept can be practically applied to game-plan discipline, offensive spacing, understanding the opponent’s personnel and virtually any on-court or off-court habit.
“Every team goes through segments of the season where things get a bit loose, from time to time,” Williams said. “ … I’m one of many coaches that are saying the same thing. It’s just time to tighten up, keep it tight and maintain that level of play.”But ask other Suns players to identify their favorite Williams motivational catchphrase, and they’ll share a variety of answers.For Devin Booker, “’Well done’ is better than ‘well said���” accurately describes his team’s mentality. For Cam Johnson, “It’s a ‘get to,’ not a ‘got to’” resonates daily.For Jevon Carter, “Reps remove doubt” confirms the value of his relentless work habits. There are enough “Montyisms” for Williams to write a compilation book — which Booker has publicly and privately suggested to his coach. Williams is reluctant to elaborate on the phrases’ origins, whether he created one himself, drew inspiration from a Founding Father or picked one up from others along his journey as a player and coach. Even while repeating them to players, Johnson said, Williams will preface by acknowledging some might call them “corny” or “goofy” or “coach speak.”Yet Johnson says those mantras are “big-time anchors” that have kept the Suns emotionally centered during the franchise’s emphatic rise to the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. They create personal connections with players by instilling belief and relaying constructive advice. They provide reminders that resurface in the head and heart when one least expects it, and can apply to both basketball and life.“When you’re dealing with coaching athlete,” Johnson said, “you can be too soft and too nice, or you can be too hard and too cold. I think those sayings are a good way of continuing the positive energy without there being any kind of coldness to it.“My favorite thing about playing for Coach Monty is that he makes you want to play for him. I feel bad when I do something wrong, not because I did something wrong, but because I disappointed coach.”A frontrunner for NBA Coach of the Year after earning the Coaches’ Association’s award earlier this week, Williams’ immense impact on these Suns is woven throughout these mantras, and how they resonate with his players.“All these different types of stuff he (says) on a daily basis now,” All-Star point guard Chris Paul said, “(those are) signs of somebody who’s not just coaching. They’re teaching.”
Everything you want is on the other side of hard
This would be the title of Williams’ hypothetical book, Booker said. It’s the first phrase the two-time All-Star remembers Williams introducing early in training camp last season — and the one that perhaps most resonates with people from all walks of life.After all, the first person Williams shared this saying with was himself — and it went deeper than basketball. “I had to get past hard, however badly,” Williams said on the Doug and Wolf radio show on Arizona Sports 98.7 back in October of 2019. “Getting past hard has been such a blessing for me, and that’s how it is. You can either be a quitter, a camper or a climber. I don’t want to quit, and I certainly don’t want to camp.“I want to continue to climb up the mountain of life and try to get everything that God has for me. I’m a man who has failed in many areas, but the one thing I don’t want to do is quit.” Pushing though the “hard” has had many applications during Williams’ first two seasons with the Suns.In 2019-20, “hard” included instilling new core values, enduring an eight-game losing skid, managing the uncertainty of a four-month NBA shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic and falling heartbreakingly short of the postseason even after ripping off an 8-0 record inside the NBA Bubble.The mantra has also been at the center of numerous conversations with players, including the coach’s first phone call with Cameron Payne to discuss joining the Suns before Orlando for a chance to revive his NBA career after spending much of the 2019-20 season playing in China and the G League.“He was like, ‘How bad do you want this?’” Payne said. “ … I told him I wanted it bad. And ever since then, we’ve been rockin’.”
Even this season’s franchise renaissance has included bouts with “hard.”“Hard” is fighting the human urge to be satisfied with wins with a commitment to consistency and improvement. It’s non-rotation players continuing put in the work without the promise of playing time. It’s learning how to mentally grind through a five-game road trip against five of the Eastern Conference’s top seven teams. It’s embracing suddenly becoming the hunted, especially when playing opponents intensely fighting for playoff positioning.“You’re not gonna find greatness on a beach,” Williams said. “You’re gonna find it in the struggle. For us to get to where we want to be, you have to deal with those kinds of games, those moments, the internal struggle of not knocking down shots that you’ve knocked down before and being able to bounce back.“I deal with it. Did I call the right plays? Did I give them enough rest the nights coming up toward that game? Those are hard things that you have to internalize. For us to be the team that I know we can be, we have to have mental stamina to bounce back, and we’ve shown that we can do that all season long.”Williams has passed this particular piece of wisdom on to more than his players. Paul recently recalled Williams sharing it with Paul’s son when he visited the Verizon 5G Performance Center a few weeks ago.“Mont’s always been a guy who says things that really make me think about it, and I love it,” Paul said. “… It’s stuff that you may not necessarily think about in the moment, but then you’ll get maybe a week later or something and you’re talking to somebody and you mess around and say it.”
Can't get happy on the farm
After dropping 43 points in a February win at Minnesota, Booker slipped this mantra into his postgame television interview.An outsider might have cocked their head in confusion. The phrase traces back to Williams’ country roots in colonial Virginia. And it’s another way to caution against complacency, that the Suns cannot “get bored with what works.” “You get happy on the farm because you win a few games, whatever the case may be,” Williams said. “We just can’t get bored with being efficient. We can’t get bored with getting stops. We’re not even close to being a great team. We’re trying to be consistent at being a good team.” During the Suns’ Bubble run, players began pairing the saying with the song “Too Comfortable” by Future, which repeats the lyric “Better not get too comfortable” throughout.This season, Phoenix has been one of the NBA’s steadiest teams. The Suns went two months without losing consecutive games, and finished the season with the league’s second-best record. “You just can’t ever feel like you made it,” Johnson said. “Not being happy on the farm is definitely a stay-hungry mentality. If you’re happy on the farm, well, your happiness is not gonna last long.”
I'm not calling you out, I'm calling you up
Though Williams’ expectations are high, this mantra helps establish a coaching style that is demanding but not demeaning. It also helps ease the human nature to take constructive criticism personally.“It indicates that he believes in you, one, and he thinks you can be capable of doing whatever it is that he wants you to do,” Johnson said. “He’s not mad at you as a person, and that’s always helpful.“At the end of the day, he just wants us to be the best version of ourselves and the best version of our team. Sometimes that requires a little bit more of him being stern and tough, but it’s for the best for everybody.”Williams got his first NBA glimpse at that approach during his rookie season in New York. Jeff Van Gundy, then an assistant under Pat Riley, was “all over me like a tight shirt,” Williams said. Yet Van Gundy was also the coach who would hand-write Williams a letter of encouragement.“Any time I see Jeff, I thank him, and he gets all embarrassed,” Williams said. “But it really meant a ton to me, because it really set the tone for how I viewed the league and it really helped me stay alive in the NBA.”Today, big man Deandre Ayton views Williams in a similar way.During their first summer together in 2019, Ayton came into the arena for treatment but did not check in with Williams before leaving. While driving home on the highway, Ayton got a call from his coach saying, “I’m gonna need you to turn back.”“Stuff like that is keeping me responsible,” Ayton recalled a couple months later. “ … He’s always on me. He don’t let the little things go by. He’s a guy who pays attention to detail. I wouldn’t say he’s strict, but he’s very disciplined.”These days, Ayton said Williams has still “been on my tail all season,” pushing him to turn those tantalizingly dominant flashes into consistent production. But that tough love has also led to constant conversations between the two men, late-night texts after games and check-ins about how they are doing outside of basketball.“The relationship I have with him I’ve had with no other coach in my life,” Ayton said. “ … There’s certain (kinds of) criticism where it kind of gets to you, but Monty’s not that type of coach. He’s a dude that really teaches you the game of basketball, on and off the court, and it’s an amazing thing to be a part of.”
This is a "get to," not a "got to"
Every NBA season is a grind. But the 2020-21 slate has been uniquely taxing, thanks to a condensed 72-game schedule along with stringent health and safety protocols while playing and traveling during the COVID-19 pandemic.
That’s why Johnson uses this saying as a regular reminder that basketball is something the Suns get to do, not something they’ve got to do. It’s an appropriate companion to the Suns’ “gratitude” core value (show up on time, defend, compete and share the ball are the others).“We get to be in the gym today. We get to practice. We get to work out. We get to have film. We get to play in the game,” Johnson said. “ … It’s easy to get caught up in a lot of things. It’s easy to get sort of worn down a little bit. But when you put it in the perspective of this is what everybody that’s in this league (and I have) been working for our whole lives, this is the apex of it, this is the best basketball league in the world, and it’s a complete blessing to be a part of it … It’s like a day-to-day reminder that this is fun.”
Added Payne, who was out of the NBA this time last year: “We ain’t got to put no suit on, work a 9-to-5 (job). We get to be in the gym doing something we love to do.”Williams said the players don’t always outwardly express that appreciation to him. But he regularly hears it second-hand from assistant coaches and other staffers who work with players daily. “We all have jobs and we all get to work in a facility like this,” Williams said. “We live in an unreal city like Phoenix. (We’ve) got a great fan base. All of us are relatively healthy. Those are things that I think you should stop and take stock of every so often, because there are so many people out here hurting all around the world, (and) in this community alone.“I want our guys to be grateful for what we get to do. It’s not a right. We get to play basketball. We get to be in the NBA, and we get to move our program in a good direction and have a chance to win big someday.”
Reps remove doubt
Carter was the final player to leave the arena following the Suns’ last game before the All-Star break. He still wanted to go through his postgame routine, meticulously moving around the 3-point arc to launch shot after shot.So it’s no surprise “reps remove doubt” most speaks to him.“If you make them in practice, why shouldn’t they fall in the game?” Carter said. “Go in there and get game-like reps in practice, just make it realistic. That way, when it comes in a game, it’s just second-nature.”Williams concocted this phrase while sitting in his home office during the offseason, as a way to continue inspiring players and staff to create championship habits and then trust that work during games. It was posted on screens throughout the Verizon 5G Performance Center during preseason workouts, and first uttered publicly by Williams ahead of training camp.“It was, like, how can you phrase that without making it seem like the everyday cliché usage of words that we all kind of fall into?” Williams said. “ … It applies to everything — your marriage, studying in school, basketball or football — when you get the work in, it removes the doubt. When you study as much as you need to for the test, it removes the doubt.“If we’re all honest, when we went to college, there were times where we didn’t cram and we didn’t study for a test that we thought we could pass, and they changed that one or two questions on that test, and there was a lot of doubt for us. … I know it happened to me.”Williams recently repeated the mantra during the Suns’ grueling five-game Eastern-Conference road trip in late April, when Mikal Bridges and Johnson struggled with their shot. Then, during the final stop at Madison Square Garden, Bridges scored 21 points on 8-of-12 from the floor and Johnson buried three 3-pointers in the fourth quarter in the comeback victory.“Big one, big one, big one,” Johnson said of that saying. “You trust your preparation.”
"Well done" is better than "well said"
When Williams joined his customary virtual media availability ahead of a Jan. 18 game at Memphis, he wore a black cap with “WD > WS” on the front. It was an abbreviated version of the famous Benjamin Franklin quote, which builds on the Suns’ culture of being a “work team.” The phrase was particularly poignant before the season, when expectations skyrocketed after the Suns traded for Paul.“We had a lot of things said about us,” Williams said. “My mindset was all the talk is cheap. We gotta go out and do it. … I just wanted to remind the players that action is really more important than words.”Those actions have spoken loudly throughout this resurgent season. Yet Williams will still occasionally beak the hat out from time to time, such as after a May 9 loss at the Lakers. It’s fair to suspect those instances are intentional, Johnson said.“He’s a smart guy,” Johnson said. “He knows what he’s doing.”The saying has also been directly applied in the heat of a games, with Williams reminding his players of instances when the opponent has talked publicly about the Suns as motivation to just play. “He has his ways of shooting his shots at us, and we all understand,” Payne said.
Early in Williams’ first season, plastic buckets appeared inside the Suns’ lockers. The task: Symbolically begin filling them with the right stuff.“It’s an accountability thing,” Johnson said. “Everything counts, positively and negatively. You slip up and you start doing things you’re not supposed to do, that counts. But if you continuously chip away and put in work and deposit work into your bucket, then it adds up over the course of a season, over the course of years.”That means every practice rep, every clip of film, every minute of sleep counts. So does every pass, every box out, every screen, every dive for a loose ball — especially when intensity and stakes heighten during the playoffs.And those small-yet-impactful moments might come and go in a blink. Take an overtime win at Milwaukee as an example, when Bridges hit the floor under the basket and non-rotation player Langston Galloway ran over from the bench to help him up so he could get back on defense.“He didn’t play tonight, but he certainly had an impact on the game,” Williams said of Galloway. “That’s who we are. We always have each other’s backs. … I don’t know what else you can say. For Langston to have that sense to go get (Bridges) up and kick his butt down the floor so he could go get back on defense was pretty cool.”