How appreciative is Earl Watson of all of his former head coaches? If you ask him, he might keep you all night long going through his list of coaches, calling his experiences “basketball heaven.” It began with John Wooden at UCLA and in one way or another includes the likes of Jerry West, Hubie Brown, George Karl and Frank Vogel among others.
The Phoenix Suns head coach played 13 years in the NBA with stops in Seattle, Memphis, Denver, Oklahoma City, Indiana, Utah and Portland. During his time in the league, he’s played for some of the most accomplished head coaches to have walked the sidelines. As he begins his first full season as head coach with the Suns, it’ll be those coaches that he draws inspiration from.
Perhaps his biggest mentor was Brown from his time with the Grizzlies. Watson played under Brown from 2002 to 2005 and admitted that he didn’t know much about Brown once he was hired as the Grizzlies’ head coach. In fact, Watson recalled that he just knew him as the analyst from TNT.
“He walks into a meeting when he’s introduced, and he tells us we’re all losers,” Watson said of his first meeting with Brown. “He’s going to teach us how to win, and [he dropped] a lot of F-bombs in the middle of all that. So, this moment I thought he’s the meanest guy I’ve ever met in my life. Coach Brown is my biggest mentor.
“I talked to him last night for like an hour. I love him and his family. What he’s done for me as a man has changed my life. It’s made me a better father, it’s made me a better person [and] it made me just take responsibility of my own acts, which led to a better player and gave me an identity as a person.”
Had it not been for the Seattle SuperSonics dragging their feet on offering Watson a new contract, he might not have met his biggest mentor. Watson became a free agent following his rookie season with the SuperSonics and was waiting on a new contract offer. When the team delayed their offer to Watson, he jumped at the next opportunity.
“I remember going into [my agent’s] office and Jerry West had walked in,” Watson recalled. “It was the free agency period and I hadn’t received an offer yet from Seattle. Jerry West talks about how he’s the new GM of Memphis. He goes, ‘Do you want to come?’ I said, ‘Absolutely.’ I can’t even tell you what Seattle offered; I didn’t care. ‘Cause to me, the money didn’t matter. What mattered to me most was I wanted to get the knowledge of a champion.”
As players progress through their career, it becomes evident that some would make for better coaches than others. It appeared as though Watson fit that mold the more he played in the league. He became known as a great teammate in the locker room during his various stops and possessed a very high basketball IQ.
Toward the latter half of his career, it seemed likely that he had his post-playing career mapped out. Some players opt to enter the broadcasting field while others stay in the game in one way or another. It wasn’t until he had his exit interview with the Pacers in 2010 that he started to realize he could become a coach.
“Larry Bird, Jim O’Brien, Dr. Jack Ramsey and David Morway sat me down in my exit meeting and asked me did I want to join the staff,” Watson said. “I was so confused. I was like, ‘The staff of what?’ He was like, ‘To coach, the front office.’ So I was like, ‘No, I’m only 29.’ I wanted to continue to play. So I left there, and when Larry Bird tells you, you can be a coach, you just believe it as a kid. You just believe whatever he tells [you]. If he told me I was gonna be a pilot, I’d probably be working at Southwest Airlines right now flying planes.”
Following his final season in the league with the Blazers, Watson knew it was time to move on from playing. He began receiving calls from various teams with offers to join their coaching staffs. He received a call from former San Antonio Spurs assistant general manager Scott Layden that kicked off his coaching career.
“Scott calls me and I go, ‘Scottie, what’s up?’” Watson remembered. “He goes, ‘We have a spot for you, but it’s in the D-League, do you want to humble yourself?’ I said, ‘When’s the interview?’ So, that’s how I ended up in San Antonio. [General Manager] R.C. Buford and Pop, I tell them all the time, they’re like my coaches, my first coaching opportunity, they mentored me.”
Watson would spend just one season with the Austin Spurs before joining the Suns’ organization. He was an attractive option for the Suns at the time because they were trying to recruit free agent LaMarcus Aldridge to sign with the Suns. Aldridge, of course, signed with the Spurs, but it was a decision that Aldridge later said was close between the two teams.
Following a disastrous start to the 2015-16 season, the Suns let go of head coach Jeff Hornacek and named Watson the interim head coach. While the Suns finished just 9-24 under Watson to finish out the season, it became clear that the players began to buy into his system. He managed to keep his players engaged even during the rough times and the team rewarded him this summer by naming him the permanent head coach.
“I operated as if I had to teach them the right way to play no matter who was there next year – me or someone else,” Watson said. “I owed that to them. All the coaches I’ve played for, they’ve given me an amazing opportunity to learn and to retain knowledge to further my career. I feel like the ultimate sin of any coach is not tell the truth, and not teach, and not hold players accountable. So for me, I was just taking it day by day, staying in the moment. Whatever happened I knew I would leave it to my destiny so there was no pressure, no issues.”
Watson learned from all of his previous head coaches to keep things simple. Things at the NBA level can be complicated and can confuse players so Watson wants to keep things as simple as possible. Young head coaches want to come into the league and try to teach everything to players. Watson learned from the likes of Jerry Sloan, Wooden, West and Brown to preach the fundamentals and keep it light.
He learned over the years to also keep the practices light. He said a lot of young coaches feel that practices need to be long. He remembers practices under Brown in Memphis would last less than an hour long. Scrimmages never occurred, either. By keeping practices short and eliminating scrimmages, players are more likely to take it upon themselves to stay in the gym and get extra work in.
As Watson runs down his list of head coaches that he’s worked with to reporters in Orlando last night, he begins to wrap up what has become an 11-minute pre-game media availability. He revealed that Gregg Popovich called him prior to the season to offer him some words of encouragement as he began his first full season as head coach.
“[He] told me, ‘Keep it short, be efficient, don’t practice too long [and] don’t wear the guys out,’” Watson said. “I get all this information, I’m just very blessed to have all these people come into my life, and that’s when I knew I had to be a coach. … It’s a long story.”
If Watson feels a longer-than-normal media availability doesn’t tell the whole story of his journey to becoming a head coach, perhaps he can explain it on the team’s five-hour plane ride back to Phoenix. Even then, that still may not be enough time.
NBA Daily: Shamet Comfortable With Steady Self Going Into Draft
With a natural feel for the game, Wichita State guard Landry Shamet has more than enough of a chance to carve his own path of success in the NBA.
No matter what professional field a person wants to work in, there are multiple ways to show why they belong.
A positive attitude is everything, confidence goes a long way and honesty truly is the best policy.
Speaking with Wichita State product Landry Shamet this past week at the NBA Combine in Chicago, it’s clear that he has all three boxes checked off.
“It’s been great,” Shamet said of the event. “Just trying to absorb everything, soak everything up. It’s a big learning experience for sure. A lot of knowledge to be attained (at the Combine). With interviews and playing on the court, being coached by NBA guys, it’s been cool so far.”
During his three years with the Shockers, the 6-foot-4, 188-pound guard accomplished quite a few feats, but his junior season was arguably the most spectacular. Not only did Shamet lead his team in multiple ways, but he also topped out in four statistical categories in the American Athletic Conference—the school’s first year there after moving on from the Missouri Valley.
Shamet’s 166 assists (5.2 per game average) were the most in the AAC by far. In addition, his true shooting percentage (65.5) and three-point percentage (44.2) ranked number one among his peers.
From entering the program in 2015 to now, he feels that he’s grown dramatically as a player—but in what areas, specifically?
“I would say being a point guard honestly,” Shamet said. “I was recruited in as a two. But just kinda that leadership role, that accountability. Knowing that you’re gonna get a lot of scrutiny (after) a loss and you’re gonna be responsible for a win. Regardless of how the game goes, it’s your responsibility.”
Much of his development at Wichita State was courtesy of a hands-on approach with Gregg Marshall, one of the most revered head coaches in college basketball. Thanks to his guidance, Shamet feels ready, even aspects outside of his offensive ability.
“On the defensive end, I feel comfortable with my positioning,” Shamet said. “Obviously, need to get better. You can always get better on the defensive end. That’s one thing I’ve been focusing on. Trying to get more athletic. Just be better defensively. He gave me the groundwork for sure. 100 percent.”
Shamet has kept in touch with Marshall throughout the entire pre-draft process. He was told to be “smile and relax” in interviews and to be confident, which he’s certainly followed through with.
A similar message has come from Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet, two former Shockers who have each made their mark at the professional level.
“Just be yourself, you know,” Shamet said of VanVleet’s pointers. “That’s really what it boils down to I think. He’s been great to have him in my corner—a guy like that who’s been through a lot of adversity on his way to the NBA, so I’m gonna listen to him 10 times out of 10.”
VanVleet’s career is already taking off with the Toronto Raptors as a part of their young and hungry bench. But with four more inches of height and a similar feel for the game, Shamet has more than enough of a chance to carve his own path of success in the NBA.
And it won’t require flash or making a daily highlight-reel to do so.
“I’d like to just say versatile,” Shamet said of his game. “Just try to stay solid. I don’t ever try to make spectacular plays all the time. Try to just do what I feel I can do—play multiple positions, both positions, on or off the ball. I’m comfortable at either spot, honestly. Whether it’s facilitating, scoring, whatever the case may be.
“I feel like I have a high IQ as well. Just a cerebral player. Not gonna ‘wow’ you with crossing people up and doing things that a lot of the guys in the limelight do all the time. But I feel like I’m a solid player. Pretty steady across the board.”
However, just because he rarely shows off on the court doesn’t mean he doesn’t have the ability to do it.
“I feel like I’m a little more athletic than I might get credit for,” Shamet said. “I think I’m a better athlete than I get credit for.”
Shamet is projected to go anywhere from the middle-to-late first round of the draft in June. Whoever lands the Kansas City native will be getting a tireless worker who does things the right way and is all about the team.
But for now, he’s soaking in everything he possibly can before that night comes.
“I don’t have all the answers,” Shamet candidly said. “I’m a 21-year-old kid, man I guess. So just trying to learn as much as I can, gain some knowledge, get good feedback—because at the end of the day, I’m not a perfect player. I know that.”
The Lakers Have Finally Stabilized
After a tough five-year period filled with loss and disappointment, the Lakers have finally put themselves back in a position to succeed.
On paper, missing the playoffs for the fifth year in a row would rarely be considered impressive, but for the Los Angeles Lakers, a team that’s suffered pretty much nothing but misery over the last half-decade, this season was a sign of progress.
Leading up to this past season, the previous four years overall were anything but easy on the Lakers. Besides consistently being one of the worst teams in the league, some of the team’s high lottery picks, such as D’Angelo Russell, did not pan out as well as they had hoped, and management baffled the fanbase when they signed both Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov to approximately $140 million combined over four years.
This season, things finally took a turn for the better. The team’s youngest players, particularly Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Julius Randle and Lonzo Ball, started to yield positive results. The team’s new acquisitions, specifically Brook Lopez, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and briefly Isaiah Thomas, made a notable impact on the season. Second-year head coach Luke Walton proved himself to be up for the job with improved personnel at his arsenal. That may have led to only 35 wins, but compared to the previous four seasons’ final results, 35 wins is about as good as the Lakers could have hoped for.
And it should only get better from here. The biggest positive is that the team’s long-term outlook is now the brightest its been since Dwight Howard skipped town in 2013. Their impending return to the glory days is still up in the air, but the Lakers can finally look forward to a promising future for two reasons.
When the Lakers replaced Mitch Kupchak with Rob Pelinka and Magic Johnson to run the team, the two of them went to work right away. Pelinka and Johnson knew that if the Lakers were going to attain relevance again, they had to undo the franchise’s previous mistakes, even if it meant getting rid of some of their young talent.
It’s as the old saying goes, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs.”
Making said omelet started with getting rid of their albatross contracts. The Lakers found a taker for Mozgov when they traded him to Brooklyn for Brook Lopez’s expiring deal, but that deal also required trading Russell. Mid-season, the Lakers found a taker for Jordan Clarkson when they traded him to Cleveland, but that deal also required trading Larry Nance Jr.
Losing Russell and Nance Jr, and to some degree Clarkson, may have been tough cheese to swallow, but with Mozgov and Clarkson off the payroll, the Lakers have a ton of cap space at their disposal. In fact, this summer, the Lakers have only $34.5 million in guaranteed contracts, which will be the lowest payroll in entire NBA. This is a much bigger deal now that it’s been in the past for one simple reason: Hardly any teams will have cap room this summer.
The NBA salary cap’s drastic rise in 2016 caused many teams to overshoot their mark over the past two off-seasons. Because of that, quite a few teams will be paying the luxury tax while others will do everything in their power to avoid the luxury tax. This means that only a select few teams will have cap room to add a free agent on a max deal. The Lakers, on the other hand, have the cap room to add two.
Their situation only gets better given the competition in free agency. Most of the other teams that have cap room are in rebuilding mode, so the Lakers shouldn’t expect many competitors in their chase for marquee free agents ie LeBron James and Paul George this summer. The only other team that will be competing for their services with available cap space is Philadelphia, who only has $44 million on payroll this summer. Houston will also be in the race, but they will have to get creative if they hope to add a max free agent this summer plus keep Chris Paul AND Clint Capela.
Even if the Lakers whiff on LeBron and George, it isn’t the end of the world. They can afford to re-sign Thomas and/or Caldwell-Pope to one-year deals worth over $10 million because hardly anyone else can do the same. Even if absolutely nothing goes their way this summer, they’ll have flexibility again next season. While having cap space does not automatically mean free agents will come to the Lakers’ door next season, it’s better to have money available to offer than having to spend it on Clarkson and Mozgov.
Promising Youth Movement
Many knew the Lakers’ young core was nothing to sneeze at, but for the first time since they’ve started their rebuild in 2013, their youth movement’s talent finally translated into wins. They didn’t do it all on their own, but nothing makes a team’s future brighter than their young players starting to reach their potential.
That starts with Brandon Ingram. Ingram was the textbook example of raw his rookie season, but his sophomore year, he started living up to his billing as the second overall pick in his draft. Across the board, he improved his numbers, but his shining moment came when the Lakers turned to him to run the point with Lonzo Ball out in late-January. During that stretch, the Duke alum averaged 18.4 points on 52 percent shooting including 46 percent from three, 5.4 assists, and 5.5 rebounds. Ingram struggled mightily with injuries after that, but his vast improvement should be very beneficial in the long run.
Then there was the biggest surprise of the season: Kyle Kuzma. When the deal was first agreed to, Kuzma was originally a throw-in when the Lakers traded Mozgov and Russell for Lopez, but knowing Brooklyn’s luck, Kuzma may wind up being the best player in this deal. Kuzma wowed the fans at the Staples Center, as he averaged 16.1 points and 6.3 rebounds while shooting 45 percent from the field. Since Kuzma is only 22 years old, there’s no telling what his ceiling might be.
Then there’s the first lottery pick the Lakers drafted in their rebuild: Julius Randle. Randle got himself in the best shape of his life in preparation for this season, and it paid off on the court. Randle averaged career-highs in both point average (16.1) and field goal percentage (58 percent), but his best stretch came in February through March. In that time, Randle averaged 21.2 points on 57.6 percent shooting, 9.5 rebounds, and 3.3 assists. Randle is a restricted free agent this year, but with the lack of available money this summer, his best option may be to stay in LA.
Finally, the biggest wild card of the Lakers’ young talent: Lonzo Ball. Ball was both injury-riddled and inconsistent his rookie year, but he showed flashes every now and again of the player his humble father said he would be. While he had his issues putting the ball in the bucket, Ball’s much-hyped passing translated in the NBA, averaging 7.2 assists a game, and his rebounding was terrific given his size, as he averaged 6.9 rebounds a game. The jury is still out on Ball, but he should be given a full season before anyone comes to judgment.
In short, the Lakers’ cap flexibility and promising youth movement give them stability that not many believed they would have had at the end of last season. Inadequacy and incompetence have plagued the Lakeshow for the past several years, but now that they’ve brought the right people aboard, they are now pointed in the right direction.
NBA Daily: Meet Chimezie Metu, A Versatile Big Man
Chimezie Metu could end up being one of the steals of this year’s draft.
Each year when it comes to the NBA draft, there always seems to a few players flying under the radar a bit. Players who are underrated or overlooked for whatever reason. This year, one of those players is Chimezie Metu from the University of Southern California.
In early mock drafts, Metu was projected to go anywhere from mid to late first-round. In some of the more recent mocks, he’s fallen out of the first-round altogether and into the second-round. If those projections hold and he does end up being selected in the second-round, then some team is going to get a huge steal.
Metu is a versatile big man who impacts both ends of the floor. He is an agile shot blocker who can control the paint defensively, and on the other end, he can score in the post while being able to step out and knock down mid-range jump shots. He is confident in what he’ll be able to bring to an NBA team.
“I think being versatile and being able to make an impact on defense right away,” Metu told reporters at the NBA Draft Combine this past week. “Being able to switch on to smaller players or guard the post, and just being able to knock down shots or make plays when I’m called upon.”
In his three years at USC, Metu blossomed into one of the best players in the Pac-12 conference. This past season, he led a solid Trojans team in scoring with 15.7 points per game on 52.3 percent shooting. He also led the team in rebounding with 7.4 per game and had a team-high 59 blocked shots.
He’s taken note of some of the best big men in the NBA, some of whom he’s tried to model his game after. He told reporters at the combine that some of his biggest influences are Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns and Joel Embiid. He knows that there may be misconceptions about his game, or those that doubt him, but he isn’t worried about that at all.
“I don’t really worry about what other people are saying about myself. I just go out there and play hard, and try to help my team win games,” Metu said. “My strength is being versatile, being able to impact the game in multiple ways. Not being one dimensional and being able to have fingerprints on different parts of the game.”
It’s been busy past few days for Metu. He’s had 13 interviews with NBA teams to go along with workouts, medical testing and media availability. Although it’s been a hectic time, part of what has made it so worthwhile is all of the NBA personnel he’s been able to interact with. What really has stood out to him being at the combine is the difference between college and the NBA.
“I can just go up to the owners and the GMs and just talk to them,” Metu said. “Coming from college you basically have to act like they’re not there, cause of the rules and stuff. Just the fact that they can come up and talk to you, you can talk to them, that’s probably the most surprising part for me.”
Aside from all the front office personnel he’s interacted with, Metu has also had the opportunity to meet with some of the most respected names in NBA history. Among the former players who he’s had a chance to meet with, Magic Johnson and Bob McAdoo have definitely stood out to him.
While he’s grateful just to have been able to meet NBA royalty, he’s used it as an opportunity to pick their brains. He’s also been able to showcase his game in front of them. He is confident that he’s been able to impress them and hopefully make an impact on their decisions come draft night.
“Just coming out here and having fun, there’s a lot of basketball royalty,” Metu said. “Being able to get a chance to shake their hands, being able to take stuff from them and what helped them become great. I’m just trying to take their advice. It feels great because never in a million years did I think I’d be here. It’s fun just going out there and showing what I can do.”