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NBA Thursday: How Earl Watson Became a Head Coach

Earl Watson explains how he became a coach and who influenced him the most.

Cody Taylor

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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.

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.

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PODCAST: Lonzo’s Shot, How To Cut Luol Deng and More

Basketball Insiders

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Basketball Insiders publisher Steve Kyler and Senior NBA writer and salary cap guru Eric Pincus talk about Lonzo Ball and the unreasonable expectations some have had about his rookie campaign, what the Lakers could do with Luol Deng, teams that have cap exceptions and could likely use them, which teams are for real and more.

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Johnson Is Leading By Example In Philadelphia

Amir Johnson may not be a star player, but his impact on the locker room is a constant in Philadelphia.

Dennis Chambers

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After every home win, the Philadelphia 76ers have a miniature liberty bell in their locker room that gets rung by a selected player, usually the who had the biggest impact on the game.

On Monday night, Amir Johnson got to the ring the bell after the Sixers beat the Utah Jazz 107-86 to secure their ninth win of the season. Johnson turned in his best performance since joining Philadelphia this offseason, with eight points, 13 rebounds and four blocks in 21 minutes of playing time as Joel Embiid’s substitute.

Up until about 45 minutes before the 7 p.m. tipoff, Embiid’s status was unclear due to knee soreness. Johnson would’ve been tasked with the starting role had his teammate been unable to perform. Instead, he fulfilled his backup role to perfection, which has been the status quo for Johnson so far this season.

When the Sixers signed Johnson to a one-year $11 million deal in July, it was for the purpose of shaping a young roster with some veteran leadership. Management wanted to ensure there would be a professional in the locker room to help navigate the likes of Embiid and Ben Simmons through a full NBA season, with hopes of making it to the playoffs.

“When we looked to build our roster and sort of identify people we started talking about Amir Johnson,” Brett Brown said. “And Bryan was way more familiar with Amir — this is to Bryan’s credit — than I was, because of his Toronto background. And I started digging in and calling his teammates. I’ve been in the league for a long time, so you follow him, and you speak to people like Evan Turner. You know, tell me about Amir when you were in Boston and so on.”

While Brown was doing his research on Johnson, he came across an impressive level of continuity when it came to how others viewed the center.

“It’s amazing to a man how consistent the reviews were,” Brown said of Johnson. “People skills, work his butt off, could handle swinging a towel or coming in and making a difference. He’s a good person and he’s a pro. To be able to bring him in the game and now worry about is he happy, is he fresh, is he in shape, does he need 10 shots? It isn’t ever on my mind with Amir.”

The Sixers’ head coach seems honest in his assessment, and Johnson’s fluctuating level of productivity and use reflects that. Prior to his big night against Utah, Johnson logged a combined 21 minutes over the team’s previous four games — including two DNP’s, both coming against the Golden State Warriors.

Still, just barely over a month into this new season, the Sixers are trying to iron out the kinks in their lineup. With injuries to Richaun Holmes, Markelle Fultz, Jerryd Bayless and Justin Anderson over the course of the season so far, finding a set group of guys and defining their roles has been a tricky situation to maneuver.

Last season, Johnson started 77 games for the Boston Celtics during their campaign that ran all the way to the Eastern Conference finals. His one start in 14 games this season, with a cut in minutes per game, is a far cry from the level of use Johnson experienced just one year ago. But coming into this season, that was known. Johnson’s role would be to help guide his junior counterparts and chip in where he could.

So far, the deal is paying dividends on both ends.

“It’s huge for us,” Simmons said. “Having a guy come off the bench and play a role like that. As a vet, he’s one of the leaders. He comes in, plays hard, doesn’t ask for more minutes or anything like that. He’s a great player.”

In a game that featured the absence of Jazz star center Rudy Gobert, Johnson was able to make his presence more prevalent during his reserve minutes. Along with his four blocks, Johnson had a game-high 15 contested two-point shots. As a team, Utah shot just 35.3 percent from the field.

Backing up a superstar in the making in Embiid, Johnson has limited time to let it be known that he’s still around. That situation is magnified on nights that Holmes is seeing extended run as well. But in his 13th season in the league, Johnson knows a thing or two about finding ways to be effective and efficient.

“Finding my way on the floor, knowing the amount of time I have, just finding ways I can help my teammates,” Johnson said. “I watch a lot of film. Just for me to find open spots, set screens, and the biggest part that I can help this team out, is just play defense and grabbing rebounds.”

On the nights where Johnson doesn’t get his number called — a la games against the Warriors and other small-ball teams — the veteran just continues to do what he was brought in to do in the first place, lead by example.

“Just sticking to my routine,” Johnson said. “Being mentally prepared, getting my teammates ready, just being a professional, doing all kind of things to prepare for a game.”

After being around the come up in Boston, Johnson knows there are bigger things at stake for the Sixers than a few minutes here and there on the court. To him, winning is the only thing that matters.

“When you don’t play and you win, man it’s like and that’s all that matters,” Johnson said. “We’re here to try and do one goal, and that’s win games and make the playoffs, and go from there on.”

Whether he’s on the bench waving a towel, or on the court making a play, Johnson will continue to lead a young group of talented players by example, hopefully culminating in a trip to the playoffs.

“He is a legitimate pro, on and off the court,” Brown said. “He’s a wonderful teammate.”

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NBA PM: Marcus Morris’ Return Bolsters The Celtics

With the Boston Celtics riding high with a league-best 16-game win streak, the return of forward Marcus Morris has provided a lift.

Buddy Grizzard

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Boston Celtics GM Danny Ainge made a huge personnel gamble this summer that changed four starters from a roster that reached the Eastern Conference Finals. One of the less-heralded among the new starters — forward Marcus Morris, who arrived from the Pistons in a surprise trade for starting shooting guard Avery Bradley — has proven to be a key component in Boston’s early success.

After missing the first eight games of the season due to lingering knee soreness, Morris has scored in double figures in six of nine appearances. Following Saturday’s win over the Hawks in Atlanta — the 15th of the current 16-game win streak — Celtics coach Brad Stevens said Morris’ contributions have been vital, even as Stevens continues to monitor his minutes.

“We need Marcus quite a bit,” said Stevens. “We’re still managing his minutes appropriately as he comes back. Hopefully, that continues to be more and more and more.”

Morris was plus-18 against the Hawks, 10 points better than any other starter, despite being the only starter with single-digit shot attempts. Stevens added that Morris’ offense has been a boost despite few plays being run for him.

“He brings us scoring, he brings us defense [and] he brings us toughness,” said Stevens. “I think we really need his scoring, like his ability to shoot the ball both off broken plays and off movement.”

Morris’ emergence as an offensive threat was noted in the offseason by an Eastern Conference forward in an anonymously-sourced piece on underrated players by HoopsHype’s Alex Kennedy.

“I think Marcus Morris is really underrated,” the forward told Kennedy. “He can play multiple positions and he went from being a role player to someone who scores the ball really well. When other players have made that leap, they got more attention. Take Chandler Parsons, for example. When Chandler made big strides, he got a ton of attention and a huge contract. Marcus hasn’t gotten the recognition or the payday that he deserves.”

While some questioned the wisdom of trading Bradley, a starter for a team that had a lot of success and remained on the rise, Celtics center Al Horford — the sole remaining starter from last season — said he was looking forward to playing with Morris once the trade was announced.

“He’s one of the guys that really excited me once we got him this offseason, just because of everything he’s going to be able to bring,” said Horford. “I don’t think he’s at his best yet. He’s doing okay. But he’s just going to keep getting better. So that’s a good thing for us.”

With the knee injury that lingered after the start of the season, Horford said the team is still getting accustomed to the diverse set of tools Morris brings to the court.

“Marcus is great,” said Horford. “Defensively, his presence is felt. On offense I think he’s finally starting to get into a rhythm. He’s getting more comfortable [and] we’re getting more comfortable with him. It’s a matter of time.”

While Stevens and Horford both feel that we haven’t seen Morris at his best, his return to action was timely as it bolstered the lineup during the current win streak. Horford, who was part of a 19-game win streak for the Hawks during the 2014-15 season, was asked how Boston is approaching its current prosperity. Horford said that, like his former Hawks team, the Celtics are avoiding the subject in the locker room.

“We’re not honestly really talking about it much,” said Horford. “That winning streak here was pretty special. We were playing at a high level. We didn’t talk about it here either and we’re taking that type of approach. We’re just playing and enjoying the game out there.”

With Boston carrying the current streak into a Wednesday visit to Miami, Ainge’s surprising trade for Marcus Morris is looking more and more prescient. If his best is yet to come, as his coach and teammates maintain, the recognition that has elluded Morris could be just around the corner.

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