Ime Udoka said the word relationship seven times during his introductory press conference as the 18th head coach in Celtics history, and he wasn’t talking about Nia Long. Brad Stevens, Wyc Grousbeck and Steve Pagluica welcomed Udoka, Long and their family to Boston on Monday.
Udoka touted his past work with Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart on Team USA in 2019, while hinting at a role working with Tatum on this summer’s Olympic roster. Udoka coached Al Horford with the 76ers and knows Payton Pritchard “from when he was a young kid in Portland.” Now, he’ll look to mix in a new brand of tough love from the sideline he believes Boston’s stars are craving.
“As I continue to mention the pillars, you got tough hard-nosed guys, I think a mix of veterans,” Udoka said. “Whether it’s bringing Al back, Marcus Smart, guys like that, the potential is there, it’s just a matter of being consistent. Like I said, I got swept in Philadelphia a year ago, and then we got (Boston) in five this year. We’ve seen both ends of the spectrum ... I keep going back to the personnel and the players. That’s what makes this (job) so attractive.”
Stevens and the Celtics hired Udoka away from Brooklyn’s bench, leading to quips from Grousbeck about the Nets’ seven-game loss to Milwaukee and Udoka, in turn, commenting on the Celtics’ low-ranked assist rate. Stevens said he interviewed the publicized names, Chauncey Billups and Darvin Ham, among others before Udoka separated himself as the coach with similarities and the key differences he desired as Boston’s new GM.
Udoka’s NBA playing career is the most notable of many, along with his extensive experience as an assistant coach in the league. He knows more people around the league and even the world having played in Spain and France than Stevens did coming directly from Butler, as evidenced by Boston’s reported hiring of former Spurs assistant Will Hardy, who also received strong prospects as a head coaching candidate in recent years and worked on Gregg Popovich’s 2019 World Cup staff.
Udoka’s bench will come into focus quickly, as many of Stevens’ former staff members see their contracts expire shortly. Jay Larranaga, Scott Morrison and other remaining Stevens assistants will stay or move on within the coming week. Udoka also hinted he’ll work with Tatum in Tokyo in some role with the Team USA staff of Popovich, Steve Kerr, Lloyd Pierce and Jay Wright.
“Tons of great candidates out there,” Udoka said of the assistant coaching search. “The benefit of being a journeyman and being with so many organizations, you meet a lot of people. I have a lot of relationships built around the league. The first thing I would say, a hands-on approach with the coaching staff, building relations, relatability and then getting out there and grinding with the guys. I’m looking for energy, juice in the building, a great environment to produce winning ... a little bit of mix, I don’t feel like I have to have a veteran staff as much as an energetic staff ... we’re kind of nailing that down as we speak.”
Horford, Grant Williams, Tacko Fall and others are in Boston working in the team’s facility in anticipation of Udoka’s arrival. For Williams and Fall, Udoka brings the experience of being one of the last players on the roster trying to find his place. He remembers Isiah Thomas pointing that attribute out about him when he played for the Knicks, predicting to Udoka that he’d be a coach one day.
Celtics stars will see a different side of Udoka, one that will push them beyond the accomplishments they’ve achieved so far to championship level. He noted there’s work to do, as he assumes a team that struggled with his patented emphasizes of ball movement and defense. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, Udoka said, are seen as future MVP candidates around the league and told him they want to receive hard coaching.
“It’s all relationship-based, you’ve got to build that foundation off the court somewhat,” Udoka said. “You can’t coach everybody the same way, what motivates others might embarrass others, and so you find that balance there. It comes down to trust, respect and being in alignment with our goals. I think the players, it comes down to their character ultimately also, the way they want to be pushed and taking constructive criticism, I think we have a group that’s done that so far the times I’ve been with them ... they’re looking forward to that.”
Udoka predicted the team will take on a hard-nosed mentality that reflected his playing style; the Celtics will play well-rounded, moving the ball on offense and has a defense-first mentality. He led the 76ers defensive units and got to work on both sides of the ball with the Spurs. He’ll look to bring out intensity on the team and noted Robert Williams III, Payton Pritchard, Romeo Langford and Aaron Nesmith have potential that needs to come out on the court.
Stevens, looking back on the hiring process, found it impressive that Udoka separated himself from a wide array of overlooked assistants pushing for head coaching jobs.
“He has a great basketball acumen,” Stevens said. “He’s got a great understanding, but to me that’s something a lot of people have. It’s his authenticity, his ability to be tough, yet very warm and just his experience, not only the experience of playing, but being 8-15 on the roster a lot and then being in San Antonio for all those years, and then I think the last two years being able to see two totally different things up close in Philly and Brooklyn is a great, great thing.”