Ime Udoka came into contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 and contracted the virus himself, testing positive 10 days ago before he entered isolation. The new Celtics head coach is asymptomatic, save for a headache early on, and hopes to join the team for the first day of training camp. Udoka’s case marked a rare breakthrough case, as he received the vaccine, which New York found accounted for 0.7% of new COVID cases in the state.
Once Udoka returns, he’ll have a fully healthy active roster to begin his first season as a head coach in the NBA. He shared his philosophies with the media virtually, continuing to stress ball movement, unselfishness play and bringing a relatable staff to the team. Boston finalized its coaching staff last week with an array of former Gregg Popovich protégés and Portland natives like Will Hardy, Damon Stoudamire and and Ben Sullivan.
“I’m feeling normal,” Udoka said. “As normal as I can ... hoping to get back tomorrow. In general, it’s been a little bit of a whirlwind summer being gone a lot, obviously to the Olympics for a while and then this happening within the last 10 or so days. Really relied on the staff and our previous relationship to hit the ground running ... reached out to the guys individually, one-on-one, and let them know the situation and looking forward to starting tomorrow. I think it’ll be a seamless transition.”
Players and coaches remained in constant communication through text, video and calls, Udoka’s old school, preferred methods over social media. Grant Williams said the staff’s constant presence at the arena sticks out, always present for workouts and when someone needs something. The staff had just finished implementing their system together, starting with a coach’s retreat one month ago.
The system and lineups came into focus, as Udoka foresees Boston being able to play big and downsize, making use of extra wings like Josh Richardson while playing Al Horford and Robert Williams III together other times. The Celtics will experiment throughout training camp and the preseason.
“We have a lot of different directions we can go in, a lot of versatility within our lineups and the players we’ve added” Udoka said. “You look at both starting as well as the bench coming in, and the balance we want to have there. We can play big, small, faster, slower. We have a big team overall in general and it depends on who we start at the four spot for the most start ... bringing in great veterans, Dennis and Josh, obviously gives us depth off the bench, but we also want to see our young guys take steps and growth ... overall balance, so we have some punch off the bench.”
After the coach retreat, Udoka saw most of the Celtics filter in around Labor Day, some leaving for personal obligations and others staying throughout up to camp to get into shape. The staff wanted players to take over the gym and get familiar with each other. Schröder arrived with his family several days ago. Richardson has been exploring the city for some time.
Udoka coached Richardson and Al Horford in Philadelphia, who he’ll need to utilize in similar confines next to a budding young center in Robert Williams III and an array of ball-handlers like Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart among the guards. He liked how Horford fit next to Joel Embiid as a perimeter player, but acknowledged he and Philadelphia’s staff did not put him in position to dominate mismatches.
“He’s so versatile,” Udoka said. “He kind of got back to who he was in Oklahoma City last year to some extent in the games he played there. He was rejuvenated, but he’s looked great, he’s in tremendous shape and obviously he’s very motivated to come back and show who he is.”
The Celtics continue to educate the players about vaccination while leaving it to the players as a personal choice. Brad Stevens and Udoka shared similar sentiments, hoping to reach 100% while preparing for the repercussions the Celtics’ reported multiple unvaccinated players could face.
Boston’s assist rate and lack of ball movement continued to fall into Udoka’s crosshairs as well. He took on the perspective of his former assistant coaching self, scouting the Celtics with Philadelphia and Brooklyn and preparing for Stevens’ actions to eventually break into one-on-one play. That — more than anything — needs to change without taking away the isolation strengths of Brown and Tatum.
“We do have some tremendous scorers,” Udoka said. “(We need) to help them become better playmakers and know that guys are relying on them to get shots, so If they can balance that a little bit more more, get guys involved, as well as pick their spots it’s only to the benefit of this group.”