Summer League Wraps Up Year Of Transition For Udoka

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“Ime Udoka, who had already been here as a player and then as a coach with Bud (Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer) and Brett (76ers head coach Brett Brown) for that year,  he very quickly gathered Jim Boylen, who was already a very experienced coach already in his own right and Sean Marks who’s played in the league and worked for us already.” -Gregg Popovich, Coach of the Year Press Conference, April 22, 2014

14 months ago Spurs assistant coach Ime Udoka was near the end of his first season on the San Antonio bench. His place in the hierarchy of the Spurs coaching staff was pretty firm. Despite his prior runs as a player, he was decidedly the new guy, the inexperienced understudy to Mike Budenholzer and Brett Brown. By July of 2013, Udoka was suddenly the only assistant coach left after Bud and Brown took head coaching jobs. Thus began Udoka’s year of transition.

He was thrust into the Summer League head coaching job. At the time Udoka told us he was using his personal experience to relate to his players (Udoka participated in four Summer Leagues) and relying on guys like Cory Joseph and Nando De Colo to lead the team. As Pop mentioned during his Coach of the Year press conference, Udoka took the lead in getting Jim Boylan and Sean Marks together to catch them up on the system before the start of training camp.

Fast forward to the beginning of July and Udoka was again back in Las Vegas coaching the Summer League Spurs. He was again coaching just a few weeks after the NBA Finals, but obviously coming off the high of winning a title as opposed to losing in heart breaking fashion. Udoka was greeted with congratulations, but whether you call it being a Popovich protege or a product of the Spurs system, his tone over the week and a half signified he was in Sin City to work.

Obviously if you’re playing that late into June, you’re doing the right thing. Unfortunately last year this was to take my mind off it it,” Udoka said. “This year, it’s kind of revel in it and get congrats here and everything. But for me, I need the experience. It’s fun and I have a great time doing it.”

He’s not fiery on the sidelines like Popovich is, but he’s quick to call a timeout if he sees something he doesn’t like regardless of whether they’re 30 seconds in to the game or there’s 30 seconds left. After the game, he’s best described as forthcoming with information but concise and so far in two Summer League seasons he hasn’t “pop’d” anyone (Summer League is a much more relaxed environment after all).

After an up and down game against the Utah Jazz mid week, Udoka reflected a bit on the 2014 Summer League experience compared to 2013 and admitted that despite the extra year of coaching experience, 2014 was proving more challenging than 2013.

This year is more challenging with the amount of new guys. Last year you got Nando, Cory, Baynes, guys that have been there, especially when you’ve got a point guard that knows the system, it’s so much easier,” Udoka said.”So it’s a little bit more of a challenge, but I’m enjoying teaching the young guys and new guys our system, and they’re grasping it. So we’re happy with where we’re at.”

The Summer League Spurs would eventually fall in the quarterfinals of the Las Vegas tournament, fairing better than a lot of people thought. Udoka and the platoon of assistants on the Spurs bench deserve credit for acclimating all the new players to the simplified version of the Spurs’ system. It’s too early to tell whether Udoka will make a good head coach. However, between getting the coaching staff up to speed on the playbook last summer and guiding this year’s team through this year’s summer league, we have learned that the former NBA journeyman is a good teacher. It also shows that his message sinks in with both players and fellow coaches. That’s not a small thing for a young coach finishing just his second year on the job.

What does the last 12-14 months mean for Udoka’s future? It’s difficult to say, though we have seen a blueprint. Jacque Vaughn spent two seasons on the Spurs bench before being hired in Orlando as head coach. Is Udoka in line for a similar role after next season? Is he being groomed to take once Pop’s new multi-year deal is up? What does the inclusion of Ettore Messina to the Spurs bench mean for Udoka? These are all questions that will be answered over time, but we Udoka acquitted himself well over the last year and that will only help him moving forward.

  • Hao

    I believe it should be Jim Boyl”e”n ?

  • Trevor Zickgraf

    Thanks Hao, Jim Boylan is also an NBA assistant. So easy to get them mixed up. Thanks for catching that!

  • Conservative

    Met him a couple of times. He’s a quiet guy. Not to characterize, but he’s not there yet. Give him 5+ years.

  • DorieStreet

    I feel it could be within a 3-4 season window. The departures of Coaches Bud and Brett looks as if it provided Udoka with a “right place, right time” circumstance to assume the helm. He’s gotten a jumpstart by running the Vegas squad the past two summers. He’s front row & side-by-side as Pop guides the transition of the longtime veterans exits, establishing the young stars as the focal point of the team, and forming a quality bench and rotation(s) with draft and free agent acquisitions.
    I think the addition of Messina is to provide experienced assistance- specifically from an international view, as the Spurs undoubtedly will continue their influx of talent from outside the U.S. The change at the top could mirror how it was done at UConn (Jim Calhoun relinquishing his head coach position to former player and short-time assistant Kevin Ollie).

  • Carlo Duroni

    Well, surely Ime’s style seems to be quite different from Pop’s, at least judging from what I see from glimpses of the bench during TO’s.
    Honestly – and not because I’d like an Italian as HC – I think one important characteristic of the Spurs was not just having a “good” – or even a “great” – coach but having that particular “rough” style of coaching (and management in general) which I think absolutely mandatory to build a certain mentality. Look at what coach Thibs was able to do with just Noah and a bunch of average players.