Cam Johnson noticed the new assistant coaches blending in days before Phoenix Suns began training camp Tuesday.
“Every time we’ve been in here these last couple of weeks, every day, every hour we’ve been in here, you see them in these windows having meetings,” said Johnson while looking at the meeting rooms inside the $45-million practice facility.
“You see them on the court talking everything through. It’s really obvious that they’ve put the time in to get on the same page and filling in everything that we do here and everybody bringing in their ideas.”
Then they let their voices be heard on the court.
“They’re real vocal,” Suns point guard Cameron Payne said. “I’m actually surprised because obviously coming into a new thing, you kind of come in kind of quiet, and kind of pickup things first, but they came in normal. They came in with a big-time voice. Very vocal. That’s what we need for our team to build new relationships with the coaches.”
The comfort level Bryan Gates, Steve Scalzi, Michael Ruffin and Jarrett Jack already have is largely due to having familiarity with head coach Monty Williams.
How else can one explain Williams joking about the number of children Ruffin has during Monday’s media day.
“Ruff has like 26 kids, man,” said Williams as the media reacted with laughter.
Ruffin spent six years (2014-20) in New Orleans as he joined the franchise working in player development for Williams. Before that, he played nine seasons in the NBA with the final one being in Portland in 2008-09 when Williams was an assistant with the Trail Blazers under Nate McMillan.
Gates coached under Williams in New Orleans, Jack played for him in New Orleans with point guard Chris Paul and in Portland while Scalzi was with the Oklahoma City Thunder when Williams was an associate head coach there in 2015-16.
“I wasn’t as close to him, but I watched (Scalzi),” Williams said. “So, when we had a chance to bring him on, I was like, there’s a guy that would fit and would help our program grow.”
With such a short offseason after reaching the NBA Finals in July, lead assistant Willie Green leaving to become the Pelicans’ head coach and player development coach Riccardo Fois joining University of Arizona as an assistant, Williams found himself having little time to do a deep, extensive search for coaches.
So, Williams reached out to people he knew to replenish his staff as Kevin Young was elevated to associate head coach and Brian Randle will now work more with the defense, which is what Green ran in two seasons in Phoenix.
“We had to regroup quickly,” Williams said. “That was a huge part of the short break was trying to bring in people that we thought would be a good fit, but also to challenge me and help me grow as a coach. Because it was such a short break, it was a lot harder to talk to people that I really didn’t know and so that probably (led) to leaning towards guys that I was familiar with, but also guys that had done a good job away from our program and guys I knew that would challenge me and help our team grow.”
Then there’s Jack, who Williams compared to Green in terms of their basketball IQ and relatability to players.
“Jarrett is one of those guys who just has it,” Williams said. “When I look at Jarrett and Willie, I think of guys and players that are way smarter than. I don’t say that to come off like that fake humility nonsense. I’m being straight, like, I was with Jarrett in Portland, and I’ve watched him over the course of his career. He and Willie impressed me with their balance of acumen and ability to relate the players, work ethic. All that stuff. When we had a chance to get him, it was a non-brainer for us.”
Williams added that Jack, who played 13 NBA seasons, has had a “huge impact on our gym” right away.
“The few weeks he’s been here, he’s been really good for us,” said Williams about Jack, who played his first three NBA seasons in Portland when Williams was an assistant there and was teammates with Suns General Manager James Jones that third year.
Working primarily with the point guards, Jack stood beside Paul on the far end of the second court as Paul was talking to a group Tuesday that included Williams, Payne and Jae Crowder.
“He finds different ways to score and he’s bringing that type of stuff to the team,” Payne said about Jack, who averaged 10.8 points in his NBA career. “Just working out with him every day, finding different ways to score, how to see the floor.”
After the players left the two courts Tuesday, the coaches remained on the floor talking and walking through strategy as the Suns also added Jamal Gross as player development coach/video coordinator and elevated Corey Vinson to the same titles as he was an assistant in both areas with the team last year.
“James and I targeted a bunch of guys, but we narrowed it down to the group that we have and they were crazy enough to come and work with us,” Williams said. “We’re glad to have them and their families.”
Williams recalled holding one of Gates’ triplets, Kendall, in his hand as they were born 13 weeks early March 6, 2011, with each weighing between just one pound, eight ounces and two pounds, two ounces.
“To see these kids in our program running around our gym is going to be pretty cool,” Williams said. “I get a bit attached to the kids we get a chance to be around because the decisions I make affect families. So you’re careful about the people you bring in cause the things I do can affect their lives. It forces you to work a little bit harder.”
The Suns are without Fois and Ben Strong, who were both on player development. Williams gave a playful verbal jab at Fois that proved to be a compliment for his dedication to the team.
“Riccardo was horrible bro,” Williams said. “I hope he destroys that program down there (at Arizona). Riccardo was like, you could not get him to leave the gym. I’d come in some crazy hour like nine, 10 o’clock at night with my boys and Riccardo is in the gym with a player. I’m like, ‘do you have anybody in your life?’ We’re going to miss that.”
All jokes aside, Williams was making a point how losing coaches can impact the program, but it narrows the focus on finding replacements.
“When you lose Willie, Riccardo and you start losing coaches like that, you start to target that can fill that void,” Williams said. “Not necessarily be exactly like them because we don’t need that, but what Riccardo brought was a work ethic, relatability, the players loved him, and accessibility. You could call him at 2 in the morning to get shots or watch film and (snapped his fingers) he’d beat you to the gym.”
Support local journalism. Start your online subscription.