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Ime Udoka to help fulfill Steve Nash’s top priority: defense

Dallas Mavericks v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Despite his and Mike D’Antoni’s revolutionary “Seven Seconds or Less” offense, Steve Nash said in this week’s “Town Hall” that he’s pinpointed defense as priority No. 1, saying it’s been the big topic the “last few weeks” in team discussions. Meet Ime Udoka, the Nets’ newest assistant who will be the defensive maestro.

Udoka, who spent the 2019-20 season as the Philadelphia 76ers top assistant and the previous seven years under Gregg Popovich in San Antonio, brings that defensive philosophy the Nets are hoping for.

In his most recent stop with Philadelphia, Udoka was one of the league’s highest-paid assistants, serving as the defensive ‘coordinator’ for the team. After taking the job, he told local writers that while in San Antonio, his job was strategizing against “eight or nine [opposing] teams,” on both ends of the court, his Philly gig was purely defense.

He stressed that the 76ers play physical and make the opposing team feel uncomfortable on the defensive end. Udoka was constantly constructing and making defensive tweaks, especially in the 76ers frontcourt that was anchored by Joel Embiid. The 43-year-old assistant also helped develop Matisse Thybulle, the 76ers rookie known for his thoroughly annoying defense.

Udoka experimented with several coverages throughout the 2019-20 season from an interesting 1-3-1 zone following a full-court trap play to blitz plays focused around pressure. Philadelphia ended the season finishing eighth in defensive rating.

One thing Udoka focused on in Philly was how poorly the defense handled pick-and-rolls during the 2018-19 season. Specifically, in “big-small” pick-and-rolls, dropping the big man — having him essentially play “center field,” as Udoka said — became fundamental.

He told Philly beat writers back in September that he wanted “up to touch” coverage where the big man will get so close that he can reach out and touch the back of the screener. The idea behind this approach is to initially close down that gaping space in the middle of the floor, then have the big retreat into center field.

Like the Philly frontcourt that features Al Horford and Joel Embiid, the Nets currently have two big men in DeAndre Jordan and Jarrett Allen, who has established himself as an increasingly effective rim protector.

Nash praised Allen Tuesday during his town hall, specifically his “D”.

“I thought his performance in the bubble showed some big growth at both ends of the floor. He was more dynamic at the defensive end, expanding his game there, getting out and player farther out on the floor, covering guards, moving his feet for stretches that we hadn’t seen in the past, and then his rim protection I think has been his cornerstone,” said Nash.

Outside of his defensive prowess, Udoka has been known as a communicator, the “good cop” to Gregg Popovich’s “bad cop.” But as Kyle Anderson put it, “If he gets on you he’ll get on you but he knows how to talk to us, knows how to handle players.”

Before agreeing to take the assistant job with the Nets, Udoka was a highly regarded candidate for several head coaching jobs in recent years. Udoka comes from the “Popovich tree” of coaching, joining a Nets team with plenty of Spurs connections. He and Marks were assistants to Popovich on the Spurs 2014 NBA title team. Jacque Vaughn was a Spurs assistant coach from 2010 to 2012 when Marks was just starting his front office career in San Antonio. Player development coach Tiago Splitter also played on those teams, starting 50 games as the Spurs center in that title run.

Before coaching, Udoka played 12 seasons as a player following going undrafted in 2000, splitting time with five NBA teams and various teams overseas. In fact, the last NBA uniform Udoka wore was a Nets uniform during training camp in 2011 before being cut in favor of Dennis Horner. He was also a member of the Nigerian national team in FIBA competition.