Jacque Vaughn expected he’d have 20 games to show his coaching skills. He had two before the NBA suspended play ... and four of his players, including Kevin Durant, tested positive for coronavirus. He was 2-0, with wins over the Bulls and Lakers. Not a bad debut but not what he had hoped for.
Instead he faced a different and far more difficult challenge, dealing with the coronavirus crisis, keeping his players safe and in shape should the league return to play.
Sean Marks, speaking with the media last week, praised Vaughn for what he’s done in that job.
“I think what I’m seeing so far from how our group — with Jacque and his assistants — how they’re working through this and how they’re reaching out to players and their collaborative approach within the organization has been great,” said Marks. “I think it’s extremely important that everybody has not only my support but the owner’s support and front office’s support during this time. That’s our priority.”
Marks also said he’s putting the Nets coaching search on hold, saying, “We are not reaching out to anybody right now. “That would completely not be fair to our group.”
All good news for Vaughn. And as The Athletic’s Alex Schiffer and Jeff Robbins report, leadership has always been Vaughn’s strong suit.
“[T]here are highly respected people within basketball — including his former college teammates, the assistant coaches Vaughn hired in Orlando and his college coach at Kansas, Roy Williams — who say Vaughn is uniquely suited to overcome the obstacles he will face in the weeks and months ahead.”
“I told him he could be a great coach but he could also be the governor of California,” Williams recalled from a conversation he had early in their relationship. “He was a great leader and so intelligent and great at getting guys to make decisions as a group when he made them think what’s best for them.
“Jacque was in charge,” Williams added in his conversation with The Athletic. “He knew where everybody should be and what they should be doing. If the big guys ran the floor with him, he would reward them by getting them the ball more to make sure they did it more.”
Williams also pointed to Vaughn’s decision to pass on the NBA after his junior year: He read Robert Frost’s “The Road Less Traveled” to the team.
Ultimately, Vaughn was drafted, at No. 27 in the 1996 super class, and played 12 years in the NBA, including two for the New Jersey Nets in 2004-05 and 2005-06 as Jason Kidd’s back-up and defensive specialist. The next year, he signed with the Spurs, winning the NBA championship. That summer, Gregg Popovich reportedly had this to say to his staff.
“Get that guy signed for another year,” Popovich said. “I don’t care what happens. He is going to be great for our team no matter how much he plays.”
Vaughn’s time with superstars like Kidd and Vince Carter in New Jersey and Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili (both as a player and an assistant coach) in San Antonio, he knows how to deal with the best of the best. His relationship with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, he’s told friends, is very good. He likes them.
He has a particularly good relationship with Irving. Irving would be the first Net on the floor to do his pregame warmups, Schiffer and Robbins note, and Vaughn would be the first assistant to join him for his routine.
“I guess when you are able to talk in point guard language at times, it’s beneficial,” Vaughn has said of their relationship.
He also noted in his first media availability that he understands the need to communicate with superstars as well as the role players. He called it “collaborative truth.”
“It’s today’s game, and being able to adjust to that, getting the most out of talent that’s on your roster, but also listening and hearing the voices of the No. 1, 2, 3, 4 guys on your roster,” Vaughn said. “It’s crucial, and having that relationship is a must in today’s game.
What about x’s and o’s? Vaughn’s first coaching gig, with a rebuilding Magic, ended with a 58-158 record and a firing. He took a lot of criticism about how poorly the team played but his assistant coaches told The Athletic it wasn’t all his fault. Magic ownership lost patience with the rebuild and in year three wanted results he and the team couldn’t deliver.
“We knew that it was a tough time,” said Jay Hernandez, who was Vaughn’s assistant coach for player development and now is a Hornets assistant.
“We weren’t winning. Just the way he carried himself with us as a staff, the way he presented himself to the team, he never wavered. That’s a true testament to who he is, his character. I think the first thing that guys can sniff out is if you’re not authentic, and he was true to himself all the way through.”
“The preparation that he put into that kind of stuff was elite,” another assistant, Brett Gunning told Robbins. “He never got the credit he probably rightfully deserved just from an X’s-and-O’s standpoint.”
Word is that Kenny Atkinson, his predecessor, is rooting for him ... just like Vaughn rooted for his replacement, James Borrego who’s now the head coach in Charlotte.
“I’m sure Kenny encouraged him to move forward, keep pounding away. That’s what Jacque encouraged me to do when I took over. That gave me peace to move forward that I can do it with clarity and coach the team with the right mindset” Borrego told Schiffer and Robbins. “Kenny’s giving him his blessing and now he’s at peace with that. At this point, he’s done it before. For Jacque, this is his second time around and he’s going to do better the second time around.”
What does Vaughn think of his chances, he was asked the day he took over as interim. Instead, he talked about his mindset.
“I think I’m very realistic about it,” he said. “I’ve challenged the guys to make the most of 20 games and, hopefully, it’s more than that. What’s going to happen is going to happen. I’m going to give you all I’ve got. I’ll definitely do that.”
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