LAS VEGAS — As Jaylen Brown trudged off the court after his squad failed to convert a potential go-ahead bucket at the end of Team USA’s scrimmage earlier this week, Gregg Popovich met Brown at halfcourt. Wrapping an arm around his waist, Popovich offered a few teaching points and, with a supportive pat on the backside, sent him in the direction of the bench where Steve Kerr awaited with further advice.
In the stands across the gym, Celtics coach Brad Stevens took in the scene with a smile. Part of the reason that Stevens was thrilled to have four players participating in Team USA’s training camp this week was that his guys got hands-on experience working with championship coaches Popovich and Kerr.
"I just think it’s always great to hear consistent themes and messages all across the board,” said Stevens. “Obviously, nobody’s a better communicator, nobody does that better than [Popovich]. It’s great for these guys.”
For Brown, Jayson Tatum, and even sixth-year guard Marcus Smart, Stevens is the only NBA head coaching voice they’ve regularly heard. But camp this week offered a chance to work with a five-time champion in Popovich and an eight-time champion (five times as a player, three times as a coach) in Kerr.
That opportunity wasn’t lost on those players.
"They all have their own style and coaching traits. It’s like different teachers have different ways of explaining and teaching,” said Brown. “But playing for Gregg Popovich, I’ll do that any day of the week.”
Celtics players seemed to genuinely enjoy the Pop Experience, particularly getting to see him in a more relaxed situation where he seemed more willing to let his hair down. Popovich jumped into stretching drills with his players, routinely chatted them up during downtime, and looked to be having as much fun as those competing for a roster spot.
He even had some playful Pop moments. Like when a small cluster of reporters lingered talking to Brown after a double horn sounded to signify the end of the 30-minute media access. Pop saw Brown still on the floor with cameras in his face and playfully stomped over to break it up, scolding reporters for trying to go into overtime with their questions and explaining how a 30-minute countdown works.
Wrapping an arm around Brown, he led him away towards the busses while still shaking his head at the media members nearby.
“It’s amazing. I was lucky enough to play for [Popovich] on the Select Team two years ago and you see a different side of Pop than [during the NBA season],” said Smart. "He jokes a lot and he’s a great guy. And he’s just a guy that you want working.”
Smart spoke highly of both Popovich and Kerr.
"Two great coaches right there. I think their resumes speak volumes for themselves,” said Smart. "I’ve been playing in Boston for my whole career and playing for Brad. [Each coach has] different styles and different techniques so you get a little bit of all three. You can kinda vary and mix those in and learn new things from each and every last one of them.”
Popovich seemed to have a particular affinity for Walker, who is one of the veteran presences on this year’s team and spent much of the week walking around with a big smile on his face.
"It’s amazing. Growing up, you watch Coach Pop and you’ve seen him win championships and you see his interviews and stuff like that. This is an honor, to be able to play for him,” said Walker.
"I would have come [to Team USA] regardless, no question. But of course, I wanted to play for Pop. Pop is a legendary coach. My ex-coach [in Charlotte, James] Borrego, he came through Popovich and I’ve heard so many great things about Pop from him. So, yeah, this is an honor.”
This was an oft-repeated message from Team USA players. Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma gushed how Popovich was “my favorite coach of all time,” and noted how he grew up watching the Spurs.
A who’s who of hoops coaches passed through Vegas during the week. Former Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski visited and even pulled Duke pupil Jayson Tatum aside for a short pep talk. Tom Thibodeau watched much of the week from the crowd; Jeff Van Gundy coached the Select Team. Current coaches like Stevens and Chicago’s Jim Boylen dropped in to check on their players while Atlanta’s Lloyd Pierce was another assistant under Popovich, as was Villanova’s Jay Wright.
The Celtics are hoping that not only will the talent of the players around Team Shamrock help push Boston players but that the elite coaching can help those players grow as well.
Kerr offered high praise for all of Boston’s invitees.
“They’ve been great,” said Kerr. “Marcus Smart, the [first] two days was one of the best players on the court. Jaylen Brown is athletic and tough and strong. Then the skill of Kemba and Jayson is going to be really important for our team. All four guys have played well.”
The Celtics nearly played Kerr’s Warriors in the 2018 playoffs when Brown and Tatum nearly willed the injury-depleted roster to the championship stage. Kerr was asked to assess their progress from what he might have seen while preparing for a potential matchup to the present with Team USA.
"I just know that those two guys are great players,” said Kerr. "They’re entering their third and fourth years, whatever it is, so they’re still very young, still blossoming, have a great coach, great organization.
"They’re on a hell of a path, and they’re only going to get better.”
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