Why has Ime Udoka thrived with Celtics? Ask his top assistant


Who is Ime Udoka?

Who is the man who, at 44 years old, engineered one of the greatest second-half turnarounds in NBA history in his first season on a job that Brad Stevens held for the previous eight seasons?

In retrospect, he told us during his introductory press conference.

"I looked at the numbers overall and, sorry to mention this Brad, but 27th in assists last year -- we want to have more team basketball there," Udoka told reporters back on June 28th.

Udoka calling out new Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens right after replacing him as head coach raised plenty of eyebrows. But it didn't surprise Will Hardy, Boston's top assistant coach and Udoka's right-hand man on the bench.

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"Ime is Ime. He’s comfortable in his own skin, and he’s definitely just as competitive as a coach as he was as a player," Hardy told NBC Sports Boston.

Few NBA coaches know Udoka better than Hardy. A graduate of Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., Hardy got his NBA start as a basketball operations intern for the San Antonio Spurs in 2010, when Udoka was on the roster as a player.

In 2012, Udoka came back to the Spurs as an assistant coach, and Hardy and Udoka rose through San Antonio's ranks over the next seven seasons to become two of Gregg Popovich's top lieutenants.

During those seven seasons, the traits Udoka displayed as a player emerged as valuable attributes on Popovich's bench.


"His brain moves really fast," Hardy said. "He’s able to process a lot of information in the game quickly. He’s got an incredible recall of what’s going on in the game.

"He had that as a player: Being a defensive-minded guy, he was always so locked in on tendencies and actions of guys he was guarding. So as a coach, his brain works in a similar way."

Udoka brought that defensive-minded approach to Boston, promising to "bring the dog out" in his new players while emphasizing defense and hard work. But the results weren't immediate. Entering the New Year, the C's were two games under .500 and allowing 107 points per game, 12th in the NBA.

Celtics fans know what happened next: Udoka's squad won 34 of its final 46 games to finish as the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference with the NBA's No. 1 defense at 104.5 points allowed per game.

So, what was the secret to Boston's second-half surge? Was there a magic button Udoka and his coaching staff pushed -- or a consistent process of relationship-building between coaches and players that finally paid dividends?

Our players love and respect his authenticity. They feel his authenticity when he’s coaching them. His competitiveness definitely rubs off on our team, and quite frankly we have a competitive group of people. So I think it’s a good match.

Will Hardy on Ime Udoka

"Our biggest thing coming in was to try to connect with the team," Hardy said. "The players had relationships that were long-standing: Marcus (Smart), Jaylen (Brown), Jayson (Tatum), Al (Horford), Rob (Williams) -- those guys have played together for a number of years. So, it was our responsibility as a staff to try to come in and develop a level of trust. ... And trust takes time."

So, while Udoka and Hardy had prior experience with Tatum, Brown, Smart and Derrick White on Team USA during the 2019 FIBA World Cup (Udoka and Hardy also worked with Tatum at last summer's Olympics in Tokyo) Udoka's overhauled coaching staff made a point to spend time with the entire roster on and off the court.

"It’s trying to build relationships that aren’t just focused on X’s and O’s and offense and defense," Hardy said. "It’s trying to develop some level of human connection there, where it’s just coach-player, it’s person-to-person."

What the staff discovered during that process was that this Celtics team -- whose core had experienced first-round exits, runs to the Eastern Conference finals and plenty in between -- was eager to receive coaching that would help them reach the next level, even if it was a bit "direct" at times.

"We're lucky that we're coaching a mature group that really cares about winning," Hardy said. "So they were willing to accept criticism and feedback from the coach and not shy away from it, because they know that it comes from a place of, ‘Coach wants to win too.’


"He wants them to be the best versions of themselves as players so that we can win. So, nobody’s taking anything personally in our group."

In short, Udoka gained the Celtics' trust by being himself.

"Our players love and respect his authenticity," Hardy said. "They feel his authenticity when he’s coaching them. His competitiveness definitely rubs off on our team, and quite frankly we have a competitive group of people. So I think it’s a good match."

Udoka's biggest challenge as a rookie head coach lies ahead of him: Boston likely will draw a first-round matchup with Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and the dangerous Brooklyn Nets, who employed Udoka as an assistant last season.

But there's another trait Udoka possesses that should help him navigate the unpredictability of the postseason.

"I think it’s one of the really cool things about Ime, is that he’s not unwilling to try things," Hardy said. "He’s unbelievably competitive, but he’s not stubborn. He’s learned from all the places that he’s been, and it shows in his style of coaching."

That blend of competitiveness and adaptability has helped Udoka become a legitimate Coach of the Year candidate for a Celtics team that led the NBA in net rating, offensive rating and defensive rating this season.

How far it can take Boston in the 2022 postseason remains to be seen, but through 82 games, it certainly appears Stevens picked the right person for the job.

Editor's Note: Each day this week, NBC Sports Boston will spotlight a different "pillar" of the 2021-22 Celtics. Next up: the floor general, Marcus Smart.