New Celtics coach Udoka wants to ‘bring the dog out’ in young stars
BOSTON — When Ime Udoka looks at the Boston Celtics’ roster, he sees a team with pieces to build around and endless potential.
He also sees a chance — and has been given an invitation — to push the team’s youthful core harder than it was under his predecessor.
The 43-year-old Udoka was introduced as the 18th coach in team history Monday, marking the latest course correction for the franchise as it looks to maximize its current window to capture an 18th NBA championship.
“We’re here to win Banner 18 together,” Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck said. “I know Ime will do everything he can to make that happen.”
A former NBA player and first-time head coach, Udoka was among the sought-after names in the annual coaching carousel after gaining steady buzz behind the scenes in recent seasons. He has seven years of playing experience with five teams, along with assistant coaching stops that included seven seasons on Gregg Popovich’s staff in San Antonio. He was there in 2013-14 when the Spurs won the NBA title.
He also spent a season in Philadelphia in 2019-20 and was an assistant with the Brooklyn Nets this past season.
Udoka said his collective time under Popovich provided the foundation for who he wants to be as a head coach.
“We have two young pillars that I’m excited to work with, a young crew of first-round picks that we need to accelerate their development,” Udoka said. “I’ll take something from all those stops, as I did as a player, coach as well, and I look forward to having success with our guys.”
Udoka takes over a Celtics team that reached the Eastern Conference finals in three of the previous four seasons before plummeting to the No. 7 seed this year and losing in the first round to Brooklyn.
After the five-game loss to the Nets, basketball boss Danny Ainge retired and coach Brad Stevens gave up his spot on the bench to replace him as team president of basketball operations.
It’s a lot of change, but Udoka won’t be starting from scratch in building bonds in the locker room.
He already has a relationship with Celtics All-Stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, coaching them when both were part of the U.S. men’s national team in 2018 and Udoka was an assistant under Popovich.
Stevens said previously that he’d reached out to Tatum and Brown for input during the coaching search. Udoka said the perception around the league is that both are MVP-caliber players.
That, combined with the history and expectations of the franchise, made Boston the most attractive job that was available, he said.
The task now is getting even more out of them.
“It’s my job to put them in situations to be successful, push them to be greater,” Udoka said. “The sky’s the limit with those guys. ... You have two foundational young pillars like those two is exciting to build around them, continue to help them grow and reach their potential.”
Udoka also has familiarity with other players on the roster. He coached Al Horford his season in Philadelphia. The Portland, Oregon-born Udoka has also known fellow Oregon native Payton Pritchard since he was a kid.
If there was a criticism of Stevens’ coaching style during his tenure, it was that he was often too laid back and avoided being too hard on players at times.
Udoka said that the players have asked to be challenged by him. That’s perfect because he said he likes “to try to bring the dog out in guys.”
“They’re going to allow me to coach them, push them, and that’s what they like about me,” Udoka said. “They want to be pushed. They want to be directed toward winning. And you expect that from your stars.”
Udoka said he’s had a goal of becoming a head coach since he first started as an assistant, and was interviewed for jobs each of the past four seasons.
He believes he is getting his opportunity at the right time.
“If you would have told me I was going to be a finalist for so-and-so team or I could wait two years and fall into this situation, it would be a no-brainer to me,” Udoka said. “I knew it would come, the right situation would come and this is it.”