- First year Boston Celtics head coach Ime Udoka is already setting high expectations for his players.
- Udoka is stressing accountability and professionalism–something that isn’t always at the forefront of the NBA.
- Udoka is a former Brooklyn Nets assistant that was in high demand when a number of NBA teams were looking to fill jobs earlier this year.
The Boston Celtics are one of the NBA’s most storied franchises with legendary players from Bill Russell to John Havlicek to Larry Bird. Their head coaches are equally as legendary, including icons like Red Auerbach, Bill Russell, Tommy Heinson, Bill Fitch and Doc Rivers. That’s quite a legacy for a player–or coach–to live up to. This notwithstanding, new Boston Celtics’ head coach Ime Udoka doesn’t appear to be intimidated in the least by the shadow of these giants. He’s already started to impart his identity onto his players and his message is one that Auerbach, Russell, et. al would definitely approve of.
Udoka is a former Brooklyn Nets assistant that was in high demand earlier this year when more than a half dozen teams had head coaching vacancies. This is Udoka’s first NBA head coaching gig but judging from his performance to date it’s easy to understand the strong interest. The Boston Celtics were in an unique position for teams looking for a head coach–their vacancy wasn’t due to a substandard performance by the previous coach. When the Celtics’ president of basketball operations Danny Ainge retired, then-head coach Brad Stevens moved upstairs to fill that role. His first move to was to hire Udoka and based on early returns it looks like a good one.
Udoka is 43 years old and a native of Portland, Oregon where he attended Jefferson High School. Udoka’s father is of Akwa Ibom decent and was born in Nigeria while his mother was a native of Illinois. This qualified him for Nigerian citizenship and he played for the Nigerian national team. Udoka played college ball at the University of San Francisco followed by a stint at Portland State University. Although he was a journeyman as a player he pursued his craft with toughness and determination, eventually playing for twelve different teams in the US, Spain, France and Argentina. Upon his retirement, he learned coaching with one of the best, spending 7 seasons on Gregg Popovich’s staff in San Antonio. When he left to join the Brooklyn Nets in October 2020, his stock continued to climb leading to the job in Boston.
“He exudes a confidence and a comfort in his own skin where people just gravitate to him. He’s a fundamentally sound teacher because he’s comfortable with himself, he knows the material and players read it. Oftentimes, I’ll say, ‘Ime, can you go talk to so-and-so? Go to talk to Patty Mills, go talk to Timmy (Duncan), go to talk to Kawhi (Leonard).’ And he’ll do it better than I would do it — and I’m not blowing smoke.”
“The only thing I don’t like about him is that he doesn’t drink, so I can’t enjoy a glass of wine with him. He’s really boring at dinner.”
The most impressive thing about Udoka is the high standards he’s setting for player professionalism, discipline and accountability. That was on display last week via a couple of incidents. In the first, guard Marcus Smart was suspended for Friday’s preseason finale against the Miami Heat after he missed the team’s flight to Florida. Many coaches would let this type of thing slide but not Udoka, who had this to say following the announcement of the suspension:
“It’s internal. We’ve handled it. He’s remorseful, and we hold Marcus to a high standard. We’ve made it clear from Day 1, so he’ll obviously be out tomorrow night. He’s with us here on the trip. Just look forward to moving on from this growing and obviously abiding by the team rules and principles.”
“Marcus is one of our leaders that we expect a lot from. He understands that. He’s remorseful, and we’ll move on from there.”
The original plan was to make the preseason finale a ‘dress rehearsal’ for the regular season opener but that wasn’t possible due to injuries, illness and other circumstances. One of the more intriguing things about Udoka is that he displays a rare mix of high expectations but is far from a raving disciplinarian–he comes off as very patient and caring about his players. For lack of a better term, very ‘Popovich-esque’ as he evidences in this quote:
“We won’t get to see certain lineups that we obviously wanted to see, but we have to move along. We’ve done that with Al and Jaylen out as well. So we just had a nice practice, added some new things for tomorrow and the week going forward, and we’ll keep it moving. Guys will have the opportunity, and then Marcus and others will catch up when they come back in the next week or so.”
In another example of the identity that Udoka is imparting upon the Celtics, CBS Sports reported on his insistence that he doesn’t want to see his team excessively arguing with officials. As the article noted: “It’s one thing to say that — most coaches do — but it’s another to actually enforce it”. After Boston forward Grant Williams was beat down the court on defense due to his prolonged complaining to officials about an offensive foul call, Udoka pulled him out of the game and benched him the rest of the way. Here’s what the coach said after the game:
“The main thing, I’m telling him to get back and stop worrying about the referee — your guy is bringing it right behind you… When we cried about calls, they were running out and got too many easy looks. So something like I said we talked about early in camp. It’s something I’m going to keep hammering away on until we get where we want to be.”
“You guys play through plays and move onto the next thing and let me be the guy that complains to the refs. But that’s not the team we want to be and that’s not who I am, so I don’t want the team to start crying about every call.”
Having this kind of authenticity of character is all too rare among NBA coaches but very important. The CBS Sports article began with this reference to Golden State Warriors’ head coach Steve Kerr:
Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr was recently asked what advice he would impart to someone starting their first NBA head coaching gig. “You have to be authentic to yourself,” he said. “When players feel that authenticity and honesty, that’s the main thing they want to hear and see.”
Keep an eye on Udoka and the Celtics. The expectations for the team aren’t very high this year and they could be poised to surprise a lot of people. At BetOnline.ag, Boston is a +4000 choice to win the NBA Championship putting them well down the list. The regular season wins total is OV/UN 46.5 and they’re priced at +700 to win the Atlantic Division behind a couple of over-hyped, drama laden teams in Brooklyn (-225) and Philadelphia (+375). With many of the ‘head cases’ of recent years jettisoned from the team and a coach that demands professionalism from his players the Celtics could be a nice value in any type of preseason performance prop bet.