METAIRIE, La. — When the New Orleans Pelicans were searching for a new head coach, they found the answer in Phoenix Suns assistant Willie Green.
Green, the lead assistant during the Suns’ improbable run to the NBA Finals, now shifts his attention to trying to find success in New Orleans — and he doesn’t think the Pelicans are that far away.
“This is a situation that actually reminds me a lot of Phoenix,” Green said at his introductory news conference on Tuesday morning.
“Really high talented players. The staff, same thing. High character. People that love to come to work. Love to come together. We’re really close to taking the next step. I believe going into next season that’s our goal, that’s our mindset. That’s what makes us a sleeping giant. We have two young All-Stars. Putting a lot of talent around those guys and really just making this team go.”
Part of Green’s job with New Orleans will be getting the most from those two young All-Stars — Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram — on the floor.
“Zion is a special talent,” Green said. “Quick. Fast. Athleticism. He can play-make. He can do a lot on the basketball floor. As I get together with our staff and continue to watch film, the thing about him, is the sky is the limit. It really is. That’s what excites me. I know that’s what excites us. He’s a guy that can do pretty much anything on the basketball floor.”
It’s the job of Pelicans executive vice president David Griffin, who also called the team a sleeping giant, to get the right pieces around Williamson and Ingram for Green.
And like Green, Griffin also harkened back to his days in Phoenix when talking about the potential of what New Orleans can be. Griffin, who spent 17 years with the Suns from 1993 to 2010, remembers what bringing in the right leadership on the bench and on the floor can do for a young team.
At the start of the 2004-05 season, the Suns elevated Mike D’Antoni to the full-time head coaching position after he served as an interim for the final 61 games of the previous season. After adding 30-year-old point guard Steve Nash, Phoenix won an average of 58 games over the next four seasons while making two trips to the Western Conference Finals.
“What we hope we’re able to do in the coming weeks in the offseason and heading up through the following years is build a sustainable winner that’s rooted in that gratitude and joyfulness led by Willie Green and the players that we’re able to bring to the floor that can represent Steve Nash, that leadership voice, that shooting we need to put around our great young stars,” Griffin said. “We’re heading towards that.”
The Pelicans could have a chance to make a similar splash in free agency this season after freeing up cap space Monday in a trade that sent Eric Bledsoe, Steven Adams and multiple picks (including the No. 10 pick in Thursday’s draft) to Memphis for Jonas Valanciunas and two draft picks, according to sources.
Whatever pieces Griffin and the Pelicans’ front office gives Green, it’ll be the job of the third-youngest head coach in the league to make those work.
“When I think about coaching … the best coaches are not the X’s and O’s,” said Green, who turns 40 on Wednesday. “People can do that. The best coaches are the ones that you know care about you. The best teachers. And connecting with players is no different than just connecting with people. You quickly realize you have a lot more in common than you don’t.
“That’s sort of my take and my approach in basketball. It’s easier to get people to reach their max when they know you care about them. That’s my way or our way of connecting with players.”
It’s a philosophy that Green learned in part from Suns coach Monty Williams.
Although Williams didn’t play a game during the 2003-04 season, he was a teammate for a brief period during Green’s rookie season with Philadelphia. Later, Williams was a head coach for the New Orleans Hornets and was Green’s coach during the 2010-11 season.
“Monty means the world to me,” Green said. “When he heard that I had the opportunity to go interview with New Orleans, not only did he make me go, but he just kind of walked me through the steps. He was so diligent in his processes of helping me along the way. I’m so grateful to learn under a man like Monty, a coach like Monty, a brother like Monty.”