LAS VEGAS — Soon after he was hired as the Celtics’ head coach in late June, Ime Udoka left to work as an assistant for Team USA at training camp in Las Vegas, before going on to Tokyo for the Olympics.
In some ways, it was not the ideal scenario for a first-time head coach. He communicated with his players via text message, stayed in contact with Boston’s front office as much as possible, and mostly assembled his coaching staff remotely. But there was one big added benefit to his trip: Celtics franchise cornerstone Jayson Tatum was with USA Basketball, too, helping lead the team to a gold medal.
“Obviously, we spent a ton of time to kind of strengthen our bond,” Udoka said. “But I just kind of let him learn from the other coaches. I hit him with little gems here and there about things he can implement when he doesn’t have the ball, like he will in Boston. So trying to work on some of those things. The bench role [on Team USA] was something different for him, but he accepted it. And if you look at his numbers overall, I think [he was the] second-leading scorer behind Kevin [Durant]. He did a great job and obviously he played great in the last game.”
Udoka flew from Tokyo to Los Angeles on Sunday and then joined Boston’s summer league team in Las Vegas, where he is getting a glimpse of some of his players in action for the first time. On Tuesday night he sat with president of basketball operations Brad Stevens and watched the Celtics face the Nuggets, and at halftime he stood in the bowels of the Thomas & Mack Center and briefly discussed the upcoming season.
The Celtics have been busy making trades and signing free agents in recent weeks, but in the end Udoka knows this team will be guided by Tatum and fellow All-Star Jaylen Brown, who has also been working out in Las Vegas this week. He said it will be important for both players to continue expanding their games.
“Really, we’ve got two elite scorers,” Udoka said. “And I want to help them be playmakers. We have a ton of great shooters. So we want to play more team basketball, obviously have a defensive mindset, do a little of different things because we can go big, small in a lot of different ways there. But in general, exciting brand, just share the ball a little bit more with guys.
“You heard the joke about our assist numbers last year, but in general I think Jaylen and Jayson can take a huge step as far as that. Putting the ball in Marcus [Smart’s] hands a lot more — he’s kind of asked for that, and I think he’ll be a great facilitator as well.”
The Celtics were one of the youngest teams in the NBA last season, and Stevens made it clear he was focused on surrounding Tatum and Brown with more experienced talent this season. Boston has added veterans Al Horford, Josh Richardson, Dennis Schroder, Enes Kanter, and Kris Dunn this offseason.
“It helped getting Al back,” said Udoka, who coached Horford in Philadelphia two seasons ago. “He’s a voice that everybody respects. And then you bring in a guy like Josh Richardson and some of the other guys we’re looking at bringing in, I think it was more so a veteran mix to complement our younger guys.”
Udoka admitted that it wasn’t “ideal” to be away from Boston so much during his first month on the job. But he said he has noticed the impact some of his new assistants have had on this summer league squad, and that this experience will be helpful for them, too.
Udoka has finished assembling his staff, which includes former Spurs lead assistant Will Hardy, former Pacific coach and NBA veteran Damon Stoudamire, and former Bucks assistant Ben Sullivan.
“It was just finding the right mix for what I felt our group needed,” Udoka said. “Really wanted hands-on, motivated coaches. I’ve always looked at myself as an assistant and I’ve looked for some of those qualities in them. Guys that are wanting to be head coaches that are kind of on the rise. I got a guy like Damon who I had a relationship with previously, so a lot of guys I’ve talked to in the past and just bounced ideas off those relationships. Really hands-on. They’ve done a great job here and a lot of guys from winning programs.”