LAS VEGAS — Although NBA summer league games are played at UNLV, the Wynn hotel and casino here is the true nerve center. Star players, coaches, and decision-makers cannot walk very far without seeing one of their own.
During a brief window Wednesday morning, Celtics legend Paul Pierce walked through the lobby moments after Lakers coach Darvin Ham greeted passersby near the same spot. Since the area is open to the public, it’s a great place for a fan with a Sharpie or an iPhone.
But as new Jazz coach and former Celtics assistant Will Hardy sat in a large, plush chair outside a lounge area, he appeared to have anonymity that exceeds his suddenly high-profile position.
When Hardy was plucked from Boston by Jazz CEO and former Celtics executive Danny Ainge two weeks ago, the 34-year-old became the NBA’s youngest head coach. It has been a rapid rise for the former Williams College guard who was an assistant with the Spurs before joining Celtics coach Ime Udoka’s staff last season, and he understands that the Celtics’ unlikely NBA Finals run probably accelerated his ascension.
“It’s not lost on me that what our guys in Boston did on the floor is a huge reason why I had an opportunity to get this job,” Hardy said. “I think sometimes we can get a little bit full of ourselves as coaches thinking we’re the reason, and I think we’re a part of it. We have a role in the team, and the success of last year, I think the coaching staff had a part of that. But the players and what they did in between the lines and their winning … that’s a huge reason I got this job. So I feel very fortunate for the year in Boston for a variety of reasons.”
Hardy said it feels like three years have passed since January, when the Celtics were stuck in 11th place in the Eastern Conference and unsure where their season was headed. Yes, injuries and COVID-19-related absences exacerbated the struggles, but there was no time for the Celtics to feel sorry for themselves, and they didn’t.
“Nobody blamed anybody else,” Hardy said. “Everybody just took their little part of responsibility and said, ‘I’ve got to be better at this, and you’ve got to be better at that,’ and everybody did their part. Then we started playing a little better and the belief grew and that’s pretty powerful. All of a sudden everybody starts to believe in what we’re doing … You do have the ability to turn the corner and change. You don’t have to be stuck.”
Hardy spent 11 years under coach Gregg Popovich in San Antonio, and Udoka was there as an assistant for seven of them. Udoka then left and spent a year with the 76ers and one with the Nets before being hired as the Celtics’ coach last summer.
Hardy had been considered the most likely candidate to replace Popovich whenever he retired. But when Udoka lured him to the Celtics, he told him how important the two seasons away from the Spurs had been. He thought Hardy would benefit from a change of scenery, too.
“Ime was right,” Hardy said. “It was such a great experience for me to see something completely different. I was lucky to have 11 years in one place and have that foundation of working for the Spurs for that long, but it was really good for me to reenergize my learning process, because all of a sudden my surroundings every day, everything was new and different. Not just the city I was living in, but it’s a whole new group of players, a different head coach, so we had a whole different program … Nobody could say anymore, ‘You’ve only seen one thing.’ ”
One thing that remained the same, though, was his relationship with Udoka. Hardy said that Udoka was “amazing,” and his admiration only grew after seeing how he operated during his first season as a head coach. Hardy said that Udoka had a unique ability to be intensely competitive without becoming overly emotional. Even when the Celtics were stumbling early in the season, Udoka remained focused on just getting the team upright.
“You don’t see that combination very much,” Hardy said. “I just think that’s so unique, especially for a first-time head coach. It’s different pressure, a different feeling to know it’s your team. Ime is a special dude, for sure. Obviously our relationship sort of speaks for itself. I admire him a lot. I learned a ton from him this year, definitely a lot of stuff that I’ll try to take with me.”
It’s a unique twist that Hardy will now be working for Ainge, who spent 18 seasons as the Celtics’ president of basketball operations before retiring after the 2020-21 season and eventually resurfacing in Utah.
Hardy said he did not know Ainge well, but his fingerprints remained everywhere within the Celtics organization, from the players he drafted to the front office members he hired, including his son, Austin, an assistant general manager.
“Throughout the year I heard stories about Danny,” Hardy said. “ ‘Danny used to do this,’ or ‘Remember that time that Danny said that?’ All good stuff. When you’re together that long there’s a lot of those stories. So obviously I’d heard a lot about him, and what’s been a fun thing for me is the things you’ve heard, and now I’m interacting with him every single day, and he’s as advertised. He’s very smart, super funny, blunt, and has just a depth of experience that almost nobody else has, because he’s seen the NBA from 360 degrees.”
Ainge’s connection to the Celtics helped him in the hiring process a bit, too. He consulted with president of basketball operations Brad Stevens — who was hired as the Celtics’ coach by Ainge in 2013 — as well as Austin Ainge and assistant GM Mike Zarren. In the end, Danny Ainge said, Utah’s 11-member search committee that included co-owner Dwyane Wade realized Hardy was too good to pass up.
“Some of our people that didn’t know anything about Will were just as impressed as those who’d heard lots of good things about him,” Ainge said. “He has a good presence about him and a very good basketball IQ, and I think he has a really good coach’s mind. He’s been around a lot of good people.”