When he was an 18-year-old freshman at UCLA, Earl Watson was invited into John Wooden’s den by the legendary Bruins coach to talk about life, Wooden’s love affair with his wife and basketball.
The new interim head coach of the Phoenix Suns listened in awe to the man who won 10 NCAA championships and was known as the “Wizard of Westwood.” On one weekend visit, he asked Wooden what stood out the most in his coaching career.
“No one cared who got the credit,” Watson said Wooden answered.
“Teaching that, bringing that, bringing that passion to the city is the most important thing,” Watson said at his introductory press conference Tuesday.
At 36, he is the youngest head coach in the NBA, but he brings a wealth of experience from mentorships under Wooden and other old-school minds like Jerry Sloan, the third-winningest coach in NBA history, and Hubie Brown, a well-decorated coach going back to the American Basketball Association days.
“I grew up under the old generation,” said Watson.
That resonated with Suns general manager Ryan McDonough in selecting Watson to replace Jeff Hornacek.
“He’s got a lot of great advice from some of the legends in the game of basketball,” McDonough said. “He has a very impressive pedigree and resume.
“Obviously, as a coach, he’s not very experienced, but as far as being in the NBA and being around locker rooms and successful coaches and teams, he’s extremely experienced and has a wealth of knowledge in a number of areas.”
Watson, whose playing career ended less than two years ago, becomes the youngest head coach in the NBA, edging out Houston’s interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff by little more than three months. He takes over a team with a core group that’s one of the youngest in the NBA.
“Whoever the interim coach was, we thought it was important that that person have a strong connection with our players and was able to communicate directly with the players and get them to respond to the message and have them playing hard and playing the right way,” McDonough said. “And Earl’s got a powerful voice.”
A journeyman point guard, Watson played in Seattle, Memphis, Oklahoma City, Denver, Indiana, Utah and Portland during the course of a 13-season career. Watson served as a backup, making his way into a regular spot in the starting five in only one season, 2007-08. That season, he ran the point alongside Kevin Durant in the budding superstar’s first season with the SuperSonics, the franchise’s last in Seattle.
Watson said he sees flashes of that kind of talent on the Suns roster.
“If you look at the roster, we’ve got a lot of young talented kids,” Watson said. “You have T.J. (Warren, drafted last year), you have Archie (Goodwin, drafted in 2013), who’s finding his niche in this game and he’s still young. And one kid who I think is going to be special is Devin Booker. I was with KD his rookie year and now I’m seeing Devin the same age and Devin is way more efficient. KD is KD because he’s 6-11 and he’s athletic, but Devin can get better, and I think you have a superstar in that.”
Watson has seen his share of up-and-coming talents as well as established veteran superstars. He can draw upon that experience to mentor Suns young guns Booker, Goodwin and Alex Len and even young rising stars Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight.
At UCLA, Watson played alongside future NBA star Baron Davis. In his rookie season with Seattle, he backed up Gary Payton. In Memphis, he joined Shane Battier and Pau Gasol and backed up Jason Williams. He played half a season in Denver during Carmelo Anthony’s third professional campaign. He played with Ray Allen in his return to Seattle and was Durant’s first point guard, replaced a year later in the starting role by rookie Russell Westbrook.
In Indiana he played with big man Roy Hibbert, then went to Utah for three seasons to back up Deron Williams and run with Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and rookies Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward. In his final season, he spelled sophomore Damian Lillard.
“The older I got, I started to mentor younger players,” Watson said, “like the Dame Lillards, the KDs, the Westbrooks. It became a part of who I am.”
Watson feels well-prepared for the challenge of a young, injury-hampered roster that has dug itself in a 14-35 hole halfway through the season.
“Mentoring young players, you instill as much confidence as you can in them every day,” Watson said. “You over-nurture them, you over-love them and once you build that trust, you can then start to hold them more accountable in a more aggressive way. But it’s a fine line. Every player’s different, and you have to understand and communicate that.”
Watson began his coaching career in 2014 as an assistant with the San Antonio Spurs Developmental League affiliate in Austin. He joined the Suns staff in July 2015 as an assistant under the fired Jeff Hornacek, who was an assistant coach when the two were with the Jazz from 2010-13.
“The first order of business for us is to build trust, to build a program, not an organization,” Watson said. “The structure’s going to be there. It’s also to build a family. We’re going to play selflessly, we’re going to lose ourselves to each other. You don’t hear this a lot in NBA locker rooms, but we have to love, we have to nurture, we have to teach.”