Family, legacy and leadership: Nate Tibbetts makes mark in WNBA debut season with Phoenix Mercury

Phoenix Mercury coach Nate Tibbetts is ‘proud’ and ‘thankful’ to follow in his father’s footsteps after spending most of his career in the NBA. (Photo by Shirell Washington/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – When Nate Tibbetts accepted his first WNBA coaching role this season, he faced a new challenge: answering questions about the Phoenix Mercury from his twin daughters, Jordyn and Londyn.

In 2018, as the Portland Trail Blazers’ assistant coach, Tibbetts was preparing for the future possibility of becoming a head coach while also welcoming the birth of his twin daughters. After his eight-year stint ended in 2021 with the Trail Blazers, the Orlando Magic hired Tibbetts as an assistant coach.

Last October, Tibbetts earned his first big break as the Mercury tapped him as the next head coach, hoping his extensive NBA experience could turn around the franchise after a tumultuous 9-31 season in 2023.

“Being a father of two young daughters … I’ve never gotten so many questions about the Phoenix Mercury than I do from my two little girls, which is awesome,” Tibbetts said. “I was hoping that they would get interested and get behind it, and obviously, all they’ve known is their dad as a basketball coach.

“But coaching men, I think maybe they didn’t see themselves in that light and I’ve got one of them that I never thought would pick up a basketball telling me she wants to be a basketball player because her favorite player is Natasha Cloud. We are still trying to get our feet settled as a family here, but it’s been a great start not only for me professionally but for our family and how they’ve really gotten behind seeing their dad coach women.”

Phoenix Mercury coach Nate Tibbetts credits his success to the support of veteran players like Natasha Cloud, seen here discussing game strategy. (Photo by Shirell Washington/Cronkite News)

Phoenix Mercury coach Nate Tibbetts credits his success to the support of veteran players like Natasha Cloud, seen here discussing game strategy. (Photo by Shirell Washington/Cronkite News)

In Tibbetts’ first year coaching women’s basketball, his childhood continues to mold him every day in his current role. He watched his father, Fred, coach girls basketball at Jefferson High School and Roosevelt High School in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where he won 11 state titles. Fred also coached the University of South Dakota women’s basketball team and earned South Dakota College Women’s Coach of the Year in 1989.

Now Tibbetts is working to attain the same coaching success in the WNBA. Asked what word he would use to describe how it feels to follow in his dad’s footsteps, Nate’s gratitude prompted him to provide two words: proud and thankful.

“It’s kind of crazy how the world comes full circle,” Tibbetts told Cronkite News. “Just with Father’s Day the other day, it makes you reminisce and wish that he could see this moment.”

Like his dad, Tibbetts started his coaching career in his native South Dakota. He served as an assistant coach at the University of Sioux Falls from 2001-2005 before transitioning to the NBA G-League, where he spent four years with the Sioux Falls Skyforce. After two years coaching the Tulsa 76ers, the Cleveland Cavaliers hired him as an assistant coach in 2011.

In his new role, Tibbetts has led the Mercury to an 8-7 record, just one win shy of their win total last season. For the NBA assistant coach turned WNBA head coach, it’s fun to witness a new league, set of players and style of play.

“The NBA is so star-driven and analytic based, a lot of the systems are the same because they are trying to maximize every possession with the best shots they can produce through their star players,” Tibbetts said. “What I’m seeing so far is that coaches here have done a great job playing their style that fits their team.

“Each night is a new challenge as far as me just seeing a team and a coach and stealing plays from these coaches just because as I’m watching their games and scouts, there’s some high-level stuff going on, and I’m just excited to be a part of it.”

Tibbetts’ coaching philosophy emphasizes the 3-point shot. The Mercury score over 35% of their points from behind the arc, ranking among the top five in 3-point percentage, makes per game and attempts per game.

Tibbetts credited his 3-point-first mindset to coaching former Trail Blazers sharpshooters Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum and working under Terry Stotts, whom he called “one of the best offensive minds I’ve been around.”

Tibbetts believes it’s a two-way responsibility for him and the Mercury to adapt to one another’s style of play.

“I think there are days where it’s natural,” Tibbetts said about the team adjusting to his style. “There are things that I’ve maybe asked them to do that are different between the NBA and WNBA. But I am willing to evolve and change, and they’re the same.”

While he draws on wisdom from his NBA coaching days to dictate the expectations for his players, Tibbetts understands that coaching in the WNBA requires seeking guidance from those familiar with the league to ensure he builds the camaraderie needed off the court to resurrect a championship culture in Phoenix.

“Having Kristi (Toliver) there has been huge. Our veteran players have been very beneficial,” Tibbetts said. “I think just trying to gain experience every time we play a team, it’s helping me move forward. The people around me have been great, and those are the people I’ve leaned in on.”

Las Vegas Aces coach Becky Hammon, also from South Dakota, played 14 seasons in the WNBA before joining the San Antonio Spurs staff as an assistant coach in 2014. She spent seven years with the five-time NBA champions before making a leap to the WNBA and shared advice with Tibbetts heading into the season.

“I’ve had some really good conversations with Becky leading up to this season,” Tibbetts said. “She’s been someone that I’ve been able to lean into and ask questions about things that I didn’t understand or know.

“So I’ve been super thankful to have Becky as a South Dakotan that I can lean on. What she’s done in this league is unbelievable, and they (Aces) have set the standard for where everyone wants to be, and we are trying to catch it.”

Hammon, who led the Aces to back-to-back titles in her first two seasons with the franchise, says she learns just as much from Tibbetts.

“What I like about him is that he does unorthodox things,” Hammon said. “He thinks outside the box, and I like that. When I’m going back and looking at things that they are doing (and) what they are trying to take away … I like the little chess match with him.”

Hammon rapidly made her stamp on the WNBA and believes Tibbetts will prosper on his new journey.

“He knows basketball. That’s number one (why he will succeed).” Hammon said. “He’s the guy that’s going to put in the work. He’s going to study and learn the league quickly.”

The two coaches have battled three times this season, with each game decided by 10 points or less. The Aces lead the season series, 2-1, but the coach’s competitive matchups are a stark reflection of their pickleball games in the NBA bubble that, according to Tibbetts, went “back and forth.” However, when Hammon told reporters to ask him about their pickleball contests, she smirked and inferred that she won most of the matchups.

Win or lose, basketball or pickleball, Tibbetts can rest assured Hammon will remain a confidant.

“We’ve been going back and forth for a while to his days in Portland. There are not many South Dakota people that ventured out, me and him ventured out and ended up in the same pond,” Hammon said. “I was excited for him for this opportunity. If there’s anything he needs, questions, whatever, feel free to pick up the phone. He’s just a guy I have a lot of respect for.”

Respect for Tibbetts is present not only from the people he seeks for guidance but also his players.

“Coach Nate is an amazing man, great father, and great leader. When you talk about the head of the snake, that’s our guy,” Mercury guard Natasha Cloud said. “He continues to feed confidence into us. He grabbed me … when I was having a rough game and said, ‘I believe in you.’

Nate Tibbetts confers with assistant coach Kristi Toliver, highlighting the collaborative family atmosphere behind the Phoenix Mercury's promising season. (Photo by Shirell Washington/Cronkite News)

Nate Tibbetts confers with assistant coach Kristi Toliver, highlighting the collaborative family atmosphere behind the Phoenix Mercury’s promising season. (Photo by Shirell Washington/Cronkite News)

“He’s tough on us when he needs to be, (and) he sets a standard from the top dogs to the last man on the roster. When you can set that standard, and we know what is expected every day, it makes it really easy to come in. The joy that he brings to this game and the family atmosphere that he brings to our culture is a beautiful thing, and we’ve all bought into it and into him. We are going to continue to follow him, and we are going to peak at the right moments.”

Tibbetts leads a team with a balanced mix of young players and veterans that he says are “great to be around,” and “want to be coached.” He added that the players are “good people” and called it “refreshing” to be around a group of vets, including Cloud, Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner, Sophie Cunningham, Rebecca Allen and Kahleah Copper.

In an early June matchup against the Minnesota Lynx, the Mercury trailed 80-78 with 5.1 seconds remaining in the game. Tibbetts called a timeout and drew up a play for Taurasi, who suggested the play be designed for Copper. Tibbetts listened.

The first-year Mercury guard hit what she called the “biggest” game-winning shot of her career with a go-ahead 3-pointer with 0.2 left on the clock. Tibbetts entrusting his starting guard led to a moment that “meant a lot,” she said postgame.

The following game, Copper scored eight of her 29 points in the second overtime in a 97-90 victory over the Dallas Wings.

“Shout out to Nate. He’s just done a good job with helping me understand my shot selection and what’s efficient and what’s really good for me,” said Copper, who’s averaging a career-high 23.5 points per game and has a league-leading five 30-point performances. “I really bought into how he wants me to play.”

Tibbetts yearns to offer his new team the same intentionality he saw his father grant the girls and women he coached as a kid. It’s the same intentionality he provides when answering questions about basketball for his daughters.

“It’s an exciting time for the league,” Tibbetts said. “I don’t think I’m trying to put a staple on it in any way. I want to pour into these women and coach them the way they want to be coached, and I think we have a staff and organization that really wants to do that. We want to make it a players organization willing to help them improve on and off the floor and I’m just glad to be part of the Mercury.”

Sports Digital Reporter, Phoenix

Joshua Heron expects to graduate in August 2024 with a master’s degree in sports journalism. Heron served as a sports reporter for The Hilltop, Howard University News Service, and social-impact brand FISLL as an undergrad at Howard University. He also worked as a freelance reporter for Capital News. His interview series, “Wagwan In Life,” hosts people across multiple professions. Heron produced “Championship Culture,” a documentary highlighting the Howard women’s basketball team. He was a 2023 National Geographic HBCU Media Scholar and former My Brother’s Keeper Fellow.

Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Shirell Washington expects to graduate in August 2024 with a master’s degree in sports journalism. Washington has worked for Virginia Wesleyan University Athletic Communications and Arizona State University Stream Team.