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June 06, 2019

Sixers hire Spurs' Ime Udoka for assistant coach role under Brett Brown

The Sixers are hiring Spurs assistant coach Ime Udoka to be the lead assistant under Brett Brown, a team source confirmed to PhillyVoice on Thursday night. The Athletic's Shams Charania was the first to report the news.

Those who pay close attention to the ongoings of the league may recognize Udoka's name from head coaching searches over the past few years. Udoka interviewed for the Cleveland Cavaliers job in early May of this year and has generally grown into a respected name in coaching circles.

His strengths start exactly where Brett Brown's strengths start, as luck would have it. With Gregg Popovich playing the bad cop in San Antonio, the 12-year pro was often tasked with playing the good cop, serving as the middleman between the head coach and the players when another messenger was needed.

Udoka's long and winding pro career probably helped him in this regard, as he jumped between teams and countries to chase his dream, eventually closing his NBA days out with the Spurs team that would hire him shortly after his retirement as a player. Udoka himself has said his pro journey has benefitted him as a coach, which he explained to Jabari Young, formerly of the Express-News, in 2017:

I’ve been around basketball my whole life. The way I played, I had to think the game and be tougher and smarter than people because I wasn’t the most skilled. I’ve always thought the game. I told them what I saw when they asked my opinion. That part has always come natural.

For the last seven years, Udoka has been able to learn from Popovich, studying under one of the best in the game. LaMarcus Aldridge has gone as far as to call him Popovich's "right hand man at times," and it has been a mutually beneficial relationship in some respects. When the Spurs signed Aldridge back in 2015, it was his former teammate Udoka who he credited as the man who got the deal over the line and convinced him to leave the Portland Trailblazers. 

This is the story as Aldridge recalled it to Sam Amick, then of USA Today:

I was down to two teams, Phoenix and the Spurs. I thought (Udoka) was staying in San Antonio for the summer, so I was like, ‘Hey, I’ve got a jet going to Dallas. You could get a flight from Dallas to San Antonio.’ So he was like, ‘Cool.’ So he gets on the jet, and I’m like, ‘We’re leaving. You should buy your flight on the plane. Go buy your flight.’ He was like, ‘I ain’t buying no flight.’ I was like, ‘What do you mean?’ He’s like, ‘I live here (in Los Angeles) right now. I’m flying just to answer any questions that you have.’ I was like, ‘Man, you’re crazy.’ I said, ‘Get off the plane.’ He said, ‘No, I’m going to answer any question that you have.’ So I’m like, ‘You don’t have to do this. Don’t do this.’ He’s like, ‘Nah, I’m not getting off.’

...Him and I went to the back of the plane and talked the whole flight. It was just conversation, about the system, about me. It wasn’t really a lot of questions. It was just him telling me how I’m going to fit in. Everybody was making this big fuss about how I’m not going to be able to take shots anymore, or be the scorer that I am, and he was just telling me, ‘We need a guy to score down there. Tim (Duncan) is older, and we need a guy to command a double team down there.’ So I was like, ‘Maybe I’m not a Spur, because I’ve been averaging 23 (points per game) for the last three to four years, and maybe I don’t fit into y’all’s system of let’s all average 17 (points per game).’ And he was like, ‘No, we’re not trying to change who you are and make you average 16 or 17. We want you to be you, because you’re going to help us be better and vice versa.’ He kind of reaffirmed that they didn’t want to change me, and that who I am is ok.”

As the Sixers make an attempt to retain several key free agents this summer, his lack of connection to their current guys might hold him back from making a similar impact on Tobias Harris and Jimmy Butler. But putting another good communicator on the staff who is young enough to relate to their players is always a good thing.

He is not being brought here just to be a smooth talker, however. Knicks coach David Fizdale has called Udoka, "organized, sharp, and a great communicator." Popovich has called him, "well respected, very knowledgable, hard-working."

Some will look at this hire with concern about whether it creates an echo chamber with what they already have in place. And while it's easy to say that another Spurs guy will just agree with everything Brown says and keep things exactly as they are, that is not the reputation Udoka brings to Philadelphia. It's generally not the reputation of any of the Spurs assistants — they share a belief about sharing the basketball and playing the game a certain way, but they believe in democratizing their decisionmaking and taking the best of everyone to create a greater whole.

Less is known about Udoka's chops as a tactician/X's and O's guy, and the extent of his head coaching experience has come in Summer League, where he has led the Spurs outfit a couple of times out in Las Vegas. He's not as big of a name as a guy like Avery Johnson, who Brown chatted with this week.

But in some ways, it's a fairly brave choice for Brown to put a young guy with head coaching aspirations on his staff after the chatter about his job security at the end of this past season. Udoka would not have left an assistant job in San Antonio if he wasn't looking to climb the ladder, and with a prominent role on the staff of a team with championship aspirations, he will become more visible than he has ever been as an assistant coach.

The Sixers would not comment on Udoka's place on the bench at this stage of the process, but there will be a new face in a prominent spot on the bench once again this year. 

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