John Welch is not the most famous coach in the NBA landscape, but he has one of the most impressive resumes since he joined 20 years ago, after learning his skills with the legendary Jerry Tarkanian at Fresno State . The former member of the Grizzlies (with Hubie Brown and Jerry West), the Nuggets (with George Karl), the Kings (again with Karl) and most recently the Clippers before taking a position in Mexico, participates in the Jr. NBA Coaches program Online this Sunday, April 24. On this occasion, he was kind enough to discuss with us his career, the evolution of coaching and the NBA in recent years, but also his story with Evan Fournier at the time of the Nuggets.
The Jr. NBA Coaches – Online presented by Gatorade® program is hosted on OWQLO and offers 12 live virtual sessions from February through September for app users ages 16 and older in France. The next session with former assistant NBA coach John Welch will take place on Sunday, April 24. For more information, visit owqlo.com, gatorade.com and @NBAFRANCE on Facebook and Twitter and @NBAEurope on Instagram.
BasketSession: John, you played under the legendary Jerry Tarkanian at UNLV and then served as his assistant at Fresno State for 7 years. He’s a big name in global coaching, but he’s a little less known to the general international public, what did you learn from him and how much did he influence the coach you have you become?
John Welch: I think Jerry Tarkanian is the most underrated coach in history. Defensively, it’s the best of all time for me. What I respect the most in a great coach is the ability to stay humble and that’s what he managed to do. He could be in the middle of a room with six other coaches and ask them questions to keep improving. Some people considered him not very intelligent. It’s quite the opposite. He was constantly drawing inspiration from others and acting like he was discovering basketball. In 1985, when I was transferred there, he was 55 years old. His assistant, one of the most respected coaches of the time, was around the same age and their tandem is the best I’ve seen. During the period I worked with them, when they were already of a certain age, they constantly evolved and progressed. When I got there, I thought UNLV was the best defensive team in the country. They had won a long series of matches. Then I saw them become the best offense in the country. It shows you that you can constantly progress. At my age, I keep trying to improve and learn new things. That’s what I remember most about Jerry Tarkanian.
You’ve been an assistant coach in the NBA for the last 20 years, so to speak. How important is this role to you in the league and is it an undervalued position?
At the time, I was 4th assistant in Memphis, with Hubie Brown as coach. There were four assistants. Today, when you look, there are 12 assistants, development specialists… Everyone has become a specialist and it’s incredible. I was reading an article recently where KD was talking about the evolution of the game and the fact that there were two assistants in his team who were only in charge of preparing offensive schemes. There are defensive coordinators. At the Clippers, it was like that. It’s incredibly valuable to have such a deep and competent staff. The best teams, in Miami, Golden State or elsewhere, are because they made their players better thanks to their staffs. It is also their staff who help them identify players for the Draft. It is often said that there is not really coaching in the NBA. But there are still quite a few. It’s very individualized, technical or video coaching, but coaching nonetheless.
Today’s NBA stars also undoubtedly benefit from this focus on coaching and development.
The superstars of this generation love basketball and enjoy working on their art. The time that Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo and the others spend to improve themselves is incredible. Luka Doncic is the same, you can feel the passion in him. The work they do allows them to adapt to and respond to match situations. Chris Paul continues to progress at his age because he works and this is the case for other players of his generation. The work ethic of LeBron and others is insane, even if they take advantage of better means available to them. People don’t realize how long these players take to cherish their bodies and their technical arsenal. The NBA and its fans are lucky to have representatives like Stephen Curry, Nikola Jokic and others. It’s just amazing what they can do.
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In 2013, you were part of the staff of Jason Kidd, who had just retired and had been named head-coach of the Nets, with a workforce that included big names like Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Deron Williams or Joe Johnson . How did you experience this mission to help a rookie coach, even if it was a future member of the Hall of Fame, to deal with this very particular situation?
I really had a lot of fun that year. I love Jason. He already had a huge feeling for the game and knew how to feel the players too. This is his strength even today. He senses when the players are doing well or not. He also knows how to read the game, three actions in advance, and adapt accordingly. Ty Lue does a bit of the same. These are guys with a high basketball IQ and in whom the players recognize themselves.
You had Evan Fournier in Denver, when he had just arrived in the NBA. What memory do you have of him?
After having signed it, we had planned to send it back to France. He came to me begging, ‘Coach, don’t send me home. I don’t have access to the same things in France, I won’t be able to improve. Let me stay here and work the hall. So we had a meeting about him and I asked that he stay with us. I will take care of him and make him work. Evan was there all the time and before every game he took 100 3-point shots. He never stopped working. He was looking for the slightest opportunity to train and take shots. When you really look for opportunities, you find them. I love Evan. I also had Yakhouba Diawara in Denver, I traveled to France to work with him. Jérôme Moïso too. We worked together in Los Angeles. Jérôme was so talented… There is something that cannot be learned, it is the physical impact. With all the talent he already had, I tried to help him to be more physical, to like contact and to become more bestial. He didn’t have the career he could have had. But I always say if you haven’t had the career you could’ve had because you’re too nice, that’s okay. It’s a good reason and he’s a great person.
In terms of transmission and handing over to young coaches, you are well placed since your son Riley is a graduate assistant in Kentucky. How has your relationship been going since he took this route?
I’m coaching in Mexico right now and he’s my video coordinator. To tell the truth, it is even me who asks him for advice. We talk a lot and he reassures me a lot when we lost a few matches. It is no longer rare to see a father and his son coaching together or at least for a son to follow the same path. Riley is lucky to be on the staff of a coach like John Calipari. Learning from him is valuable. The team is exposed, publicized and I am so happy that he can live this and have this experience. There he helps in the development of the players. College basketball has also changed from my time. Kentucky players live a few yards from the hall and spend their time working. There, they are put in the best conditions to progress. We tend to get closer to the NBA with specialized and individualized coaching.
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More and more European and foreign players go directly to the NBA, where others prefer to make their ranges in Europe. What is the best path to be prepared to survive in today’s NBA?
Both situations can be good. Take a Luka Doncic. Obviously he is ready to play directly in the NBA without staying longer in Europe. But in general, I think it’s good to stay abroad and progress. You progress above all by playing. People don’t know some things. When a player comes to the NBA, he knows he may not be playing much. What he doesn’t know, though, is that he won’t get much opportunity to practice either. If you’re the 12th, 13th or 14th man on the team, you don’t even participate in five against five in training and you don’t take advantage of any repetition of play to progress. You don’t play in matches, how do you want to progress? You will be entitled to the attention of the people in charge of player development who will play with you a little before or after the matches, but you are not facing real NBA players! Playing at a high level in Europe is a better option.
Analytics have taken an important place in the way teams are trained and coached. What importance do you attach to it and what seems to you the most interesting to exploit?
There is so much information in the NBA today…I always try to find what is relevant and applicable. Numbers are numbers. When you face a team, you know exactly what they stand for in terms of preferences and skill in the paint, half-range and 3-pointers, but also the number of points per possession. Two things lead to more points per possession. In the old way, it was the reversal of play from one side to the other and the doubling of passes. Today, the shots with the highest success percentage are those made with a maximum of 5 passes, but that remains an irregular calculation. The best way to score is to take high percentage shots. You have to look for lay-ups and 3-point shots in the corner. The mid-range is not very effective. In the past 20 years, only five players have shot 50% from mid-range. When you have an exceptional element in your team, like Chris Paul or Kevin Durant, you can change the situation. But if you don’t have that player, you have to aim for those shots. The last 10 years have shown this trend. Targeting the paint is essential too. Whether on drives or looking to hit a player on pick and roll. When the ball does not go through the racket at some point in traffic, the percentage of success is lower, it is proven. The perimeter ball movement that was all the rage at the time doesn’t have very positive effects in today’s NBA. You have to attack the racket or pass through it to find and exploit the weak side of the opposing team. Knowing when to attempt the lay-up and when to drop the ball to the weak side is very difficult. It’s a complex aspect to master that coaches try to pass on to today’s players.
What do programs like the Jr NBA Coaches Online do?
For the game and the players to progress, the coaches must become better. And in that sense, having programs like the Jr NBA Coaches Online that I participate in is very valuable. Today, everything is available to coaches or those who want to become one. If you want to become better, the information is there. All the ways to play and the one that the future coach wants to marry are online. We didn’t have that at the time. Only copious books that had to be swallowed or cassettes. One had to follow the train of thought of a mentor. There, you can look at Jerry Tarkanian’s methods, Tom Izzo’s systems with Michigan State, Jay Wright’s with Villanova, etc… I first try to make those who are going to follow the program understand that we cannot be good at what you do only if you love it and devote yourself fully to it. It is a fundamental basis.
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