Joe Prunty is in unchartered territory. He’s happy to break new ground.
It may have escaped the notice of most but the American has achieved a unique distinction this summer: the first ever full-time head coach of Great Britain.
Not his choice, of course, having been let go from the Cleveland Cavaliers when Byron Scott was fired at the end of last season. “I’m still seeing what’s out there,” admits the long-time NBA assistant. “But right now I’m really focused on this.”
It’s an original chapter for the 49-year-old Californian who had never coached outside his native land before taking charge of GB’s opening friendly of 2013 in London last weekend against Puerto Rico.
His strength, a number of NBA sources have claimed, is his teaching. Britain’s players, even the veterans, have been pushed to add to their repertoire, even amid the accelerated learning process delivered by their new playcaller.
“The coaching staff are great teachers,” confirms young guard Alex Marcotullio. “They slow everything down for you, and even though they expect you to learn fast and on the fly, they really explain the premise behind all the drills.”
Prunty came prepared. A left-field choice by British Basketball, even amid a coaching search that determinedly looked across the Atlantic rather than over The Channel, many – players included – wondered openly whether he would have the expertise to deal with the different demands of the European game.
With no permanent gig to distract him, he reveals an extensive period of homework before arriving in the UK.
“From day one, since this was even a possibility, I’ve been reaching out to many people who have international experience that I know,” Prunty confirms.
“Like (new 76ers coach) Brett Brown, who’s been the head coach of Australia. Jay Triano, who was head coach with Canada. Nate McMillan, the assistant coach of Team USA. Del Harris, who’s been head coach with China. The list of people’s been extensive.
“And then the people within the Great Britain framework, like (performance manager) Warwick Cann, getting his thoughts. Plus my staff has Guy Goodes, who is a great basketball coach with a wealth of international knowledge. Nate Reinking’s a former Great Britain player. The list goes on and on of resources I’ve tapped into.
“And that includes the players. Guys like Andrew Sullivan, who has a wealth of knowledge, same with Kieron Achara, Dan Clark, Kyle Johnson.”
He has done more teaching here than he likely expected. Luol Deng’s absence was long-trailed but the withdrawals of Joel Freeland and Pops Mensah-Bonsu were confirmed after Prunty had accepted the role.
That’s meant new faces, unproven prospects, some who will step up and flourish, others who will be blinded in the headlights. On the sidelines, Prunty and his lead assistant Guy Goodes are regularly whispering in ears, offering encouragement and instruction at every opportunity.
“We talk to all of the guys, giving them quick hits when they’re coming in and out of the games, half-times, quarter breaks, whenever we can,” he notes.
“But that’s going to have to happen with all of our players, that they have to get a comfort level out on the floor.
“That’s why these experiences are invaluable for us. To get out of your comfort level, like for Alex Marcotullio, and start playing at the level we’ll need from them when we get to EuroBasket.”
Goodes, a former international guard with Israel, is another who can act as a mentor. Young pair Andrew Lawrence and Devon van Oostrum can profit from his knowledge. They must, simply, if GB are to stand any hope of beating the odds in Slovenia.
Van Oostrum remains an enigma. Awful and inspirational in equal measures against the Puerto Ricans, he excelled in the mid-week loss to Finland, to the point where his absence in the third period coincided with GB’s slump.
“He did some nice things in the second quarter that really helped us,” Prunty stated.
“He’s growing every day. He had some success at the European Under-20 Championships. We’re hoping he can capitalise on that with us as well so he can have an impact.
“There are a few growing pains but we’re pushing him to grow for EuroBasket. And as a team, we’re looking at how we can improve and get more assists and less turnovers.”
Next up on the friendly slate is Greece on Sunday in Crete, potentially a strengthened Greek line-up from the formidable one which defeated France, Germany and Croatia to win a four-nation tournament in Strasbourg last week.
Lawrence is a doubt, with his injury under observation. “We’re just keeping an eye on him,” Prunty confirms.
Victory appearance unlikely. Regardless, more instruction and education is essential.
“We’ve got very good players who are excited to get better and that’s what you want,” he adds. “And we will get better.”
New game, new day, fresh challenge, contented coach.
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