Monty Williams, Coaching With a Servant's Heart
by Brian Seltzer
Something was up with Jimmy Butler the other day.
And before the newly-acquired All-Star could even vocalize, express, or articulate to anyone what it was - if he even wanted to, that is - a steady, in-tune, thoughtful, soothing presence leaned in.
Butler appreciated the gesture, and the opportunity to talk through the issue that was bothering him.
There’s plenty of tactical expertise and X-and-Os wisdom that Monty Williams brings to the table as an assistant, but roughly five months into his first season with the 76ers, his interpersonal skills are as valuable as any of the devices in his coaching tool box.
Him putting Butler at ease was just one example.
Williams, a former first-round pick who embarked on a coaching career a few years after his playing days ended in 2003, has long grasped the power of relationships - from his youth in Prince George’s County, Maryland, where his high school coach made sure Williams had a ride to and from practice each day, to recent times, such as this past summer, when an old friend called to inquire about reuniting on the NBA sidelines.
As much as Williams will tell you he’s been the beneficiary of good relationships, the 47-year old has initiated and nurtured plenty of his own.
Just survey some of the people Williams has worked with around the league - from fellow coaches to All-Star players - about the impact he’s had on them.
The praise flows as easily as Williams’ mellow, yet genuinely caring demeanor.
“He helped me so much through my first couple years,” said Anthony Davis, who was drafted no. 1 overall by New Orleans while Williams was the head coach there.
Butler, meanwhile, first got to know Williams through their mutual involvement in USA Basketball, and had this to say:
“The people part of it, that’s really where he’s key.”
“He’s almost like a father figure in some ways,” said Sixers’ rookie Landry Shamet, who swiftly gravitated to Williams over the summer. “He’s just very good at keeping me sane, and even-keeled.”
For Williams, the appeal of joining an ascending franchise with young, blue-chip talent was obvious. But at the end of the day, the relational side of the game was as significant as any other factor in his decision to return to coaching.
Getting Back to the Bench
The last two years, Monty Williams was in San Antonio, back where it all began, at least in respect to his post-playing career.
The Spurs hired Williams in September of 2016 as their Vice President of Basketball Operations. The move was right for him at the time, but the rhythms of the gig were somewhat foreign.
That’s because from 2004, when he broke into coaching as an intern for San Antonio during one of its title seasons, through his 2016 stint in Oklahoma City, Williams was either an assistant or head coach.
Although he still had the chance to do some coaching work with the Spurs, front office life required a different routine.
“We usually have eight or nine months dictated for us [in coaching], and when I was in the management role, it was the opposite,” Williams said. “I was making my own schedule, and a lot of days, I was like, ‘What am I supposed to do as far as travel and seeing different players?’”
This off-season, a phone call from Brett Brown - about coaching, in particular - hit home.
“Making the choice to come to Philadelphia was made easier when Brett first called me,” said Williams. He and Brown had only coached together in San Antonio for one season, but they established a strong connection.
“I’ve known Monty since 2004,” Brown said. “Him as a human being, he’s elite. He’s one of my all-time favorites.”
Of the Sixers, Williams said, “This one just seemed like a great fit for me, but I also felt like it was going to stretch me. That’s how I’ve grown my whole life, is being stretched in certain scenarios and situations.”
In June, Williams accepted Brown’s offer.
Before he and his family even found a home in the area, Williams started making trips to Philadelphia. He wanted to immerse himself with the team on a day-to-day basis, and become more familiar with its sets, schemes, terminology, and culture.
Fast forward six months, and Williams occupies the seat to the immediate right of Brown on the Sixers’ bench.
Williams has enjoyed being back in the coaching mix.
“It’s been cool for me to do it again as a coach,” Williams said. “I didn’t realize how much I missed it until I got back into it full time. I was really blessed to work in San Antonio in a dual role, but it was different than what I’m doing now.
“Right out the gate, we go to China, we’re in meetings, doing player development and scouting reports. Brett has thrown a ton at me, and that’s really helped me prioritize my time. I think that’s what coaches relish and need.”
What about players, though? What do they need, especially from coaches?
There can be as many as 510 active players in the NBA at a given time, and the answer to that all-encompassing question likely varies from person-to-person.
With a dozen years of pro coaching on his resume, Williams is well aware his chief responsibility is to make players better.
He also gets that for as simple as this charge sounds, it’s a far more complicated matter than that, mostly because each player has his own personality.
So, regardless of who Williams works with, or whether he’s dispensing praise or constructive feedback, his baseline, always, is to convey pure intent.
Williams says he tells guys all the time:
“Look man, I have enough money. I’m Ok, so I’m not doing it for that. This is for your growth. I want you to get better, and if you listen to me, I’ll help you a little bit.”
There were plenty of mileposts along Williams’ personal hoops path that convinced him an honest, sincere, invested approach to coaching was the style he was most cut out for.
At Potomac High School in Maryland, athletic director and coach Taft Hickman always picked Williams up to go to practice, then drove him home.
Digger Phelps, Williams’ first coach at Notre Dame, was “huge on relationships” off the court.
Gregg Popovich, who Williams played for during part of his 10-year NBA career as a forward, is...Gregg Popovich.
“With these leaders and mentors, they all care more about the person than the player.”
Show players you have their best interests in mind, especially beyond basketball, and that you’re willing to put in work to position them for success, and Williams believes you’ll be that much more effective at reaching them, and extracting the best out of them.
Williams hopes that in him, players see “a servant’s heart.”
“I learned a long time ago, it’s my job to help guys in any area, whether it’s on the court, off the court. People say they don’t care what you know until they know how much you care, and there’s a lot to that.”
It’s a philosophy that came in handy for Williams this summer, when he was first getting acquainted with new surroundings and new faces with the Sixers.
The self-deprecating Williams jokingly said he assumed the Sixers players probably didn’t know much about him, other than that he’s “ an old coach who played, was already fired, and is washed up.”
(Again, Williams just turned 47.)
To dispel these preconceptions, real or imagined, Williams poured his energies into relationship building - a gift that comes to him naturally, but not without a good amount of thought as well.
“Once we do that,” Williams said, referring to the relationship part, “the work becomes easier.”
Specific to the Sixers, Williams’ work is multi-pronged. In terms of in-game coaching assignments, Brett Brown relies on him to help with offensive play calls, substitutions, and late-game situations.
But another important part of Williams’ duties falls under the Sixers’ “vitamin time” program, which Brown brought with him from San Antonio. It assigns every Sixers assistant to a few players, and they work year-round on skill development.
Two of Williams’ guys are Ben Simmons, and Landry Shamet.
“I didn’t know that I would be matched up with Ben,” Williams said. “Coach [Brown] called me this summer, and he was like, ‘You’re going to have Ben.’ I didn’t know Ben at all.”
“Landry, I just kind of fell into it. I was here [in the summer], and he’s about as paranoid about work as I am, so he was in the gym, and we just started working. We developed a rapport, and just spent a lot of time together.”
As you’d figure, an intimate, close-working environment like vitamin time joins coach and player at the hip. It’s a setting where bonds are forged.
“I picked up on the type of person he is really, really early,” said Shamet, the no. 26 pick in this year’s draft, who used words like “family,” “intelligent,” “composed,” and “faithful to describe Williams.
“He’s just a really good human being. He’s teaching me stuff every day about basketball, but it’s almost like a life lesson in each day working with him. He’s always trying to breathe life into you. He keeps me sane with the ups and downs of being a rookie, tells me what to expect, he’s been great with all of that.”
In some instances, Williams might use an encouraging, post-workout or post-game personalized text to keep a player’s spirits up. Other times, Williams initiates direct conversation himself.
Either way, his purpose is one in the same. Use a human touch to create comfortable, trustworthy relationships.
“I would like to be the kind of coach who gets text messages and phone calls from players years after I coach them, because we had something that is bigger than just being on the floor,” he said.
“I get vested in my guys. I want to know who their family members are, I want to know their interests, I want to know what makes them tick. I want them to also know I care about the other side of them, their personal character and growth as men, because I think we all sharpen each other that way.”
Experience with Elites
Stars, Williams has learned, tend to require their own kind of relational handling. And not in the way you might first think.
Over the course of his coaching career, Williams has been around premiere talent at just about every turn.
Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker with the Spurs; Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge with the Trail Blazers; Chris Paul, Anthony Davis, and Jrue Holiday with the Hornets x Pelicans; and Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook with the Thunder.
Oh, and he was an assistant for Mike Krzyzewski on the United States’ 2016 Olympics gold medal team, too.
So, in a word, yeah, Williams has extensive experience coaching the best players on the planet, and observing how they tick.
“I think for me, the thing that stands out, and I can say this without a lot of thought, you have to leave those guys room to be creative,” Williams said.
During a coaching retreat with the Spurs, Gregg Popovich once shared a leadership thought that resonated loudly with Williams.
Rules, Popovich said, should not stifle talent. The message has stayed with Williams to this day.
“When you’re young in this business, you have a tendency to have a lot of rules, because you want to establish culture,” said Williams, who, upon his hiring by New Orleans at the age of 38, was the youngest head coach in the NBA. “Well sometimes, culture can stifle talent, so you have to be careful.”
Williams then saw Krzyzewski take this concept a step further with Team USA.
“Coach K was like, ‘I don’t have rules. I have things I value.’ It made a lot of sense. If you can get guys to buy into your values, you can take off. People don’t always buy into your rules. We all have the nature to say, ‘Whatever.’ That’s who we all are if we’re straight. But if you can get people to your value system, then you can move the chains.”
Anthony Davis fell under Williams’ stead with the Pelicans. Within two years of the big man turning pro, Williams had helped him to his first All-Star Game.
“He always told me don’t let anyone steal my joy for the game - any time I go on the floor, I should have fun and enjoy it,” said Davis. “That’s definitely one thing I’ve kept with me through the time I’ve been in the NBA.”
Jimmy Butler, picked up by the Sixers in a November 12th trade, has been to four All-Star Games, and won gold with Williams in Rio.
“For one, he studies the game a lot, obviously, as a coach, but he brings the real people aspect to the game that you need,” Butler said. “Basketball is basketball, everybody knows what you’re going to get out of everybody basketball wise, but the people part of it, that’s really where [Williams] is key.”
With the Sixers, Williams once again finds himself in the midst of working with elite players. Butler is in the fold, along with transformative youngsters Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
Williams has so far incorporated into his coaching here that notion of giving star players an extra bit of autonomy. Take the competitive side of Embiid, for instance.
“I don’t know if I’ve met anyone in the NBA who’s as competitive as that dude - like he doesn’t want any other big to even think they’ve got a shot,” said Williams. “If I only looked at that part, I would miss this creative side of Jo that I’m learning about. Social media stuff aside, Jo’s a pretty creative dude, a pretty caring guy. I think when you have a rigid atmosphere, you tend to stifle that kind of creativity.
“Whether it’s Kevin Durant or Anthony Davis, I’ve been really blessed to be around a lot of good players. That’s the one thing I’ve seen with those guys -- you have to allow for them to have input, bring their creative mind to the game, allowing those guys to help you make decisions, and I think that helps your culture.”
A Relationship Completes a Circle
It’s a practice day in late November at the 76ers’ training complex in Camden, New Jersey, and after most players have cleared the court, Monty Williams is still out there, joking around with JJ Redick.
The topic sounded like it had something to do with the toughest back-to-backs in the Western Conference, a subject that Williams and Redick should be well-versed in. Iconsequential as it may have seemed, the conversation stirred jovial debate.
(Prior to signing on with the Sixers, Williams had only ever been a coach in the Western Conference. Redick, meanwhile, played four seasons with the LA Clippers before coming to the Sixers.)
Really, whatever it was that Williams and Redick were discussing was besides the point. The loose, jocular body language between the two was just another example of Williams fueling an interaction that emitted good vibes.
“When I finished playing, the thing I missed more than anything was the locker room, the bus, and the airplane, because that was when we got to be like a fist,” Williams said. “Obviously, you miss game-winning shots, and all the stuff we do on the floor, but the secondary and tertiary things...those are moments you can’t get anywhere else.”
With that insight serving as context, it’s easy to understand why Williams ultimately felt drawn to come back to relationship-rich realm of coaching.
But that he ended up with the Sixers, and specifically, with Brown again, this time with Brown the head coach of an NBA team?
At one point, Williams wasn’t sure if that would ever happen.
“It was weird, because when I got here, we had so many talks about stuff, and I mentioned that to him. I was like, ‘Brett, I never knew that you really wanted to be a head coach. And the reason I say that is there’s a tendency to get comfortable in a certain situation.”
Especially in San Antonio, where the club won four titles - in 1999, 2003, 2005, and 2007 - during Brown’s tenure as an assistant.
“I mean, 20-plus years of that, you [can] just stay there forever,” Williams said. “I thought it was the coolest thing for him to just say, ‘Nope, I want to do my own thing, and I’m going to leave this.’”
“This,” when Brown was hired by the Sixers in 2013, was of course a vastly different place then than it is today. The possibility of competing for a championship was a dream that felt years away, and it was.
From afar, Williams admired Brown’s perseverance.
One of the things he paid attention to the most? Not surprisingly, how Brown managed to keep the spirits of his players up.
“He had the relation side down,” said Williams.
Now, with a budding young core in place, and a stable of seasoned veterans in tow, the Sixers have positioned themselves well to pursue their title aspirations. It’s a ride Williams was eager to take.
From first-hand experience, he knows how the payoff goes. It all ties back to the essence of the man.
“When you’re hugging in the locker room because you won a gold medal, or a Game 7 and you win a championship, you’re hugging the person,” Williams said. “You’re hugging what you built up over time. You look each other in the eyes, and sometimes you don’t even know what to say. But if we’re all honest, you know you just went through something with that particular person that you cannot choreograph.”
The feeling you’re left with?
“It’s just cool.”