‘Those guys are hungry’: New assistant Steve Blake talks point guards, player-to-coach transition

by Gina Mizell

While outlining his long-term goals for the Suns, new head coach Monty Williams said he believes at least four assistants on his staff — Willie Green, Darko Rajakovic, Mark Bryant and Steve Blake — have a chance to become NBA head coaches.

“I want to help those guys go forward and not make the same mistakes I made,” Williams told The Athletic.

The 39-year-old Blake is in the early stages of making the transition from NBA player to NBA coach. After retiring following an effective 13-year playing career in 2016, Blake joined the Portland Trail Blazers staff, first as a coaching intern before being elevated to an on-court assistant for the 2018-19 season. In Phoenix, Blake’s primary responsibility will be working with the point-guard group that includes veteran Ricky Rubio and youngsters Ty Jerome and Jevon Carter.

Before the Suns departed for training camp, Blake spoke to The Athletic about joining Phoenix’s staff, the history he shares with Williams and general manager James Jones and how he hopes to have an impact the Suns’ playmakers.

How have your first few months on the job been?

It’s gone great. Coming to a new city, of course, you have to find schools and houses and kind of get settled in. Your mind’s kind of on work, but also on taking care of your family and trying to figure all those details out. But it’s been great. We love living here. We’re excited to be around this area for a while. From the basketball side, it’s been awesome. The staff that Coach (Williams) has put together is a great group of guys that I really enjoy being around on a day-to-day basis. They are guys that are super knowledgeable about the game that I can learn from, since I’m kind of beginning my career as a coach. I’m just thankful for the opportunity Coach has given me.

What do you hope to bring to this staff? And what are your primary day-to-day responsibilities?

One, a perspective of a player who’s played for a while that semi-retired kind of recently, like three years ago. Just having that perspective from the game. My role will mostly be to work with the point guards, give my insight, work guys out, watch film with them and just kind of be a guy that can help out in any way possible. At the point-guard position, we have a solid veteran in Ricky Rubio who really knows the game already and is a savvy veteran. And then we’ve got some young guys in Ty and Jevon, who I’ve really enjoyed working with and can impart as much knowledge as I can.

What were your first impressions of that group during summer workouts?

Ty and Jevon, those guys are hungry to get better on the court, for knowledge. They are guys that you can tell just love the game and love the grind and working hard and being in the gym. Guys you want to have around the team. I’ve spent a lot of time with them on the court already, and although they’re different styles of player, it’s good to have variety in how they play. It’s been great. They’re a great young pair of guards to work with on a day-to-day basis. And then Ricky … you work with a guy like him a little different than some younger guys, because he’s been around for so long and understands what his body needs and his routines. It’s fun to talk with him, because coaches can learn from players, too. He’s a guy that I think I can learn from.

You’ve played against Rubio. What do you remember about those matchups, and how do you expect he’ll impact this Suns team?

I remember just understanding he was a true point guard, that he was gonna make other guys around him better. So as a defender, it wasn’t as much trying to stop him from scoring. It was trying to stop him from creating for his other teammates, which was really difficult. I always respected him, because I loved the way he played. His effort. He’s a really good defender. I think he’s gonna have a huge impact (on the Suns). I’m not sure of all the other point guards Devin (Booker) has played with in the past, but Ricky’s as true of a point guard (as can be) and the best playmaker he’s probably played with. I think that’ll be a new look for the team (compared) to the last couple years. He just has a huge impact in the way he pushes the tempo. When someone’s open, he hits them on time, with on-target passes. I think that’ll be his leadership from that position.

You mentioned imparting knowledge on the young players. What is the first thing you hope to teach them about the NBA, running this offense, etc.?

You kind of have to play it by ear a little bit. They both have a good feel for the game already, so I kind of, as we get into training camp, see what maybe they don’t know. But definitely, just the specifics are terminology on defense, terminology on offense, how they can impact the game from their position. A lot of it is just how to be a pro, too. That they understand the work ethic, how you gotta handle (yourself). They’re right on track. Like I said, both guys are extremely hard workers. Very respectful. We’ll kind of have to play it by ear and see where I can jump in and help them out.

When did you realize coaching would be your path after your playing career ended?

I started to explore while I was still playing. Our NBA Players Union does a good job of helping guys kind of figure out their career paths before they’re done playing. There’s a Top 100 Players Association camp, where they allow (current NBA) players to come in and coach young kids. … That’s where you really get to have a hands-on experience, and the coaches really kind of take you through the process of what it takes to be (an NBA) coach. Going through that made me really realize that I do enjoy it. And then as I got older and finished playing, after taking a year off, I wanted to do something instead of just sitting at home. That’s when my agent helped me reach out to the Blazers, and they were kind enough to take me on as an intern.

What did you do during your year off?

I did a lot of yard work. I ended up coaching two of my kids’ AAU basketball teams. I spent a lot of time at home with my wife and was just kind of being a stay-at-home dad. I really enjoyed it.

What did you learn during your time with the Blazers in a new capacity?

Even though I was an intern, just seeing the work and the effort that coaches put into the game off the court. Just thinking about it. Having tons of meetings. Being able to see Coach (Terry) Stotts’ leadership style … kind of just the whole dynamic is different than when you’re just a player. I was just trying to soak in all the information and how those guys went about it, Working with David Vanterpool and Nate Tibbetts and those guys. They were influential in kind of making me really enjoy the game from the coaching side.

Was there something that goes into coaching that you had no idea about as a player?

There’s no huge surprises, but just the level of the communication that goes on between all the coaches, between maybe more of an offensive coach dealing with the head coach and a defensive coach dealing with the head coach, and kind of the amount of discussing that goes into preparation. In Portland, we had meetings every single day as a group. (I began) starting to see how not to be afraid to speak up and speak my mind and got to see how that dynamic works.

You’ve worked with a lot of coaches throughout your career. What are some of the biggest lessons you learned that you can now apply as a coach?

Oh, wow. I played for a lot of coaches, a lot of influential men. Just to pick one or two is really hard. Phil Jackson, of course, just how he’s dealt with the team and players’ personalities. His calmness in how he goes about things was pretty amazing. Playing for (Mike) D’Antoni and how he runs his pick and rolls and up-tempo style and shooting 3s has made an impact on how I see the game. The one thing I noticed is, after playing for so many coaches and so many different styles, there isn’t just one way to do it. There’s multiple ways to be successful, and you kind of have to really think about yourself and how you want to do things and kind of go from there.

Why did you want to join this staff?

More than anything was Coach Monty’s character as a man. I knew he would bring in a great group of men, as well. I knew if I was gonna spend a majority of my time away from my family, I was gonna be around really good-character guys in himself and the people he’d bring around. That kind of is the main point that drove me to come out here. I also knew from working with him how smart he is about the game. If I’m gonna learn from somebody, he’s one of the main guys I’d want to learn from. If I want to continue to progress my career as a coach, there’s nobody better than him to spend time with.

You were on that 2007-08 Portland team when James Jones was a player and Williams an assistant coach. What’s it like to see them reunite in Phoenix as a general manager and head coach?

It’s really cool. It just goes to show you never know how relationships are gonna affect each other in the future. James and I both grew up in Miami and playing on AAU teams and playing against each other in high school. I never thought back then that he’d pretty much be my boss and I’d be working for an organization where he was the GM. Those guys, they’re basketball savants, I guess you could say. They know the game so well. They respect the game. They respect people. They’re genuine about relationships and how they love the game, and they’re smart and they understand it. When I was playing in Portland at the same time, James was always one of the first guys on the court with me getting extra shots up, and Monty was right there with us putting us through workouts and grinding on a day-to-day basis. It’s really cool that things have come full circle and we get to work with each other again.

Give me your best story about you and Jones coming up through the Miami basketball ranks as kids.

I’ll always remember him coming into Miami High, and it didn’t go so well for his team on our way towards the state championship. I’ll let you ask him about that. In Miami, you know who the best players are in the city, and he was one of those guys. We definitely had a respect for each other and enjoyed the moments we did have time together. We could tell we both have a love for the game.

Do you still bring that loss up to James?

Periodically, yeah. (laughs)

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