Coaches Corner: Joe Prunty
Joe Prunty has 23 years of experience as an NBA coach, and he recently led USA Basketball to two wins as head coach of the February 2021 USA Men's AmeriCup Qualifying Team. He also served as an assistant coach for the USA November 2020 USA AmeriCup Qualifying Team that finished 2-0.
Prunty served as an assistant for the Phoenix Suns during the 2018-19 season, and he joined the Suns after working as interim head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks, where he went 21-16 over the final 37 games of the 2017-18 season. Prunty joined Milwaukee’s coaching staff as an assistant in 2014-15, and in his fourth season compiled an 8-9 record as interim head coach in 2015-16 after head coach Jason Kidd underwent hip surgery.
Prunty also served as an assistant coach with the Brooklyn Nets (2013-14), Cleveland Cavaliers (2010-2013), Portland Trail Blazers (2008-2010), Dallas Mavericks (2005-2008) and San Antonio Spurs (2000-2005). He began his NBA career as assistant video coordinator with San Antonio in 1996 and held multiple positions with the Spurs over the ensuing nine years.
NBA teams with Prunty as a part of their coaching staff qualified for 17 NBA playoffs in his 23 seasons, and he has been part of teams that have won three NBA Championships (1999, 2003, 2005), all as a member on the San Antonio Spurs staff. He also advanced to the NBA Finals with Dallas in 2006.
Prunty spent five summers as head coach of Great Britain’s national team from 2013-17, qualifying for EuroBasket in 2013 and 2017.
Prunty also has high school and college coaching experience – coaching four years at the University of San Diego High School (Calif.), St. Augustine High School (Calif.) and at the University of San Diego.
USA Basketball spoke with Prunty to get his insight and perspective on coaching.
What do you think is one of the most important characteristics for a coach in order to be an effective leader?
Leadership certainly is not a short answer question, but I believe great leaders are great listeners. Great leaders have a vision, not for what the team is, but what it can become. Leaders listen to people and make those people feel comfortable about presenting ideas. They are open, and as a leader you have to determine whether it's something that can be utilized or not.
It's certainly worth listening to each person as they present their ideas, to make sure they understand that those ideas they presented are valuable and that they've been heard. And then, having a discussion, whether it's just the people that are presenting or in a meeting, which ideas to utilize and why. You have to ask, what do you think? And sometimes, you have to question those ideas. Maybe you might already have an idea or a philosophy, but you want to consider a concept or an idea to the staff to make them think, because maybe they have something that can make it better. Part of the vision factor is that it's not just always about what has worked well, but how do we become better?
How does being either an assistant coach or a head coach change your approach?
As an assistant coach (for the USA AmeriCup Qualifying Team), I had a lot of detailed focus on both our opponents. I worked closely with Mario Casamajor, who was our video coordinator, to get video clips not only on their personnel, but plays that we thought they might run. We watched games to anticipate what other teams might run. I tried to help give our team a little bit of foundation, even before we saw the other teams play. There was a lot of work that went into finding out the tendencies of other teams. When I was the USA head coach, I had Othella Harrington and James Jones as assistant coaches to prepare for our opponents.
As an assistant coach, you present a lot of different ideas to the head coach, and as the head coach, you decide which ideas to implement, whether they originate from myself, or from my assistants or somebody else. It was my decision to determine which ones we went with. And as the head coach, you have to have a large focus on your team logistics, in putting together practices, putting together video scouting edits, meeting with the staff and players to have all the necessary information to make the best decisions for the team.
How have you tried to address the challenges of helping to build a team? Most recently, you had just a week or so to do that in your AmeriCup qualifying experiences?
It started with Sean Ford (USA Basketball Men’s National Team director), and I've said this numerous times to people – he and his staff do an amazing job of organizing the approach to building the team. They build relationships with players, their agents and so many people in the basketball world to provide the perfect foundation for building the team.
We didn't have one player from the November window that was the same in the February window. From a coaching perspective, I look at several different things – understanding the players, and getting to know them, getting to know them as a person, more than a player, talks with them, whether it's over phone calls, on Zoom meetings. Or, if they have any questions about things that they want to know.
For myself, I utilize past experiences to help with the current situation. Having coached internationally in Great Britain was huge for my USA Basketball experience, and I had that international experience. And then, just kind of calling upon my experiences and culture having coached in the NBA.
For me, establishing a defensive and offensive system that we can implement in the allotted time was huge. So, not trying to overdo things, making sure we accounted for all the possible things that might arise on the court, so we were not surprised, for example, by presses, changing defenses, or different out of bounds situations that you might run into – the corner out of bounds, underneath out of bounds. And then, organizing meetings and utilizing quarantine time wisely with the coaches and the players. And what I mean by that is just trying to get a foundation established before we ever even stepped on the court.
When you are coaching a team that is playing according to international rules as opposed to U.S. rules, what things are you most focused on emphasizing to help your players adapt to the different style?
The first part of the different style is just emphasizing how physical the international game can be. Not that our players haven't played with that level of physicality, but just letting them know that the game is allowed to be a little bit more physical. So, we discussed that with the players. We showed video clips of previous games. Therefore, when we got into practices, we allowed the practices to be physical to simulate what they could see in game action. We go over all the rules and discuss rule differences or game flow differences. The FIBA game is only a 40-minute game with no mandatory stoppages. But overall, we made them aware of all the key things in advance.
But, we wanted them to focus on playing together and emphasized what each player could do to help the team. And that's one thing I would say with the February 2021 team, is they did a great job of establishing chemistry. We established chemistry quickly and we played very well together.