ATLANTA—Lloyd Pierce's sunny disposition immediately stands out in a 10-minute discussion with the assembled Atlanta media. He's patient, folksy, charming, disarming and quick to regale stories from previous stops on the NBA career trail.
Just don't pigeonhole his previous teaching experiences in a league that's built on spontaneity and versatility.
"I consider myself a basketball coach," said Pierce, slightly peeved at being labeled as a "defensive" coach during one media query.
Technically, it was an accurate characterization, since Pierce had been a defensive-focused assistant with the Philadelphia 76ers the previous two seasons. However, in his first three years with Philly, Pierce served as the football equivalent of an offensive coordinator.
In other words, he's seen and done it all on the NBA coaching ladder.
"The benefits of focusing on defense (2016-18), is that you got to study everybody's offense," said Pierce after Monday's introductory press conference, where the the Atlanta Hawks welcomed rookies Trae Young (5th overall—trade with the Mavericks), Kevin Huerter (19th overall) and Omari Spellman (30th overall) into the mix.
When studying the other 29 teams as an assistant, "You get to build your own foundation (for being a head coach)—what you like, what you don't like. I can implement that now."
Pierce may have already brainstormed the offensive/defensive blueprints for his inaugural season as an NBA head coach—or any level, for that matter—but he still knows what's most important, when handling supremely talented talents in the pro game.
"I think the thing we'll have with all three guys (Young, Huerter, Spellman): As soon as they hit the floor, letting them be themselves," said the 42-year-old Pierce, who had been an assistant with the 76ers (2013-18), Grizzlies (2011-13), Warriors (2010-11) and Cavaliers (2007-10). "Just let Trae play. Give him the ball, let him pick and roll, let him find his teammates ... we're going to let him do that."
Pierce fully understands the potential impact of the Young acquisition (shipping Luka Doncic to Dallas). Yes, Young's just a precocious rookie of 19 years old, but he's also the only Division I player in NCAA history to lead the country in points (27.4) and assists (8.7) in the same season; and if that '8.7' figure seems low for a national assist champion ... think again.
Check this out: For a 19-game span from Nov. 24 to Feb. 3 last season, Young absurdly averaged 31.1 points, 9.8 assists, 1.2 steals and 45 percent shooting from the field; and these weren't all point-blank opportunities, either:
During this prolific stretch, Young averaged 11 three-point attempts per game.
"We've got to see what we have (with Young) and let him be comfortable. The first thing we do is let him play 'Trae basketball.'"
Trae Basketball has some interesting marketing potential, and the Hawks could certainly use a boost at the gate.
Last season, Atlanta ranked last in average attendance and percentage of tickets sold. But this might have been a short-term hit for a long-term gain, in lieu of Philips Arena undergoing a massive renovation—capitalizing on the entertainment appeal of an NBA night out.
But like all entertainment projects, it never hurts to have a star-driven vehicle; and Young certainly has the natural flair to become the Hawks' proverbial "face" of the franchise.
In fact, rumor has it there's already a Young billboard occupying the busy freeways of Atlanta.
For the record, Young hasn't seen the billboard yet ... or much of Atlanta.
"What I went through (last season) with Oklahoma, knowing there was a lot on my plate ... going through all that will help me at this level."
With "all that," Young's likely referencing the pressure of being hailed as the next Stephen Curry. The kid has unlimited shooting range (up to 30 feet), supreme passing skills, excellent court vision and a top-notch knack for getting to the basket off the dribble.
"Trae's stronger than I thought," said Pierce, when recalling his pre-draft workout with Young at the Hawks' sprawling Emory facility. "His core is strong ... and he's hard to get a hold of. That's probably why's he's able to blow by (bigger or quicker) defenders."
Young should have a strong role model for attacking the basket or creating separation along the perimeter.
Charting his two-year stint as the Hawks' primary playmaker, point guard Dennis Schroder averaged 18.6 points, 6.3 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 1.0 steal; and with the analytics-friendly stat of "effective field goal percentage," the Germany native holds a rock-solid rate of 48 percent since the fall of 2016.
Of course, that's assuming Schroder doesn't hold any lingering resentment toward the Hawks.
Back in May, while speaking to reporters in his native country, Schroder was rather pessimistic about the Hawks' short- and long-term development plan.
Schroder even went so far to dream about being traded to the Indiana Pacers or Milwaukee Bucks—two guard-needy clubs that are seemingly ready to compete for conference championships.
In Pierce's mind, though, Schroder's speculative unhappiness doesn't register with the team.
"I think Dennis will be a tremendous role model. He's had a lot of success in the league," said Pierce, generally rehashing his pre- and post-draft conversations with Schroder, who's working out with the German national team overseas. "He's excited about where we're headed."
So, where exactly are the Hawks headed in the short term? Let's answer this in bullet-point form:
**According to Spotrac.com, a site which continually monitors the NBA salary cap, the Hawks will have approximately $29.1 million of practical cap space (fourth-most in the NBA) for the upcoming league year, meaning Atlanta theoretically has enough money to sign the likes of LeBron James, Paul George, Kevin Durant, DeMarcus Cousins or Chris Paul to a "max" contract of four or five seasons (range: $180-$200 million).
But Schlenk was firm with the media on Monday: Come July, the Hawks will not be among the teams rushing to sign free agents to landmark contracts. In other words, within this long-term rebuilding project, it might behoove Atlanta to be among the bottom rung of teams for one more season.
**Factoring in the Trae Young-Luka Doncic swap on draft night, the Hawks could have three first-round picks in next year's draft—via the Cavaliers and Mavericks (the latter's No. 1 choice has top-five protection in 2019).
**On the defensive end, last year's Hawks (24-58 overall) ranked 23rd in rebounds, 27th in rebounding percentage, 23rd in blocks, 19th in 'second points' allowed, 21st in defensive efficiency rating and 24th overall in points allowed (108.8).
Given the predominance of youth with the current roster, Coach Pierce is well-aware of his uphill challenge.
"Every rookie that comes here in the NBA needs to get better defensively ... it's a five-man defense, which means our weakest link will hurt us," reasoned Pierce. "It'll be a whole new language" with the players on defense.
"And it's not just Trae, I think it's a rookie thing."
With Spellman, a number of NBA pundits liken his game to a hidden gem from Schlenk's past (former executive at Golden State): Draymond Green.
At Villanova, Spellman might have been a secondary or tertiary option on the offensive end, but it didn't stop him from being a stat-sheet-stuffing monster, similar to Green with the Warriors.
For one crazy outing against Seton Hall, the freshman brandished his typical double-double excellence of 26 points and 11 rebounds ... along with three blocks and six three-pointers made; and for the Final Four round versus Kansas, Spellman was a beast in the paint, rolling for 15 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks.
By the way, Spellman lives by the daily code of Humble To Hungry, which he learned at Villanova. It's a representative component of Spellman's no-nonsense attitude when taking the court.
The only knock on Spellman, a 48-percent shooter during his lone campaign at Villanova: He has a ways to go to match Green's prodigious numbers in the assist category.
SUMMER LEAGUE ON STEROIDS
The NBA will be trying something different this year, in terms of inviting all 30 franchises to the Las Vegas Summer League.
On top of that, the Hawks will make a quick stop in Salt Lake City to participate in the Jazz's four-team tournament. Put it all together, and that's a lot of summertime minutes for Atlanta's first- and second-year players.
For example, as noted by Pierce, Young hasn't had any live action since Oklahoma's first-round loss to Rhode Island in the NCAA tournament. Huerter is out for the next four to eight weeks with a hand injury (torn ligament); and as the 30th overall pick, Spellman has arguably had more on-site NBA workouts than Huerter and Young combined.
"We'll take it game by game," said Pierce, who will serve as head coach in Salt Lake City, but not in Las Vegas.
The way Pierce sees it, with the Las Vegas trip, the Hawks players will be exposed to limited practice time, a number of games on back-to-back days and a media crush that likely exceeds anything they knew in college.
In other words, the NBA has done a marvelous job of simulating the frenzy of the regular season ... for 12 days in July.
This puts the onus on Pierce to quickly adapt to his new role as franchise caretaker.
"It makes it a lot easier to delegate, and delegating is one of the hardest things (for a new coach)," Pierce said. "As an assistant, you're used to grinding, so now I have to pass on some of those items and some of those tasks... I look forward to delegating (those responsibilities), so I can find a central focus with my team."
For what it's worth, every Pierce hire with the Hawks has proffered a pre-existing relationship with the coach, from the old days of Cleveland to Philadelphia.
Regarding the energy-sapping NBA schedule, Pierce hasn't seen any preview of the Hawks' 82-game slate. But it doesn't matter right now, since a lot of clubs approach the logistical angle in a similar manner.
"There's a sheepish way for how everyone approaches (NBA life)," Pierce explained. As part of that, it's safe to say Pierce cultivated his devotion to preparation through one of his many NBA mentors.
As in, it's cool to be part of teams that have selected five different top-five picks since 2014 (Sixers, Hawks), but it's incumbent on these coaches to have the high-profile stars ready to play from Day 1.
For instance, if you're wondering if NBA coaches get ample time to relax during a regular season, Pierce is happy to disabuse that notion.
A reporter asked, "Coach, do you watch film on the plane after games?"
He replied with a smile. "Yes ... it never stops."