Leading Deandre Ayton, Devin Booker and the youngest team in the NBA
Part 2 of The Undefeated’s conversation with Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams and general manager James Jones
PHOENIX – The way Phoenix Suns general manager James Jones and coach Monty Williams see it, Deandre Ayton has suffered enough. After the 21-year-old center was suspended for 25 games by the NBA for using a diuretic, Jones and Williams chose to support Ayton through his trying stretch.
“It’s part of life. The challenging steps, setbacks, obstacles,” Jones told The Undefeated. “It’s about how you respond and, from day one, he acknowledged it, he accepted it and he’s been working to be better. And that’s all you want.”
Ayton is eligible to return to action Tuesday against the LA Clippers.
“He’s been working his tail off,” Williams said. “Talking more trash than ever. He’s ready. For me, it’s like we’re going to be signing a big-time free agent. Can’t wait to get him back.”
In Part 1 of our conversation with the NBA’s lone black general manager and head coach duo on Dec. 13, Jones and Williams talked about the paths they’ve taken to their respective roles. In Part 2, they spoke with The Undefeated about their young stars, working with Suns owner Robert Sarver, and how they hope to instill championship habits in the NBA’s youngest team.
How do you guys love Ayton up? Where do you go from here?
Jones: I mean, I couldn’t tell you the troubles and problems I had at 22, but I’m pretty sure I had a bunch of them. And so we’ll be fine. He’s fine. He knows that we care about him, he knows that we need him and he knows that we’re here for him. And that’s what’s important.
Williams: I think when you draft or bring a player in or hire, you hire all of it. You draft all of it. … And when the challenges come up, you have to embrace that, too. People did it with me. John MacLeod, Digger Phelps in college. Pat Riley as a rookie. Jeff Van Gundy was my stable coach. Like dealing with me and Charlie [Ward] every day at 22. I can’t even imagine the patience he had to have with us back then on that New York Knicks team. …
All of these issues that come up with us all, the basketball part just like goes down the list and you start to think about, ‘OK, how can this be a great moment for us 20 years from now because of the way we respond and serve and love during these times?’
How do you guys use your experiences playing with stars to work with Devin?
Jones: He’s different than LeBron. He’s different than Reggie [Miller]. Devin is Devin. Devin is the first Devin Booker and Dev will be the last Devin Booker. He’s a different personality than those guys. And so I try not to tell stories. I try not to harp on it. I just try to be mindful of what the mind-set of a guy that is that skilled. …
Because for me, even as a player, it was offensive to say like,… I’m just a role player, there’s only one James Jones. So if someone said, ‘James, you need to be more like this guy.’ I’d probably be like, ‘Nah, I need to be more like James Jones.’ So, I guess for me it just guides me and helps me understand when I should press, when I should sit back, when I should encourage and when I should just pretty much shut up and let the kid be special.
Williams: I’ve probably spent more time just going back and forth with him, but not like impressing on him anything that was outside of our culture. Our culture is show up on time, defend, compete and share the ball and have gratitude. … For me it’s, like, if the guys follow that, everything else I’m good with.
I listen to these guys more than I talk to them about, Tim because it’s different. They can’t relate. They’ve seen it, but they can’t relate. Like he’s real tight with Kevin Durant. Well, I know Kevin, I know how nutty [driven] he is and Devin is the same way. I don’t want to mess with that. I try to help Devin with, like, small corrections and the best thing about Devin right now is he’s the guy that I’m the toughest on on the team and the team sees it.
He’s sacrificed more than anybody.
What is it like to be a champion, and then to deal with losing?
Jones: Winning changes everything. Once you win, the game never becomes the same. Because you reach that destination and you kind of figure it out, ‘OK, I know what it takes to get here.’ So the rest of your career becomes a journey about how to return there. …
Losing is hard, but understanding where we are in that spectrum makes it easier to come back the next day and say, ‘OK, how can we build? Like where can we be better? How can we move it forward?’ … So, I’m so deeply focused on the process because I know there’s a process that you have to undertake to become a champion.
Williams: I feel the same way. I didn’t know what winning a championship or a gold medal would do for my thinking because I just didn’t have any idea. … And then once I was a part of it, it gave me a reference point.
I’m able to talk to the guys about our habits in a way that’s understandable to them. And sometimes they look at me like, ‘Coach, what are you talking about?’ And I’m like, ‘… because I’ve been around it and I know this ain’t going to work. If you keep doing this, we won’t have a shot.’
A lot of us have won in the league, but winning the title is just different. … The mental and emotional stamina that you have to have to play in June, it’s just different. And when I talk to our team, you know, the youngest team in the league, I’m like, we can’t wait until we make the playoffs to develop championship habits. It don’t work like that. This crap has to be done now.
What would it mean for you guys to get Phoenix back to where winning is the norm and you’re competing for a championship?
Jones: That’s the only thing that matters to me right now. … I remember being in Miami with [Erik] Spoelstra and Pat [Riley] and Keith Askins and Bob McAdoo and [David] Fizdale and all those coaches, Ronnie Rothstein, sitting around that room and saying, ‘If we win it, when we win, you’ll never forget this moment.’ And as a young player, you think you’re like, ‘Aw, man, it’s another cliché speech.’
But then to actually see the joy, excitement and the expressions of everyone involved when we actually won it. It’s like yesterday and you can’t forget it. … And that’s what I’m chasing.
Williams: Yeah, man, I’ll shoot you straight. Like, yes, I want to be known as one of the better coaches in the NBA. But that doesn’t usurp the servant leadership that we’re trying to exhibit every day. Because I think .. all the good coaches and leaders I had from Pop [Gregg Popovich] to Doc [Rivers] to Nate [McMillan] to coach [Taft] Hickman, my high school coach, that was his thing. He was going to get all of us out of the ‘hood, not in the typical out of the ‘hood way. He was going to get us out of the ‘hood so that we can help somebody else, that type of person. And I feel like somewhat of a burden to do that.
In New Orleans, I made it about me a lot of times. I was a young coach, USA team, all that. And there was a bit of pride there that got in the way and I had to address that. I don’t want to go that route anymore. I really do want to be able to serve in this platform, because I know it’s limited. …
That’s the atmosphere we want to create here. We want everybody to feel so excited and good about what we’re trying to do, but also have an understanding that we have these responsibilities. We got to get the job done, too. It’s a thing that you’ve got to juggle every day.
What preconceived notions did you have about Robert Sarver and what has it been like getting to know him?
Jones: Like it or not, right or wrong, Robert’s direct and that’s the way I was raised. That’s the way I operate. And so I didn’t have any preconceived notions because I knew exactly who he was and exactly what he was about. So when he asked me to entertain coming and working for Phoenix, it wasn’t Robert or fear of Robert or fear of the situation as much as it was the timing and location right for my family. Because I knew what I was getting in. He’s passionate. He’s direct. And more importantly when you get to know him, he’s a really good guy. He wants to succeed. Sometimes so much so he believes he wants it more than you do.
Williams: I had heard all of the stories. But I’ve been around long enough to know … it’s like when you’re growing up, before you get to the league, you have a certain idea about a player and you get to the league and you’re around that guy. It could be a guy that you like and you get on the team with him or you’re around him in the league and you’re like, ‘He’s not the guy I thought he was.’ You have to just be around people before you can make those assumptions or take them seriously.
For me, it was like, he didn’t lie. When we had direct conversations about our past, not one time did he buckle. He told me straight up like whatever it was, and I did the same. And I felt this somewhat of a kinship. As an African American, I know that I’m not going to be afforded a ton of opportunities to be a head coach. And for me it was like, I can’t mess this up. And I felt he felt the same way and we basically expressed that to each other. … He wasn’t trying to be rude. He just told me like straight up, we both have regrets about some things we have done in our past. For me, I can vibe with a cat like that.
Last question. What’s it like to be black in Phoenix?
Jones: I’ll put it this way. I have lot of miles on my car because I have to explore. … But, you know, once again, it’s good, man. It’s different but it’s good. Like I said, being a kid from the South, from the Southeast, from South Carolina, all the way down through Georgia, Miami, family in North Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana. It’s just West Coast. But we’re here. So it’s been good, but … I have to go back home to get some real Southern food. You’re not going to find that here.
Williams: Phoenix has provided me and my family with everything we need. That’s how I see it. My kids have a great school. I have a really good church. I’m excited to go to work, you know what I mean? For me, the only thing that would make it better here is to have a bass pond 10 minutes away from my house. That’s impossible in Phoenix.
Jones: Get me a beach, I’d be good, too.
Williams: You know what I’m saying?
This has been my life for the past 26 years. And even before that in college. We’ve always had to acclimate. I had to leave P.G. [Prince George’s] County to go to South Bend, Indiana. Think about that. P.G. County, Maryland, South Bend, Indiana, you can’t get anymore different.
I tend to look at it in the same way as James. If I want something, I may have to go somewhere else to get it. But for the most part, everything for me is here. And that was a prayer for me. I was like, the next job I take, I hope it’s a place where I can live for a long time. Even if I wasn’t doing the job. Phoenix certainly fits the bill.