Brad Stevens trying to escape loooong run of college coaches failing in NBA

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In 1987, the New York Knicks hired a hotshot college coach who had just led Providence to the Final Four. The new coach was smart, energetic and extremely promising.

In his first year, he led the Knicks to a 38-44 finish. Although that record wasn’t great, it sure beat the 24, 23 and 24 games New York won the three prior seasons .

In year two, he took the Knicks even higher. They went 52-30, their best record in 16 years.

But, despite his success, the coach wasn’t totally happy in the pros, and he left for the University of Kentucky. NBA commissioner David Stern even chided him after he left, implying the coach couldn’t handle the challenges of the Association.

“He’s leaving the stress of the pros and all the traveling for what really is an easier job,” Stern said. “In the end, who wouldn’t do that?’”

That coach was Rick Pitino – perhaps the most famous example of a college coach failing to successfully jump to the NBA, but also arguably the most recent example of a coach who did it well.

Since Pitino left the Knicks with a 90-74 record, 13 NCAA Division I coaches have been hired to become NBA head coaches. Just two of them have had a winning record with the NBA team that plucked them from the college ranks.

New Celtics coach Brad Stevens, whom Boston hired from Butler, will do his best not to follow in those footsteps. Here’s the history he’s trying to escape:

Mike Dunlap

Hired by the Charlotte Bobcats in 2012 from St. John’s

Record: 21-61

Dunlap is a unique case, because he was a St. John’s assistant when the Bobcats hired him.

But the reasons he failed in his lone season were hardly unique for a former college coach. Associated Press:

Dunlap struggled at times with game management, transitioning from the college game to the NBA and handling professional athletes, often benching veteran players for weeks at a time after they’d irritated him in some way.

Reggie Theus

Hired by the Sacramento Kings in 2007 from New Mexico State

Record: 44-62

Strangely enough, Theus credited Pitino and Jerry Tarkanian, both whom will appear later on this list, for helping to get him the job. Kings co-owner Gavin Maloof sounded pretty excited on his own to get Theus despite his small-time accomplishments after his playing career ended. “He’s very well thought of and revered in Las Cruces,” Maloof said.

Ultimately, Theus clashed with the Maloofs – who exercised the type of oversight not often seen by college coaches – and was fired early in his second season.

“I was dead man walking before I even took the job,” Theus said. “I wish I had known that.”

Mike Montgomery

Hired by the Golden State Warriors in 2004 from Stanford

Record: 68-96

Montgomery was very mindful of the difference between the college and pro games when he was hired. Associated Press:

Coaching in the NBA has always been something Montgomery has considered as the next logical step. For several years now he has been talking to other coaches about the differences.

“Obviously there will be somewhat of a transition going from college to the NBA, but I’m prepared to meet those new demands and am confident in my abilities,” Montgomery said.

Perhaps, Montgomery overly compensated for those differences, though. Michael Deuser of Sporting News:

At Stanford, Montgomery built his program on tough defense and an offense based on tightly controlled half-court sets. Many of Monty’s point guards chafed under his direction, complaining that their creativity was squelched by a coach who called plays every time down the court. With Davis, Montgomery has behaved differently. He has given Davis free rein over the Warriors offense, allowing his All-Star to pass and shoot at his discretion. Somewhere along the line, Montgomery decided that the only way the Warriors could win was by letting Davis do his thing. In doing so, he has abandoned the discipline that made him a successful coach at the college level, and he has lost the respect of his players and control over his team in the process.

Mike Dunleavy Jr., in particular, has been vocal about the changes to the Warriors offense under Davis, telling reporters, “We can’t just go throw the ball out there and play street ball, and that’s what we rely on. You can’t just let your All-Stars, your best players, go one on one. As good as those guys are, the other guys are good, too. I’ve been trying to explain this to everybody since the first game of the season.”

Montgomery lasted just two seasons in the NBA before getting fired and retreating back to the Pac 10, where he took a job with Cal.

Lon Kruger

Hired by the Atlanta Hawks in 2000 from Illinois

Record: 69-122

The Hawks hired Kruger because they thought he could bring college sensibilities to the pro game. Unfortunately, they didn’t actually let him steer the ship like he could have in college. Michael Baldwin of The Oklahoman:

Kruger discovered one major difference between coaching in college and the NBA: He didn’t have the final say on personnel.

“It’s different, there’s no question about that,” Kruger said. “I was a little naive going into that situation. It was very much a learning experience, a very good experience other than the losing. The losing got old.”

Kruger had a couple losing seasons and was on his way to his third when Atlanta fired him.

Leonard Hamilton

Hired by the Washington Wizards in 2000 from Miami

Record: 19-63

Hamilton’s only pro season went so poorly, an assistant coach had to cover the standard postgame press conference following Washington’s final game, because Hamilton met with Michael Jordan immediately after the game about to end the coach’s tenure.

At least Hamilton looks back on the experience as a positive. Mike Bianchi of the Orlando Sentinel:

Career mistake, right?

“It was a decision that I made that I don’t regret,” Hamilton said.”It was a great experience for me. Sometimes, change is necessary and can be a good thing. It opened up my eyes to a lot of things.”

Actually it opened up his bank account to a lot of money.

This is when I realized why my “career mistake” question was so silly.

Hamilton may have only coached one season in the NBA, but he collected the entirety of the 5-year, $10 million contract he signed with the Wizards.

The FSU coach smiled when he saw the light go on in my head and he knew that I’d finally figured out why going to the NBA was actually a great career move. It gave him financial security for the rest of his life and he was still able to come back and get a good college job at Florida State.

“Now,” Hamilton said, “you’ve got the picture.”

Tim Floyd

Hired by the Chicago Bulls in 1998 from Iowa State

Record: 49-190

Floyd: The coach so bad he made Michael Jordan retire. College coaches must gain respect from NBA players, and Floyd had a particularly difficult time doing that. Associated Press:

Jordan has made no secret of his unwillingness to play for the 44-year-old Floyd, who has no NBA coaching experience and compiled a 243-130 career record with five NCAA tournament appearances. He has been at Iowa State for four years and his team went 12-18 last season – his only losing season in 12 as a college coach.

In his most recent public comments, Jordan reiterated that he won’t play for any coach but Jackson, who left at the end of the season after the team won its sixth championship.

Jordan said he wouldn’t announce a decision on his future with the Bulls until after the NBA’s lockout ends.

He has ridiculed Floyd by calling him “Pink” – as in the rock group Pink Floyd. Dennis Rodman also has called the possible hiring of Floyd “a joke.”

Floyd tried to control how injured Bulls dressed on the bench (this was before the league-wide dress code), and he clashed with Ron Artest and Charles Oakley.

“Every day has been hell,” Floyd said during his fourth season. “It hasn’t been fun.”

He resigned on Christmas Eve of that year.

Rick Pitino

Hired by the Boston Celtics in 1997 from Kentucky

Record: 102-146

This is the coach whom Stevens will be constantly compared to, because Pitino also coached in Boston.

After leaving the Knicks for Kentucky, Pitino made his triumphant return to the NBA with great fanfare, a 10-year, $50 million contract and the best chance to land the No. 1 pick and choose Tim Duncan in the upcoming  NBA Draft.

But lottery luck wasn’t in Boston’s favor, and Pitino said he would have never accepted the Celtics’ opening if he knew they wouldn’t get Duncan. NBA jobs are tough when you can’t pick your own players like in college.

Pitino’s style also didn’t really fit in the NBA. Mike Wise of The New York Times:

Pitino’s recipe for success at every level — constant pressing and trapping on defense and end-to-end transition on offense — often collided with the nouveau defensive-minded N.B.A. While more and more coaches stressed taking away options and cutting off areas of the court — using reams of videotape to show their players how to better defend their opponents — the Celtics kept running and pressing.

Pitino lasted longer with the Celtics than he did the Knicks, but now at Louisville, Pitino isn’t getting a third NBA opportunity anytime soon.

John Calipari

Hired by the New Jersey Nets in 1996 from Massachusetts

Record: 72-112

Calipari was a familiar trope: the overbearing college coach who tried to remain overbearing in the NBA. Chris Broussard of ESPN:

From day one, Calipari’s talk of “changing the culture” rubbed members of the organization the wrong way. Sure, he was right (after all, the Nets had won just 30 games in each of the previous two seasons), but the holdovers, who had essentially run the place like a mom-and-pop operation, took offense at the way the savvy young hotshot pooh-poohed their way of doing things. He was also demanding to the point of absurdity, driving secretaries and underlings crazy.

“He would ask you to do something that can’t be done in three days and he’d want it done in three hours,” said one former member of the organization who was there for Calipari’s final season. “You’d tell him it can’t be done, and he was like, ‘Yeah, it [bleeping] can.'”

And, accustomed to being the kingpin on a college campus, Calipari would stick his head where it didn’t belong. He’d offer advice to those on the business side of the franchise, telling them a better way to do things. Pat Riley, Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich can do that. But a 30-something pretty boy from the Atlantic 10?

His enemies within the organization began piling up.

Maybe Calipari could have overcome those issues if he had just drafted Kobe Bryant in 1996. Ian O’Connor of ESPN:

“John wanted to take Kobe Bryant in the [1996] draft,” John Nash, Calipari’s general manager at the time, said Thursday by phone. “And he got faked out.”

“Everybody knows I was talked out of that,” Calipari said of his desire to select Bryant

And Calipari had him. He had Kobe Bryant out of Lower Merion High School as much as he had John Wall last season and as much as he’ll have Michael Gilchrist next season.

Calipari worked out Bryant three times at Fairleigh Dickinson University, and three times came away mesmerized. “If you watched the workouts,” Calipari said, “you would say either this kid was taught to fool us in these workouts or he’s ridiculous.”

Or both. Nobody knew it at the time, but Bryant and his agent and sneaker benefactor were about to fool Calipari in a staggering way.

The night before the draft, Calipari and Nash had dinner with Bryant’s parents, Joe and Pam, at the Radisson in Secaucus, N.J. Kobe’s mother and father were thrilled that their son would be playing within commuting distance of their suburban Philly home.

Only Bryant wasn’t about to wait years for his liberation. He called Calipari after the coach’s lunch with Taub, and Bryant’s agent, Arn Tellem, called Nash. Prospect and agent declared they wanted no part of Jersey; Tellem even threatened that his client would play in Italy if the Nets ignored their wishes.

Nash met with a panicked Calipari and tried to calm the coach. The GM made some phone calls and figured out that the Lakers’ Jerry West had reached an agreement with Charlotte, holding the 13th pick, to trade Vlade Divac for Bryant; West was confident that Kobe would make it to No. 13 if the Nets passed at No. 8.

Sneaker maven Sonny Vaccaro would later admit he worked with his good friend, Tellem, to maneuver Bryant to a franchise that would maximize his marketing charms. But Nash thought the Nets should hold firm and call Bryant’s bluff.

“Kobe wasn’t going to play in Italy, and he had nowhere else to go,” Nash said. “But I firmly believe a call from [agent] David Falk, who was representing Kerry Kittles, made the difference.”

Nash said Falk leaned hard on Calipari to take his client. As coach and executive VP of basketball operations, Calipari had final say. About 90 minutes before the draft, he told his owners he would select Kittles at No. 8.

Nash lobbied his coach one last time. From his time running the Sixers, Nash had extensive connections in the Philly area, and he was hearing and seeing the same things West was hearing and seeing — Bryant might be a once-in-a-generation player.

“John, you’ve got a five-year deal,” Nash told Calipari. “If you miss on this kid, you’ll get a couple of more chances.”

Calipari wouldn’t take the risk of having his first draft blow up on him in his own building. He took Kittles

NBA players – with their armies of agents, advisers, “sneaker mavens,” etc. – come with different challenges than college players, but Calipari couldn’t understand that web at the time.

P.J. Carlesimo

Hired by the Portland Trail Blazers in 1994 from Seton Hall

Record: 137-109

Carlesimo is one of just two coaches on this list who had a winning record in an NBA job he took directly from coaching a college team, but he was still fired after just three seasons because he couldn’t get the Trail Blazers out of the first round of the playoffs.

At one point during his tenure, Carlesimo benched Rod Strickland for missing a flight, seemingly a reasonable punishment. But that just made their relationship worse, and Strickland demanded a trade. Typically, college players don’t (can’t) push back to discipline with that level of furor.

Immediately after firing Carlesimo, Trail Blazers president Bob Whitsitt said he wanted a coach with NBA experience.

Butch Beard

Hired by the New Jersey Nets in 1994 from Howard

Record: 60-104

Beard had been an NBA assistant for a while when he left the league to coach Howard, and he’d always had a reputation for being outspoken. But it’s doubtful his time at the relatively small-time school taught Beard how to defer in a players’ league. The Associated Press when the Nets fired Beard:

The outspoken Beard almost guaranteed his dismissal two weekends ago, criticizing his bosses and calling his team a bunch of “second-line players” who might never get better.

Jerry Tarkanian

Hired by the San Antonio Spurs in 1992 from UNLV

Record: 9-11

Oh, boy. This one ended nearly as quickly as it began, because Tarkanian just could not make the transition. Robert McG. Thomas, Jr. of The New York Times:

A professional coaching career that began with the jitters and included bouts with chest pains, team dissension and unaccustomed underachievement came to an abrupt end yesterday afternoon when Jerry Tarkanian was dismissed as coach of the San Antonio Spurs hours before the team’s 21st game of the season, against Dallas at home.

The 62-year-old Tarkanian, hailed for his coaching achievements as Tark the Shark during 19 tumultous seasons at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, had seemed to be a fish out of water almost from the moment he joined the Spurs this year after his rancorous departure from the college ranks.

Tarkanian acknowledged preseason jitters at the prospect of making the often treacherous transition from college to the pros and had every reason to be concerned.

There were injuries to Willie Anderson and Terry Cummings, plus the defection of Rod Strickland to Portland, which left the Spurs without a first-rate point guard. Tarkanian was forced to resort to a makeshift lineup that included the use of rookie forward Lloyd Daniels in the backcourt.

By the end of November, the pressure on Tarkanian was so intense that he was hospitalized briefly while suffering from chest pains, and by early this month some of his players, in particular Dale Ellis, were in open rebellion, complaining publicly about Tarkanian’s tactics.

Tarkanian may have actually brought about his own dismissal with a letter he sent to [Spurs owner Red] McCombs on Monday urging the acquisition of a point guard and arguing that the team could simply not win without one. “All I wanted was a point guard,” he said.

What fantastic last words. “All I wanted was a point guard.” If only he could have recruited one.

Paul Westhead

Hired by the Denver Nuggets in 1990 from Loyola Marymount

Record: 44-120

Westhead successfully brought his high-scoring offense from Loyola to the Nuggets. Unfortunately, he didn’t realize his team would  also need to play defense to win in the NBA.

In Westhead’s first season, the Nuggets scored a league-best 119.9 points per game. But they still lost three quarters of their games, because they allowed a league-worst 130.8 points per game. That is incredible.

Larry Brown Hired by the San Antonio Spurs in 1988 from Kansas Record: 153-131

If Brown were a college coach when the Spurs hired him, it was in name only. He was a true professional coach. Before leading Kansas to the 1988 NCAA title, Brown had already won more games in the NBA and ABA than everyone else on this list combined entering their college-to-NBA job.

Stevens isn’t really like Brown in that sense. The new Celtics coach has absolutely no NBA experience.

Really, Stevens isn’t exactly like any coach on this list. He deserves a chance to blaze his own trail, an opportunity to rise or fall on his own merits.

But there are several lessons in these examples Stevens should heed so he won’t follow his NCAA-to-NBA predecessors lengthy track record of failing.

The time Shaq peed in Suns teammate Lou Amundson’s shoes – and worse!

Suns players Lou Amundson and Shaquille O'Neal (Shaq)
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Gilbert Arenas has earned a reputation as the NBA player who relieved himself in a teammate’s shoe (Wizards forward Andray Blatche’s).

But Arenas’ tactic wasn’t unique.

Shaquille O’Neal got into a prank war with Suns teammate Lou Amundson during the 2008-09 season. It got intense as Phoenix, coached by Alvin Gentry, reached the final game of its season.

ESPN’s Amin Elhassan on “The Dan Le Batard Show With Stugotz” local hour, hosted by Mike Ryan:

Shaq is the big prankster, the big joker. But if you do something against him, there’s no tit for tat. There’s tit for nuclear war.

He goes to Lou’s locker, grabs his sneakers, pees in them.

That’s the start, right? He then goes and let’s just say “messes with” some of Lou’s haircare devices, like his brush and his comb and stuff. Messes with them. Let me put it this way: Messes with them in a way that – I was comfortable telling you he peed in the shoes. I’m not comfortable telling you what he did to the hair stuff. And then this part, I will tell you: He tampers with Lou’s mouth guard.

He tampers with it.

He tampers with it.

Lou shows up at like 8 or whenever he usually shows up. And he’s skittish and nervous. And Suns.com is there like, “What do you think Shaq is going to do?” “I don’t know. I think he’s going to do something, though.”

So, I’ll never forget this. He’s sitting at the locker, and he opens – he starts to reach for the sneakers and then looks at them and says, “Nah, something doesn’t feel right.” Opens the door up, pulls out a fresh pair of sneakers for the last game of the year, right? Again, this is irregular behavior. Usually, you have a couple of sneakers. You break them in for the year, and you switch between two or three or three or four, whatever. So to break out a whole brand new pair … was weird.

Most of the time when you’re an NBA player, you don’t put on the mouth guard immediately. You have it in a case, and you give the case to the trainer. Then, you go out to the bench. Then, when you’re about to come into the game, that’s when you grab your mouthpiece.

There’s no funnier image than Alvin drawing up a play, kneeling down, coaches standing around him. Lou is sitting there, because now he’s in the game. The guys who are in the game are usually seated. Sitting there just staring at the clipboard, like, “OK, coach. I got you.” And everyone else is just staring at Lou. No one’s paying attention.

Puts the mouth guard in. One, two [sounds of disgust], takes the mouth guard out and flings it with tremendous accuracy at the bench. Everyone starts dying. I remember going back and watching the broadcast, “Oh, Suns bench seems to be getting a lot of fun.” They had no idea what’s happening.

What did Shaq do to Amundson’s mouth guard? My imagination is running WILD.

Elhassan also explains why Grant Hill took 25 shots – his most in four years – in that game. Hill needed to score 26 points to average 12 points per game for the season, which would trigger a large bonus in his shoe contract. Hill’s gunning got him 27 points.

It’s a good podcast with other fun anecdotes and worth a listen.

Magic: Mo Bamba out for playoffs, undergoing post-coronavirus evaluation

Magic center Mo Bamba
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Mo Bamba contracted coronavirus, fell out of shape, recovered, joined the Magic in the bubble then struggled to contribute on the court.

Now, he’s departing the bubble for good.

Magic:

The Magic are huge underdogs in their first-round series against the Bucks. This doesn’t really change the equation. Bamba had already fallen from the rotation, which is now comprised of Nikola Vucevic and Khem Birch at center.

But it raises thorny long-term questions.

Bamba was the No. 6 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. Though he has underwhelmed so far, the Magic were still hoping he’d grow into a quality NBA player. Bamba at least improved from his rookie season.

His progress has obviously been halted. For how long? Will he face lasting effects?

Everyone is trying to get to the bottom of these difficult questions.

Reported Bulls coaching candidates: Kenny Atkinson, Stephen Silas, Darvin Ham, more

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The Bulls fired Jim Boylen. 76ers assistant Ime Udoka was reportedly frontrunner for the job, but Chicago will conduct a full search.

Who else is in the mix?

K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:

The broad search is expected to include former Nets coach Kenny Atkinson, Nuggets assistant Wes Unseld Jr., Mavericks assistant Stephen Silas, Bucks assistant Darvin Ham and 76ers assistant Ime Udoka, among others, sources said.

Atkinson is the only former head coach on that list. Like Tyronn Lue for win-now teams, Atkinson is the top available coach for rebuilding teams. (If fired by the 76ers, Brett Brown could supplant Atkinson.) Atkinson had a strong record of player development before Brooklyn shifted priorities.

The Bulls – with Zach LaVine, Coby White, Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr. and a high first-round pick in the 2020 NBA Draft – could use someone like him.

But Atkinson could have options, and Chicago might not be the most desirable opening.

Udoka, Silas, Ham and Unseld are all rising assistants who have earned head-coaching consideration. Interviews should help determine whether they’re ready for that step.

PBT NBA All-Bubble Awards

Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard and Rockets star James Harden
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The NBA will announce seeding-game awards tomorrow.

But the play-in is already set. Other playoff matchups are already set. The final seeding games today are just glorified scrimmages.

So, why wait to name the top performers in the bubble?

Here are our picks using the same format as the league – a Most Valuable Player, two five-player teams (no positions) and a coach:

Bubble MVP

Kurt Helin Dan Feldman
Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers) Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers)

Kurt Helin: It isn’t simply that Damian Lillard led the bubble in scoring at 37.6 points per game. It wasn’t how he got those points, with ridiculously deep threes and driving layups. It was when he did it that makes him bubble MVP: When the Trail Blazers had a rough outing (as did Lillard) and looked like they might fade from postseason contention, he came back next game and dropped 61. Then 51 the game after that. Then 42 in the final bubble game with the playoffs on the line. Lillard was the ultimate leader and willed his team to the play-in series, and that’s what makes him MVP of the seeding games.
Dan Feldman: James Harden was more consistently good and even sometimes great. But nobody hit higher levels than Lillard, who stepped up in the biggest moments to lead Portland into the play-in with the eighth-place advantage. Lillard set an emotional tone for a team constantly vulnerable of falling from the playoff race, and he delivered on the court with brilliant offense. He wasn’t perfect, but he went to great lengths to ensure the Trail Blazers met their goal. That’s the bubble MVP.

All-Bubble teams

First team

Kurt Helin Dan Feldman
Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers) Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers)
Devin Booker (Suns) James Harden (Rockets)
T.J. Warren (Pacers) Devin Booker (Suns)
Luka Doncic (Mavericks) T.J. Warren (Pacers)
James Harden (Rockets) Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks)

Second team

Kurt Helin Dan Feldman
Jayson Tatum (Celtics) Luka Doncic (Mavericks)
Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks) Michael Porter Jr. (Nuggets)
Kawhi Leonard (Clippers) Kawhi Leonard (Clippers)
DeMar DeRozan (Spurs) Paul George (Clippers)
Kristaps Porzingis (Mavericks) Kristaps Porzingis (Mavericks)

Kurt Helin: It was difficult leaving Antetokounmpo off the first team, he played brilliantly but his team was in cruise control (plus he took himself out of the last game by headbutting Moe Wagner). A few players such as Fred VanVleet and Michael Porter Jr. also almost made the cut.

Dan Feldman: Lillard, Harden, Booker and Warren were first-team locks. Antetokounmpo was absolutely dominant when he wanted to be, which was limited with the Bucks locking up the No. 1 seed early. Derrick White, DeMar DeRozan, Chris Paul, Gary Trent Jr. and Fred VanVleet were among the contenders for the final second-team spots.

Coach of the Bubble

Kurt Helin Dan Feldman
Monty William (Suns) Monty William (Suns)

Kurt Helin: Every young team talked about it heading into the restart (and developing teams not invited to the restart begged for the same opportunity): Using the bubble games as a chance for a young core to grow and take a step forward. Except teams like Sacramento and New Orleans didn’t do that. Phoenix, behind Monty Williams did — they became the story of the bubble at 8-0. Devin Booker exploded and got himself in MVP talk, Deandre Ayton played brilliantly, and the Suns came from six-games back of Memphis to almost make the playoffs. Williams set the Suns up to be a playoff team in the West next season.

Dan Feldman: Phoenix went 8-0! That alone is pretty darned impressive, and the context reflects even more favorably on Williams. The Suns entered the bubble with the lowest playoff odds among the continuing 22 teams. Needing to make up 2.5 games and – more significantly – jump four (!) teams, Phoenix could have easily arrived unmotivated and ripe for distraction. Instead, Williams had the Suns playing fearlessly, cohesively and joyously. Williams even leaned heavily on his young players rather than his veterans, taking excellent advantage of a player-development opportunity and positioning Phoenix to ascend next season.