Rising sun: Phoenix coach Jeff Hornacek has shined in first season as Suns' head coach
Ross D. Franklin, AP
SALT LAKE CITY — During his Jazz playing career from 1994-2000, there were times the heady Jeff Hornacek would act like a player assistant to Hall of Fame coach Jerry Sloan.
That isn’t surprising to those who know that Hornacek's dad, John, was a high school coach in Illinois during his childhood. It's also part of the reason why Karl Malone foresaw the scenario that's unfolded in the Valley of Sun(s).
Hornacek as a head coach?
Call it an educated hunch, but Malone saw that coming last millennium, long before Hornacek joined Tyrone Corbin's Jazz staff three years ago or helped fine-tune the shooting of players like Andrei Kirilenko and Gordon Hayward.
“Oh yeah. Oh, oh, absolutely. We would be in practice sometimes — practice was over with — (and) he would huddle guys up. He wanted to show you something,” Malone recalled of Hornacek. “I saw that (coaching potential). When he was an assistant coach with the Jazz, yeah, you saw it coming.”
Nobody saw the success the Suns would have in their first season under Hornacek’s mentorship coming.
Phoenix comes to Utah sitting in the final playoff spot in the Western Conference, two-thirds of the way through a season that was supposed to be the beginning of a rough rebuild.
The Suns’ strong play under Hornacek, who spent the previous six years in various coaching capacities in Utah, has vaulted him into the front-runner position for NBA Coach of the Year honors.
If they didn’t know better, you’d have a hard time convincing his players that this is the 50-year-old’s first coaching season.
“Honestly, when people call him a rookie coach it surprises me because I feel like he’s been doing this forever,” Suns center Miles Plumlee said. “I’ve never once (thought) of him as a rookie coach. He’s a real natural at it.”
Veteran point guard Goran Dragic echoed that. He responded “not to me” when asked if Hornacek acts like a rookie.
“He always has the answer. The most important thing, especially for our team because we have a lot of young players, is he’s always calm. He’s always calm,” Dragic said. “He knows what he’s going to do the next possession and that gives us players big confidence that we can play against the best teams in the NBA.”
Interestingly, Jazz center Derrick Favors and Plumlee independently gave similar assessments of Hornacek’s soothing but motivating demeanor. For them, the coach has been the calm inside of the NBA storm.
“He just brings that calmness going through a season,” Favors said. “You have up and down games. He just brings that calmness like, ‘It will be all right, you just got to keep working and continue playing hard.’”
And this from Plumlee: “He never gets rattled. He’s a really calm presence on the bench, which is great, but (he’s) super competitive. He’s definitely on us, but it’s in a way that doesn’t get us rattled. Especially us being a lot of young players, we relate to that well.”
Favors didn’t just value Hornacek’s steadying presence. The 22-year-old also relied on him for good shooting advice on occasion when the two were on the same team from Feb. 2011 when both guys joined the Jazz on a full-time basis — Hornacek after Jerry Sloan resigned; Favors after being traded to Utah — through the end of last season before the Suns snatched the coach up in May.
“He worked with me a lot,” Favors said. “He didn’t work with me as much as he did Gordon and Jeremy (Evans). I’d go over to him and just ask him for techniques or whatever.”
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