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.”
Hayward, whom Kobe Bryant once said reminded him “of a more talented Jeff Hornacek,” appreciated that an assistant could relate to his situation because of his successful NBA career as a shooting guard. The Iowa State product scored 15,659 points, never getting a play called for him in Utah if you ask him, and shot 40.3 percent from beyond the arc during 14 years in the league.
“He played my position, kind of went through the same things,” Hayward said of the 1992 All-Star. “Obviously, (he’s) a really good shooter and knows usually what was wrong with what I was doing. He would give me a little tip here or there — a lot of times just working with me, working on the shot.”
Hornacek, whose biggest NBA coaching influences were Sloan and Cotton Fitzsimmons, wasted no time reintegrating himself into Phoenix’s organization, the team he began his career with from 1986-92. The Suns hired him to be their coach last spring after Lindsey Hunter carried the interim title following the firing of Alvin Gentry in mid-March.
“Jeff is just a really good guy,” Dragic said. “He played this game so he understands what he has to do with the players. He’s a great coach.”
Soon after being hired, Hornacek called Dragic, then overseas training for the European championships with Slovenia, and informed the talented playmaker that the team planned to use a two point guard system with Eric Bledsoe. That wasn't necessarily an easy sell.
Although skeptical about how things would work with Bledsoe, out with an injury the past two months, Dragic quickly put his trust in Hornacek. As a result, the Suns have fared well with and without Bledsoe, and the 27-year-old Dragic is having a career year.
Dragic, averaging a career-high 20.2 points and a second-best 6.2 assists, credits Hornacek for helping him with the transition of playing some shooting guard along with being the primary ballhandler, his more comfortable position.
“This is one of the best seasons of my life,” Dragic said, “so I think that he’s helped me a lot with my game, with my shot, with my passing ability, everything.”
From an outsider's perspective, Hornacek’s success with the Suns has been a bright spot to this season for Malone.
“He’s doing awesome. I’m proud of him. I don’t think anybody saw that coming,” Malone said of Phoenix's shocking 2013-14 surge. “But it goes to show you, you don’t have to have a lot of names. If you believe in the system and you give the system a chance and you trust and believe in your coaching staff and you don’t have the ‘me’ attitude, you win ballgames.
“Number one, they respect him. Number two, he’s got some young guys who love to play the game.”
Plumlee, who’s played for Indiana’s Frank Vogel and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, is in both categories.
“He’s a great guy,” the second-year pro said. “He’s just easy to play for. Obviously, he’s a great communicator, great motivator.”
That’s especially evident in the way Phoenix executes its fast style of play, which is reminiscent of the Suns’ scoreboard-sizzling heyday under Fitzsimmons’ tutelage. Hornacek’s team is fifth in the NBA in scoring with 105 points, 10 better than last year's average. The offensive juggernaut has also already surpassed the win total from last season's 25-57 squad.
“We played that way in Phoenix,” said Jazz coach Corbin, who played with Hornacek in the late 1980s. “Look at (our) team with Kevin Johnson, Mark West, Tom Chambers, Jeff under Cotton. It’s a fun way to play if you’re making shots.”
Corbin has previously said he’d cast a Coach of the Year vote for Hornacek if he had one, but the Jazzman wasn’t getting caught up in the friendship rivalry leading up to the teams’ fourth and final meeting this year. The Suns own a 2-1 series lead this season.
“I’m happy for the success they’re having. I’m happy for what he’s doing there,” Corbin said of his assistant from 2011-13. “He’s getting an opportunity and making the most of it. (But) it’s another game for us. I wish him well.”
After this game, of course.