Rising sun: Phoenix coach Jeff Hornacek has shined in first season as Suns' head coach
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.
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