It’s two days after a season that most believed ended way too soon and in walks the head coach of the Utah Jazz into a popular downtown coffee spot in Salt Lake City. He weaves around hipsters, business folk and students alike, posting up at the counter to talk with Jazz center Ekpe Udoh.
If anyone there on this rainy weekday spring morning knows who the 52-year-old coach is, they’re leaving him be, letting him live his life, allowing him to decompress from another season of sleepless flights, of rewinding and fast-forwarding that night’s game tape, of trying to find any way to give the Jazz an edge that might result in a win the next time around.
It should come as no surprise, either, that only a couple of days after another grinding NBA season is in the books, Quin Snyder is still working, seated at that counter with Udoh, fidgeting with his baseball cap, looking very much like his usual, focused self. Forward Joe Ingles can tell you how many times he’s first opened his eyes in the morning to see a message from his head coach delivered at 4:30 a.m. “Holy [expletive]!” is the usual response. Days off, Ingles said, don’t really exist for his coach.
Across the NBA, Snyder’s style and approach haven’t gone unnoticed. In a recent anonymous player’s poll by The Athletic, Snyder was listed as one of the top coaches players around the league would like to play for. This summer will be a challenge for the Jazz, not only to find ways to improve the talent on their roster through free agency or the trade market, but to also maintain those franchise principles of putting Take Note first, not second. They’ll find more ways to fully transition younger contributors like Georges Niang from the Salt Lake Community College gym to NBA prime time, or bolster established veterans like Ingles, who even now says he doesn’t think he could play “for 27 or 28 of the teams” in the league.
It’s clear, by now, that Snyder is as much a real draw to potential additions as Donovan Mitchell or Rudy Gobert. His spirited nature is beloved by fans and his prowess is respected throughout the league.
To try and understand Snyder’s drive — and his lure — isn’t actually too difficult. Simply, he is in the business of instilling belief, often when others have moved on to something, or somebody else. There are plenty of people involved in the rebirth of the Jazz organization, but the ethos — team-driven success, development within the walls of the Zions Bank Basketball Center and selflessness above all else — is why the Jazz are postseason regulars once again.
“Like, if he said I am able to push this building down, he’d convince me, ‘Yeah, I probably could push this f****** building down,’” Ingles said.
So when asked how he’d explain to a stranger why he coaches the way he does — say to one of those folks sitting in that coffee shop last week — what would he tell them?
“I think it’s rewarding to be a part of a group that’s bigger than a coach or a player — that connectivity, for all this in life, is a rewarding place to be,” said Snyder. “The opportunity to compete. I think you find different things that you compete in. In some areas, at least for myself, I’m not going to be overly upset if I lose a game in pingpong. But there’s a perspective that I think that you have, and you just enjoy the process. That competitiveness, I still have my moments in other things, but when you get the opportunity to do that in just such an intense way, I think that’s enjoyable.”
Doing it different
Darvin Ham needed to borrow a car. His was getting worked on in the shop. So Ham went to the one guy who he knew would help out. Snyder handed his fellow Lakers assistant coach the keys to his 2002 Volkswagen Westfalia van. Imagine Snyder rolling around Los Angeles in a camping van, shuttling to and from practices. It even gets a legit laugh out of Snyder now. Sadly, Snyder had to sell the van when he moved to Russia to be an assistant coach at CSKA Moscow. He still misses it, he says, the atypical vehicle for an atypical coach.
“This is isn’t your normal coach,” said Ham, now an assistant with the Milwaukee Bucks. “He really thought outside the box. You hear that phrase about a lot of different people, but he truly represented that phrase.”
Three years prior, Ham had to persuade Snyder to teach him how to coach. Ham knew his last year in the then D-League was afoot, so he wanted to start that move. The Toros had some injuries and needed size, so they traded for Ham, who was playing out his last days in Albuquerque. He became an unofficial player-coach, brought in to watch Snyder and tutor young bigs like eventual NBA regular Ian Mahinmi. Snyder thrives by being open to just about any suggestion, like taking on a guy in the final months of his playing days both to win and show him the ropes. “He was and is and always has been an open book,” said Ham.
So when the Jazz were tasked with trying to slow down reigning MVP James Harden in the first round, Snyder and his staff employed a similarly unique approach to guarding Harden throughout the series. Defenders were on his hip, or at times, even behind him. The Rockets smoked the Jazz the first two games, but the last three games, the game plan worked and Harden was more out of his element than he’d been in a long while. The crucible of the playoffs made it so the Jazz had to explore and introduce every wrinkle of guarding Harden in that specific way.
“It’s like watching a master perform,” Ricky Rubio said of playing under Snyder.
Outside the box? Absolutely.
Mitchell said after the way Utah was blown out in the first two games against the Rockets, many coaches would tear up their plans and start over, but Snyder stuck to his guns, refusing to give in. And it gave the Jazz a way back into the series. Ham said watching Snyder work, even back then in Austin, was like watching an orchestrator lead a symphony. He saw Snyder tell NBA hopefuls how to make different types of passes from different angles in pick-and-roll attacks, how to roll off screens differently — unconventional and yet effective. ESPN’s Jalen Rose said Snyder has given the Jazz a defined identity in an era of basketball where some teams are lacking a dedicated style of play that works.
“He made basketball fun,” Ham added. “It should be fun at its core, but you let the ‘basketball minds’ get involved and it can seem like a more damn 9 to 5 than an actual sport that you’re having fun in.”
Appreciating the little things
Leaning back in a plush chair on the floor of the Jazz practice facility, Snyder scans the empty gym, looking for an answer. The smartest dude in the room is trying to explain how he’s become such a respected professor of the sport. And beyond that, how he’s figured out how to level with people. The connection plus the competition plus the passion, all that he says, equals the sweet spot. It’s scouring ways to make players better than what they were when they first turned up.
“Just the tactics of the game or even the intellectual part of player development, the finding and then the teaching,” Snyder said. “It’s rewarding to see and have a part in someone’s growth and improvement.
“Guys have been able to find things for themselves within the team, where individually, there’s something that’s harder and more difficult for you to accomplish, but then you’re able to find a way to do that within the group. That’s what our guys, that’s what you see with the way our team plays, that’s the selflessness. Everybody’s both getting something out of it, but also selflessly contributing.”
It’s a code that dates back to his days in the D-League, where he came across several future pros he helped get to the NBA. Blake Ahearn, who later followed in Snyder’s footsteps and is now the head coach of the Austin Spurs in the G-League, had a brief stint with the Jazz back in 2012. Snyder helped him get there, of course. When Ahearn first arrived in Austin in 2008, Snyder picked him up from the airport, took him to lunch and asked him what he needed to do in order to help get Ahearn get to where he wanted to go.
Ahearn still remembers those intense early practices in Austin over a decade ago. And, like Ingles, remembers waking up to texts from Snyder about footwork or spacing or anything that will help him improve, even incrementally.
“Quin was on the floor, he was rolling his sleeves up, he was sweating, he was doing things and really he’s got a lot of energy — he’s got a lot of it,” Ahearn said. “He was really into making players better. It wasn’t just assignment guys. It was the last guy on the bench. It wasn’t about him winning games to go do something else. He was about developing you and helping you get onto the next thing.”
Pops Mensah-Bonsu spent only a month with Snyder in Austin back in 2009, but credits Utah’s coach for assisting him in making it to the NBA. He compared Snyder to San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, saying he doesn’t view either as head coaches, rather as leaders.
“He saw some of the things that I could do at other stages or level of my career that I wasn’t able to exhibit,” said Mensah-Bonsu, now general manager of the Capital City Go-Go’s of the G-League. “If I was playing poorly, I wasn’t putting my best foot forward. He was able to challenge me and just look at my numbers from that time period and how quickly to get called up and his ability to inspire and motivate.
“To have that type of impact on an individual in a matter of weeks, obviously you have to be receptive to it, but he helped me and I was able to embrace what he was doing and how he was doing it. I figure it was just a perfect storm and I’m sure there are plenty of other players who’ve played under his tutelage will attest to that, too. It’s definitely rare to see somebody have that kind of impact on a player.”
Ingles says Snyder’s open-door policy helps the group always believe their coach has their back. Any topic, off court or on, can be broached and Snyder will take the necessary time to hear every individual out.
Said Ingles: “He’s so focused and kind of lays it in on, especially the first couple years, on development, and bigger picture of what we were trying to do rather than, ‘We’re trying to win X-amount of games this year.’ There was this bigger picture of days and weeks on end kind of felt like to the players, ‘What the hell are we doing kind of thing?’ Like a mad scientist, he had all this stuff cooking up in his head. And you could see that, but it was a little bit frustrating, because we weren’t seeing as many results obviously as we do now.”
Snyder wasn’t merely stuck in the moment. He was also looking ahead. He had to be.
What lies ahead
“Basketball is his language,” said Nenad Krstic, perfectly summarizing Quin Snyder.
During Snyder’s one year as an assistant coach at CSKA Moscow in Russia, he coached Krstic, who’d previously played with the Nets, Thunder and Celtics, during his days in the NBA. All these years later, Krstic said he remains struck by Snyder’s impact on that CSKA Moscow team. He helped instill an NBA-style approach to games, showing those players overseas who longed for a shot that might never come, what it could one day be like. And beyond that, ways to improve, not stay stationary.
“You could see in that short time that he doesn’t belong there,” Krstic said from his home in Serbia. “He belonged in the NBA.”
Snyder endeared himself to his players by doing what most American coaches were afraid to: immerse themselves in not only the Russian culture, but the EuroLeague basketball culture. Krstic recalls having to explain to Snyder that some road trips to Siberia featured eight hours of flight time and as much as nine hours time difference. You could never accuse Snyder of not giving it his absolute all.
There’s no doubt Snyder will make the most of the roster he’s handed each season, those who know him well say, but it shouldn’t come at a cost. And it won’t. The Jazz, under the Millers, Dennis Lindsey, Justin Zanik and Snyder, have their formula for how they want to contend. The foundation is set. The arena is sold out each night. The fans are in love with their team and trust their head coach. But to continue the climb demands change, which means more teaching, more schemes to obsess over, more sleepless flights, more text messages sent to players before the sunrise.
“He’s a hell of a coach,” Mitchell said.
There’s no arguing that. As forward Jae Crowder puts it: Players half-heartedly plead with Snyder during the season to try and get some sleep. He won’t. He can’t. Snyder’s whole mind, body and spirit are put into getting the Jazz better, not just for the next scripted motion play or unique defensive set, but mainly for everything that still lies ahead.