On his first official day as an employee of the Utah Jazz, Will Hardy was walking through the Zions Bank Basketball Campus practice facility when he got the awkward feeling that everyone present had stopped what they were doing to look at him.
For a few seconds, he was confused by the attention. Then suddenly it hit him.
“Oh wait, I’m the head coach.”
After finishing up his introductory news conference Tuesday morning at the Legends Club within Vivint Arena, he was asked if it had all fully sunk in yet.
“It’s sinking in. It still really feels surreal. The press conference being done is a huge relief,” he acknowledged. “It definitely feels more real than it did yesterday.”
Hardy spent last season as the lead assistant for the Eastern Conference champion Boston Celtics, and spent the previous 11 years in the San Antonio Spurs organization.
He noted that in doing research on all the candidates, many were described as a good guy, or knowledgeable, but the word that kept coming up with Hardy was “special” — which is not the case with many people.
“Will’s presence, his confidence, his knowledge, his basketball acumen … he’s a great relationship-builder,” Ainge replied after being asked what in particular stood out. “… We put him through some exercises — basketball scouting reports, player development plans — and he seemed very, very qualified, and on top of that, in his answers, he spoke my language.”
Ainge said he and general manager Justin Zanik and others in the team’s search committee brought their recommendation to owner Ryan Smith and part-owner Dwyane Wade, but were prepared to go back to the drawing board if those two didn’t sign off.
Turns out, that wasn’t necessary.
“It was unanimous, because when we were looking at Will, you saw everything that he stands for, the way that Will has taken advantage of every single opportunity that he’s had, and found opportunities that probably weren’t there,” Smith said. “The trajectory for Will Hardy is as far as he wants to take it.”
Now, the work begins.
The Jazz are a team in transition, one that looked very different during his introductory news conference than it did the day he accepted the job, with the likes of Rudy Gobert and Royce O’Neale having been traded away.
Asked if he’d have input in how the roster ultimately shakes out, Hardy said Ainge and Zanik were very honest in letting him know that “there are multiple paths that this team can take.” He said he will defer to their expertise, and will trust whichever pathway they decide to take, praising their respective track records and histories of team-building, while also acknowledging that the front office decision-makers have created a “collaborative” process.
As for what type of team would best suit him, he plans to be flexible there as well, noting that it makes more sense for him to be able to adapt a system to a roster rather than demand a roster that adheres to a specific scheme.
“A lot of it is going to be tailoring it to the players, especially on the offensive end,” Hardy said. “Defensively, there’s always things that you want to believe in. But I wouldn’t be doing my job if I wasn’t trying to tailor what we do to our roster.”
That said, he does have some ideas of how he wants the team to unfold, saying that the three core values he wants the Jazz to embody are “toughness, sacrifice, and passion.” He also plans to institute more frequent practices in order to build habits. He clarified, though, that the term “practice” will require some re-framing, as it doesn’t always need to evoke visions of hour-and-a-half-long slogs and could well be focused, 30-minute sessions.
His first order of business, he said, will be getting to know people throughout the organization, saying it is his hope that people will get to know him as a person before they do as a coach.
“Right now, it’s about the relationships. It was really important to me and my family to get out here as quickly as possible and start to build those relationships, not just with our players, but with our staff,” Hardy said. “For me to be an effective leader, I have to have that personal capital built up with everybody.”
He’s been talking to the players already, and pointed out that he’s previously gotten to work with Donovan Mitchell on the Team USA squad that competed in the World Championships in China, and has enjoyed catching up with him.
He is working to put together a coaching staff, as well. He said he’d be bringing in people he’s worked with before as well as people he may not have worked with on a staff but who he’s gotten to know over the years. He added that he’s open to the possibility of keeping some of Snyder’s assistants on his own Jazz staff.
“There’s a lot of great coaches in the NBA, and some of them are already here, so I’m taking this time to get to know them,” he said.
He’s planning to attend all the Jazz’s games in the Salt Lake City Summer League this week and in the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas — not just because it’s a chance to check out young talent, but also because they present opportunities to get to meet with people.
Speaking of “young talent,” Hardy is hoping the concerns surrounding his age — at 34, he is the NBA’s youngest head coach — will die down, and that his actions will suffice to kill the narrative. His age, he added, only seems to be a concern to outsiders.
“Honestly, it’s not something I’ve ever thought about,” he said. “… I really don’t think about it as much as you guys do. You know, I’m 34 and I’m fine with that.”
For what it’s worth, Ainge said that Hardy’s age never was an issue because his maturity shined through in interviews.
As for the here and now, Tuesday represented something of a full-circle moment for Hardy.
In between his junior and senior years at Williams College, he came out to Salt Lake City for a summer internship within the Jazz’s business operations department.
Despite barely knowing Vivint Arena, he gave tours. During afternoons and evenings, he’d be deployed at Salt Lake Bees games, where he did everything from handing out fliers on the concourse to helping get the tarp on the field during rain delays.
During his interview process for the coaching gig, he met with Jazz president Jim Olson. He revealed that Olson had been his boss all those years back.
“I think if you had told either of us then that I’d be standing here today as the head coach of the Jazz,” Hardy said, “I don’t know who would have thought that was crazier, him or me.”