There’s a light and free atmosphere around the Zions Bank Basketball Campus these days.
The Utah Jazz have wildly exceeded expectations this season, eschewing their expected place among the league’s worst teams for a battle for the playoffs instead — even while trading away multiple starters at the deadline. In sharp contrast to last season’s capitulation amid tight vibes, this year’s team fights for every point on the court, and has a lot of fun off-court while doing so.
The captain of this effort is new head coach Will Hardy, whose approach to his work has earned him avid supporters among his team and front office. His underlying philosophy drives the mood in Utah’s practice facility, on the team plane, and in all 82 games.
In expressing this philosophy, he tends to use a lot of short maxims (some staffers around the team have called them Will-isms) to get his point across. Spend any length of time around Hardy and the Jazz and you’ll likely hear at least a few of these more than once; together, they almost form a list of aphorisms or proverbs, just like the philosophers of ancient times.
This week, I sat down with Hardy to ask him about some of those go-to phrases I’d heard most often, and ask him why they’ve earned a place in his coaching philosophy — what I’ve come to call “The Art of Will.”
“Fun is underrated in the NBA”
Used most often when: The Jazz’s players are having a surprisingly good time.
Will’s take: “We get caught up in this world of: you’re great or you suck. You win or you lose. We live in a world that has a very negative tint at times. It’s easy for people to point out the things that aren’t good.
“And I’ve just seen a lot of NBA players over the course of my time where it weighs on them heavily and they’re not really enjoying it — which is crazy. Like, for 13-year-old you, the dream was to make it to the NBA. You’re in the middle of the dream! You’re allowed to enjoy it! You can be serious, competitive, professional, caring, all those things, and enjoy it. You can do both. You can still smile, you can still laugh at yourself. That doesn’t mean you don’t want to win. Oh, ‘because we laughed at shootaround, like these guys don’t care about winning? That’s bulls---. You can do both.
“And, at some point, it’s going to be over for them. It ended for me after college. I miss being on a team. I miss being with my teammates. I miss that part. One day they’ll miss it, too. And I don’t want them to look back and go like ‘Oh my god, I was a multimillionaire pro basketball player in the middle of my dream and I didn’t have any fun.’ You can do both. And I don’t want the pressure, the feedback they’re getting on social media to bleed into them having a negative experience. If you’re not playing well, you’re not playing well.
“I think the NBA turns a lot of these dudes into little old men. Like they’re so worried about doing everything perfect that we’ve got 22-year-olds eating f---ing salmon and quinoa for every lunch. It’s f---ing embarrassing. It’s like bro, what the f--- are you doing? Like, you’re 22! I’m not saying you should eat a whole pizza before the game. But, you should eat salmon and quinoa when you’re me and your metabolism shuts off and you don’t want to get fat. You’re twenty-f---ing-two. You will burn that off.
“You can have a cheeseburger every once in a while. You can enjoy it. I’m not saying I’m recommending that you go out and drink every night — you can have a beer. It’s not the end of the world. You’re in the middle of the dream. And it just bothers me that some guys feel this pressure from the outside world, or this or that, or the team. They’re trying to be so perfect that they’re turning into bots.
“I try to create an atmosphere where — I’m serious, I’m competitive, I want to win, I care about the details. I can also laugh at myself. I’ll make jokes about myself. I’ll crack a joke in film here and there. We’ll play music at practice. We’re going to have team dinners, and we’re not going to all sit there and talk about the game. You try to create an environment where they’re not only talking about tactical basketball things. You ask them about their family, you ask them about their friends, you make jokes with them. It’s about how it feels every day. But I just am a believer that you can do both, you can care a lot about it and be professional and have some fun.
“I don’t want the gym to be a place they dread coming to every day. That’s an awful feeling. The gym, for any of us that ever played basketball, still play basketball, or played sports as a kid: the gym is a safe haven. It’s a fun, ‘oh my God I get to go to the gym, this is great.’ I don’t want us to lose that just because the stakes are high.”
“Toughness, sacrifice, and passion”
Used most often when: Hardy is asked about the principles he wants his team to display on the court.
Will’s take: “Those three things, I think, are key to creating the environment that we want. That’s physical toughness, that’s mental toughness, that’s the ability to push through when things aren’t going well. And we know and understand and assume that over the course of an NBA season, whether that’s individually or collectively as a team, things are not always gonna go the way you want them to.
“Sacrifice: it’s not just about you. It’s about the team. You know, ‘Team 49′ has been very important. We’re always trying to understand that the goal of the organization is to win, and we’re trying to win the game and we’re trying to compete for a championship. That means that along the way, everybody, coaches included, are going to have to make some sacrifices. You’re not always going to get what you want. It’s not always going to be like, ‘let me set up the menu for me’. lt’s about the group and understanding how you fit in the group: understanding your strengths, the strengths of your teammates. You’re gonna have to make some sacrifices at times. You may not get all the shots you want. You may not get all the plays that you want. You may not get all the minutes you want. But that’s just a part of being a part of a group, a team, in a world where we’re really all constantly rewarded by individual things.
“Then, passion is just the emotion, the juice that you give it every day. I want our team to play with a chip on their shoulder, I want them to play a brand of basketball that we’re proud of, that our fans are proud of, and that’s flying around and kind of laying it on the line all the time. I’ll be fiery in the moments that I need to be fiery. I love that the team plays with that emotion at times. It’s just your ability to go for it and pour yourself into what we’re doing every day, whether that’s practice or a session in the weight room or the games.
Used most often when: Something happens out of the ordinary.
Will’s take: “It was Carrot Top.”
“They get to him at the end [of an old SportsCenter commercial] and he just goes ‘Sports!’ It always made me laugh.”
“Like, hey, the game will be delayed tonight because the fireworks compartment behind the basket has caught on fire, so we have to use the fire extinguisher. ‘Sports!’
“Or, Jazz Bear in jeans. ‘Sports!’
“Or, like, we win a crazy game at the end. We steal the ball against Golden State somehow twice in the last four seconds and get a dunk at the end. You come back and you sit in the locker room everybody looks at you and you’re just like: ‘Sports!’
“No keeping score”
Used most often when: Conflict is about to erupt.
Will’s take: ”Yeah, we’re all gonna make mistakes. There’s this idea that everybody’s equal, and all things should be equal. ‘You yelled at me last Tuesday about this thing on defense and today he did it in the film and you didn’t yell at him.’ In any relationship, keeping score, I think, is super damaging. It’s not always going to be fair. It’s not always going to be perfectly evened out, where everybody gets the same amount. You have to be able to give each other some grace and try to understand the bigger message and the reasons why. Like, I’m not going to sit there and nitpick every pass the team makes, because I don’t want them to sit there and nitpick every play I draw. We just get into this environment where we’re just picking on each other all the time.
“I think that’s been productive for me in personal relationships, whether that’s friends or marriage or whatever. I think it’s a very important thing. And I felt like teams I’ve been on that have been really successful, we don’t get into ... that. Otherwise, it just wastes a lot of time and emotional energy. And it creates a culture of complaining.
“So that’s been something we’ve talked about from day one with the team, and we still talk about it. I think that you can get really distracted, and you’re worried about all the wrong things, if you’re worried about making sure that everybody’s getting criticized the same amount or corrected the same amount or getting the same amount of plays. I just hate all that s---. The world’s not fair.”
“Never judge a player too early”
Used most often when: One, or many, of Hardy’s players are surpassing expectations.
Will’s take: “Who were you when you were 22? You weren’t a finished product. There were good parts about you then, but when I look back at me at 22, I’m not super proud of everything that I was then. You have to grow up and mature and change some things and that’s great.
“One part of that is just the personal piece. Lauri (Markkanen) is an example. He comes over to Arizona and then he’s a one-and-done and there’s pressure. He’s not in his home country and he’s 21 years old, he’s young and married and then they have kids and then you get traded. But then all of a sudden, he’s 25 and he feels comfortable in your own skin as a person. His home life is a little bit settled and his body matures a little bit. And then there’s that narrative that he’s soft. ‘It’s like f-- you, I’m not soft. I’m a beast.’ And I just think that people change and evolve and so you have to give them the opportunity to do that.
“Then in basketball, the greatest part about it is that you can always get better. I’ve watched 37-year-olds tweak little things in their game to try to improve. The beautiful thing about the sport is that it’s not over at a certain age. I know we have hard decisions to make as teams, as front offices, I’m not saying you should never cut anybody or you should never trade anybody, like you have to. That’s part of it.
“But we put these labels on players. Lauri, obviously, is the one that hits all of us in the face the most because he’s our guy and we love him. We’re seeing him very much living out a reality that’s the opposite of what he was labeled as. But you know, with Talen (Horton-Tucker), it’s ‘Oh, he’s wild and he’s this.’ He’s 22! He was in LA, it was a different situation, let’s try to put a little structure around him and let’s try to help him improve, let’s try to coach him. Is Talen where we want him to be? Not yet. But is he better than the first day? I think so. Like he’s gotten way better.
“It stems from the human part, like not judging people too early. And then you gotta give some people the benefit of the doubt. Like, maybe he can get better. But we live in this world now of hot takes: ‘He stinks.’ He stinks? I don’t know if he stinks. He’s not playing well right now, but that doesn’t mean that he can’t get better.
“Like, Walker’s body three years from now will not look the way it looks right now. And Walker’s a great player so we’re not talking about him in a negative light. But if this season if the whole narrative had been, ‘Walker Kessler, he’s just not physically strong enough,’ well maybe give him a chance to like, get bigger and stronger and grow some.
“I think a lot of it just comes from trying to give people the opportunity to grow a little bit. Narratives about people can change. That doesn’t mean that you can’t and shouldn’t have an opinion of someone now — like, you should say that this player is X today. Great, but we can’t stamp them and go ‘well that’s the end of that story.’”
“No free minutes”
Used most often when: Hardy makes a surprising change in playing time.
Will’s take: “Yeah, we’re trying to win. This is not a laboratory.
“That being said, like you’re allowed to make mistakes. I’m not a tyrant, like every mistake you make you’re coming out ... but you have to earn the right to play in the games. It’s an honor to be in the NBA. It’s an honor to be on an NBA roster. It’s an honor to step on the court in an NBA game. And I want to create an environment where people work for it and it’s not just handed to you.
“Like, ‘oh, you’re a high draft pick and so you just get to have the ball the whole time and you just get to play and you get to just throw the ball into the stands 18 times and we just don’t care.’ There’s moments that you’re gonna have to take a step back, you got to sit down, you’re gonna play less and you’re not going to close this game.
“Certain people have earned the right over the course of their careers to have a little bit of a longer leash. That’s just the way the league works — you’ve established a reputation and so you get a few more bites at the apple, you get a little bit of a longer leash in that sense.
“But I never wanted to just have like a preconceived feeling for anybody that like, ‘Oh, I just get to play.’ Especially with the younger players. If you want to be a real NBA player, you want to be a contributing NBA player, it takes a lot of work. It takes a lot of effort. It takes a lot of attention to detail. It takes the ability to be coached. You’re gonna fail some, of course, and that’s to be expected. But you don’t get to just go through the motions and just get what you want. It doesn’t mean you have to always be super successful in everything that you do. But are you doing it with the right intent? Are you doing it with the right attitude, energy, competitiveness, all those things? That’s earning the right to play.
“A big thing for me from a development standpoint is, and it’s never really talked about: you’re not just helping them develop skills. I can dribble, I can pass, I can shoot, I can make that pass to the corner. That’s part of it, but you’re also helping them develop self-awareness. Like, ‘I don’t really have it going tonight. Maybe I gotta get him involved, he’s having a good night.’ You’re still a part of the team and you have to have some self awareness of how you’re fitting into the group that night. It can’t just be, ‘Oh, well, for my development, I’m just gonna run 19 more pick and rolls and just shoot it every time because that’s what I’m working on.’ Like, dude, it’s not working for you right now.
“When you give people free minutes, where there’s no repercussions for anything, a lot of bad habits form and a lot of lack of self-awareness forms. And that’s dangerous, because once that happens, it’s hard to undo that.”
“Get your s--- together, Kessler”
Used most often when: Jazz center Walker Kessler is living his life. (Kessler told me to ask Hardy about this one.)
Will’s take: “I would say it’s 98% just busting his balls. I say it to him 98% of the time not on the basketball court. He could be eating breakfast and I’ll walk by him and say ‘Get your s--- together, Kessler.’
“He’s such a conscientious kid. He’s such an over-analyzer at times. He’s very much a perfectionist. He’s always worried that he’s not doing the right thing. And so it’s just kind of become like a sarcastic way of me busting his balls. And he knows in that moment that like he’s not doing anything wrong at all. But for whatever reason, it gets a smile or a laugh out of him most times that I say it, and I think probably it’s because most of time it’s not at practice. It’s really when he’s doing anything else.
“There’s just moments of banter and sarcasm, to make sure that they know that — I’m going to be on them. I want to win. I’m competitive all of those things — but I also know this is not life and death. I also know that sometimes you just have to laugh a little bit. Take the edge off some.”