Photo credit: Trung Ho / TrungHo.ca
“It’s a little personal, but we had a couple text messages between us that transpired after the Reno game.”
March 22’s game against the Reno Bighorns was Nigel Hayes’ worst of the season – 1-for-7 from the field, every attempt an open corner three. Hayes had played a key role on the East-leading Westchester Knicks, now he was on his second 10 day contract with a new team, searching for his niche.
“What Coach Stackhouse texted me was definitely something I needed to hear,” says Hayes. “Even though (the Raptors) sent me down here with the G League team, everything happens for a reason. I can say one of the reasons was to get that text from him after the game.”
Though Hayes won’t divulge this tantalizing message, Jerry Stackhouse communicated something powerful that Hayes will carry with him as he tries to earn a regular roster spot in the NBA.
The Raptors 905 roster almost completely turned over heading into training camp. Stackhouse had to take stock of the new faces and make a connection with each of them. Coming off a championship season in his first professional head coaching gig, Stackhouse made his first evolutionary step as a head coach.
“The natural tendency is to just think you can come in and just have a carbon copy of what you did last year and it will be enough to get it done,” says Stackhouse. “But every team takes on a personality of its own, so you have to adjust to your personnel. That’s what I’ve learned – don’t try to be so staunch in who you have to be, and kind of let it evolve once you get to know the players.”
When training camp opened, Stackhouse emphasized to his players that while he’s going to demand a lot, they’ll need to trust that those demands are coming from an empathetic place. Such is the way of Stackhouse’s self-labeled “benevolent dictatorship.”
“I got a 21 year old son. I’m used to being with (people this age) and understanding the challenges that they have growing up,” says Stackhouse. “Seeing them in this phase and hopefully being able to help them and share the experiences that I had. It’s not trying to tell them ‘OK I did it this way you need to do it this way.’ Just offer them options for them to think about it.”
Andre Washington describes his whole season as a test. The 7’1 centre averaged 5.2 minutes in 26 games, sitting for 24 others. Just three games into the season, Washington had only played 21 minutes, a lesser role with the team already defined. But with the roster continuing to take shape, Stackhouse announced Washington would be starting. While the team was practicing in Westchester ahead of their game against the G League’s Knicks, Stackhouse jumped on Washington for not running his sprints with enough urgency.
“He’s yelling at me, ‘Come on! Come on! You’re starting tomorrow!'” Washington recalls. “He may do it in a demanding way, but he cares. I’ve grown to realize that.”
“He really cares about us,” says 905 guard Davion Berry. “He really cares about this game and he really cares about coaching.”
Berry didn’t know how Stackhouse felt about him ahead of the preseason. There was a mystique around Stack that Berry couldn’t quite solve, and they barely talked. But as the season wore on, Berry became inspired rather than intimidated by the coach’s fire.
“Just seeing somebody that played 20 years in the NBA. Seeing him coming out and showing that same passion off the court,” he says. “How can that not drive you? That’s Jerry Stackhouse!”
Kennedy Meeks says despite the two having both attended North Carolina, Stackhouse goes after him the most, constantly stressing the need to focus, rather than be “too loose” in his preparation.
“I think it’s because of what he sees in me,” Meeks says.
Stackhouse made the “too loose” critique at the end of calendar 2017. Since then, Meeks has been a rock inside – increasing his field goal percentage from 47.2% in 2017 to 52% in 2018, and going from a plus-46 over 17 games in 2017, to a plus 114 in 28 games in 2018.
While each player is deferential towards Stackhouse’s impact on his respective game, ultimately two things will measure his success – the team’s results, and the development of NBA prospects into NBA contributors. Stackhouse has excelled on both fronts.
After starting the season 5-and-10, the 905 ripped off 10 straight wins, and went on to finish the season 31-and-19. Along with getting every role player to buy in, Stackhouse continued his stellar record of elevating players on the NBA fringes. Last season he helped Fred Vanvleet and Pascal Siakam vault from 905 stars to key players on an NBA championship contender. This season Stackhouse helped Malcolm Miller and Lorenzo Brown play meaningful NBA minutes for the NBA’s deepest bench.
“I’m just so proud of how they got better,” Stackhouse says. “It took the coaching. It took the critiquing, which can be tough and demanding at times. But they responded. Seeing these guys get better, being part of their growth, being part of their acceleration to that next level. Every time I watch the Raptors game I’m proud. It’s a good feeling to know you can have an imprint on that as well.”
Stackhouse left the parent-club Raptors after one year as an assistant coach because he felt the only way he was going to be taken seriously for an NBA head coaching gig was to get head coaching experience. In 2016, he signed a two-year deal with the 905 with a coach’s option for a third. Two years doesn’t seem a lot for head coaching experience, but in that span he’s won a championship, Coach of the Year, sports a 70-and-30 regular season record, all while working with two entirely different rosters. Based on that success, and the swirling rumours he’s in line for a call on several NBA coaching jobs next season, it’s clear Stackhouse’s decision to move down to the G League will pay off.