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NBA free agency hasn’t even started yet, but it’s already been a busy offseason for the Phoenix Suns. After another disappointing second-round playoff exit, the team fired coach Monty Williams and replaced him with Frank Vogel. This was followed by the Bradley Beal trade, sending Chris Paul and Landry Shamet to the Washington Wizards for a three-time All-Star.
Because of the Suns’ salary cap situation, it was natural to wonder if a Deandre Ayton trade was coming next, and what sort of trade packages would make sense. For the time being, it appears Phoenix is committed to keeping DA around, giving their defensive-minded coach the opportunity to restore him to the borderline All-Star player he was during the team’s run to the 2021 NBA Finals.
Vogel has been vocal about wanting to work with Ayton, especially on the defensive end. But as free agency approaches, there are plenty of questions and challenges ahead that extend far beyond the Suns’ starting center.
To that end, Frank Vogel spoke with PHNX Sports about a variety of topics, including his early conversations with DA, his general coaching philosophy, the addition of Beal, running Devin Booker at the point, rookie Toumani Camara, and plenty more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Gerald Bourguet: We talked a little bit about David Fizdale and Kevin Young at your first Suns presser, but now that you’ve got your coaching staff all put together — I won’t ask you to go down the line, but what do Quinton Crawford, Miles Simon, Greg St. Jean, John Lucas III, Dru Anthrop and Jon Pastorek all bring to the table?
FRANK VOGEL: “Championship experience, first and foremost. One future head coach [Young], one that has head coaching experience [Fizdale], provides a great value up front. I think Q and Miles really have a great ability to connect with players as well as excelling with game planning and prep work. I think getting Greg St. Jean, who is basically a second assistant coach with the Dallas Mavs the last couple years in a behind-the-bench role, we’re gonna get huge value out of him. He’s one of the most talented coaches in the league. And Jon Pastorek, Dru Anthrop and John Lucas are all sort of system guys, for me that excel in all the areas of the prep work and on-the-court responsibilities that we have. But they’re guys that know my system and have helped me win a championship. So we’re gonna bring that experience here to Phoenix.”
Bourguet: How big is it to have that familiarity with your staff? And some of these guys left their current gigs after you took a year off and want to come help you build. How much does that mean to you to know that they were so on-board with what you guys did in LA that they want to be part of it again here in Phoenix?
VOGEL: “I think it speaks to the culture that I set. We make sure that we’re the hardest-working staff in the league, but that we also have a work-life balance, that we also make sure that we’re laughing and having fun throughout the journey. That’s a big piece for me is the levity piece, whether it’s in practice, on the floor, in our coaching staff meetings, in our team film meetings. Those are important pieces to me, and the fact that guys want to come back and realign with me means a lot, but it speaks to the culture that I try to set.”
Bourguet: You had mentioned Jim O’Brien being a mentor to you early in your coaching career and throughout. How did he kind of shape the coach that you’ve become and some of the things that you’ve learned from your time working with him?
VOGEL: “Yeah, OB is probably the best I’ve been around at breaking down film, dissecting an opponent, finding out their exact strengths and weaknesses and how to game-plan against them, but also breaking down our own film to self-evaluate and to improve our team with the value of showing lessons to guys postgame. I think he’s one of the best I’ve ever been around at that. But he’s also been a great mentor for me in terms of just being a good human being, a great father, a great husband and a great friend. He’s been pivotal in who I am as a person, and I’ve taken all those lessons into each job that I’ve had.”
Bourguet: In terms of the positivity that you bring to the table, what’s your philosophy as far as the line between being an effective communicator and maintaining that positivity, and then also knowing when you need to be direct when it comes to the discipline side of coaching?
VOGEL: “One of the things that I naturally do or is part of my natural personality is to see what people can be more than what they can’t be. See what they are more than what they are not. And that’s the piece that I think that comes across as positivity, but I’ve also seen what a coach can do to a player in terms of instilling confidence in them, and showing belief in them. Those things are pillars to who I am as a coach, and when you bring those things to the table, but also you make sure the players understand that they’re gonna be pushed, I have found that most players that are worth a damn want that, and they need that, and they ask for that. They want to be pushed and coached at a high level. So there has to be a firmness, there has to be a directness to it, but that shouldn’t impact the belief that you show in a player.”
Bourguet: To that point, as far as Deandre Ayton is concerned, you had talked about wanting to restore him to that All-Star caliber player that he’s been in in the recent past. Have you been able to touch base with him yet and start to establish that connection?
VOGEL: “I have, yeah. We’ve had some good talks, and we’re off to a strong start in terms of hoping to create a role that he feels better about. Because if he feels better about his offensive role and involvement, I’ve learned throughout the years of coaching bigs that if they’re feeling good about their involvement on the offensive end, they’ll run through a wall on the defensive end. And if we want Deandre to dominate defensively, which we do, involving him more and making sure that he feels comfortable on the offensive side of the ball is a big way to get the most out of him defensively.”
Bourguet: What are the challenges to that? Because I know you want to keep him involved on the offensive end for being locked in defensively, but there’s also challenges that come with that when you have three natural scorers in Devin Booker and Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal to balance touches on the offensive end. So how do you approach that?
VOGEL: “Well, we have to become a team. That’s the biggest and strongest answer to that: Everybody’s gotta play pass-first basketball. Even our prolific scorers, because they’re gonna draw double-teams. So if we’re creating for others, then everybody should have an opportunity to be recipients and to feel as involved as necessary. I think the answer lies in playing extra-pass basketball and creating for others.”
Bourguet: You got a good look at DA defensively during that Lakers series a few years ago, and obviously he has the tools to be elite on that end. How can you draw from your experience working with other elite shot-blocking bigs and bring that here and work with him in that regard?
VOGEL: “I feel really good about our defensive system and the way we approach angles, it helps. Just making sure that we have a body in front of the rim, and in most cases, the biggest body that we can in front of the rim with anybody that comes to the basket. Whether it’s a rolling big or a driving guard or cutters, to have somebody of that size in front of the rim gives you a great chance to be difficult to score on and to have one of the better defenses in the league, and I think Deandre can bring that to us.”
Bourguet: Anything could happen in free agency, but in terms of Book running a little bit more of the offense, operating in that “Point Book” role, what have you seen from him as a playmaker where he and KD and Beal can kind of manage that load together?
VOGEL: “Yeah, well, I love what I’ve seen. And he and Bradley have spent time throughout the last few years of their career as the primary ball-handler. And they’ve shown that they can be lethal at that. It’s a look that I really like. We will have opportunities to have traditional point guards out there with them — in particular with Cam Payne and obviously seeing how the rest of the roster shakes out — where they can be off the ball more. But it’s a look that I’m very comfortable with.”
Bourguet: I guess I kind of buried the lede here, but your thoughts on acquiring a player of Bradley Beal’s caliber and adding him to the blend of talent that you already have?
VOGEL: “He’s one of the best players in the league and he’s in his prime. So any time you can get a guy like that, it should only enhance what you’re doing and enhance your chances of winning a championship. He’s a guy that you can put the ball on his hands and ask him to go score 30, but can also play off the ball when other guys are going and they’re the ones drawing double-teams and he’s on the backside as an elite catch-and-shoot shooter. He’s a strong defender and a good two-way player and someone that’s really gonna help us.”
Bourguet: When you look at some of the additions, the recent young guys that are coming aboard — Jordan Goodwin being that point-of-attack defender, Toumani Camara as a second-round pick who’s also well known for his defensive versatility — how exciting is that to have a couple of younger guys coming in that are known for their defensive effort and intensity?
VOGEL: “Yeah, I like what both of those guys bring from an effort and toughness and defensive standpoint. Both Jordan at the guard position and Toumani at the 3-4 position, those guys represent what our group needs, and I think they’re gonna be big parts of what we do.”
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