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Phoenix Suns coach Jeff Hornacek never planned to coach in the NBA

Teaching the fundamentals of team basketball was always a job reserved for the college game, which appealed to the teacher and natural leader in Jeff Hornacek. But now he realizes today's NBA players need just as much teaching so he gets the best of both worlds - coaching fundamentals on basketball's biggest stage.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

New Phoenix Suns head coach Jeff Hornacek always wanted to coach, but never thought that would happen in the NBA.

"My goal was never to be a coach in the NBA," Hornacek said. "I always felt I would coach, but I thought that would be on the college level. I felt that what I'd learned over the years would be too much for high school, but the pro guys... they already know everything, so why would I do that?"

Back in Jeff Hornacek's days, most players went to college all four years and the unstructured AAU ball mentality wasn't as prevalent amongst future NBA stars.

"The view when I played," Hornacek said. "Was when you got to the NBA, it was all about strategy, all about the offense, all about the defensive schemes that you're going to use. Those guys already had the fundamentals."

Not so much anymore. That was the biggest lesson Hornacek took away from his two years on the Utah bench. The team tried to integrate lotto picks Enes Kanter (no college), Derrick Favors (one year), Gordon Hayward (two years) and Alec Burks (two years) into the lineup, but head coach Tyron Corbin repeatedly deferred to his veterans as they pushed for the playoffs.

But even many of the Utah vets came into the league with the same deficiencies. Utah SF Marvin Williams, in the league for eight uninspiring seasons now, only spent a year in college before jumping to the NBA. Nine-year veteran C Al Jefferson had no college, coming straight to the league from high school.

"There's so many pro guys that are one-and-dones," Hornacek said. "Or didn't get the teaching in college on how to play the game, and they don't know a lot of this stuff.

"That's one thing I've learned over the last couple years being on the bench is that you can't assume these guys know some of the stuff we learned back in college because they didn't have the same experience."

Hornacek goes back to his own playing days for inspiration as a playmaker at both the PG and SG positions.

"When I was drafted by the Phoenix Suns and played for John Macleod, I would call a lot of plays," he recalls. "I kind of always knew what everybody was going to do. My advantage as a player was to really see and know what the other players wanted to do and use that to my advantage.

"I feel with guys nowadays I can get a pretty quick idea of where they like the ball, what would put them in the best situation to succeed. Once they get that little taste of success, the trust comes and guys will go to battle for you."

When asked what to do when there's a discrepancy between where the player likes the ball versus where he's actually good with it, Hornacek said it's a group effort between the coaches, the player and the tapes.

"Showing them that when they make bad plays, the effect it has on the team," he replied. "All the best teams I've played on, every guy on that team wanted to do something to make another teammate better."

After watching the Phoenix Suns last season, Hornacek might get a rude awakening with this roster. Interim head coach Lindsey Hunter had that same awakening last spring. When Hunter started in January, he vowed to spend a lot more time teaching them the nuances of team defense and making sure guys were paying attention. Practices became harder and longer. Team leaders expressed guarded appreciation for the tougher environment, admitting that the young guys needed someone to get on them more than the prior regime had done.

But Hunter never got through to many of the guys he was trying to reach. When longer practices didn't work, he punished players by fining them, by taking away their playing time. When that didn't work either, his frustration boiled over and he eventually started calling them out in press conferences.

Quiet, unassuming guys like Goran Dragic, Kendall Marshall and Wesley Johnson flourished because they wanted to work hard to get better. But Hunter's tactics failed miserably with tough-minded players who felt they were better than they really were. Those players tuned Hunter out.

Hunter was partially tuned out because he was only the interim coach. He was in a no-win situation, with the losses piling up and the kids thinking more about next season (without him) than this season. There was no chemistry, even when chemist Alvin Gentry was the coach.

And when players tune out the coach, everyone loses. Fans stop buying tickets. The GM gets fired. The coach gets fired. The players ruin their own reputations. Just what did Beasley and the Morri gain from their mini-revolt? Shorter NBA careers, that's what.

Hornacek's success will hinge on whether he has the moxie and the patience to get through to today's NBA youth - whether it be Beasley or the Morri or any other youngsters - who feel they already know everything when they really don't.

"When you see these players," Hornacek says, undeterred. "They may look at you and look like they're not paying attention, but they really do want to learn how to play. They want to improve, they want to get better and get to that top level."

Hornacek spent the last two years watching several lotto picks struggle to play team-first winning basketball, and that has only made him hungrier to be an NBA coach.

"I think it works out perfectly these days because I really enjoy teaching the kids," he says. "I'm inspired to get guys to play team basketball."

With the Suns going through a youth movement of their own, including four players under 25 and six first round draft picks in the next three seasons, his ability to get through to these kids will make or break his NBA career.

If it breaks him, he might just try college after all.

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