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The Ultimate Apprentice: Earl Watson

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A look at the philosophy, strategy, and tendencies of Phoenix Suns Head Coach Earl Watson

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

I love Earl Watson. It’s that simple. In his short tenure as the Phoenix Suns head coach, Watson has been able to transform the culture, while creating a strong player development program. He is a natural born leader with the ability to connect with all people, not just NBA players, a gift that will separate him in the NBA head coaching ranks.

As an undersized point guard Watson was a fiery competitor, always competing with a chip on his shoulder. That same fire has translated to his coaching style, fitting well with a young core that includes Devin Booker, Josh Jackson, Marquese Chriss.

The underdog mentality is seen in his defensive schemes, with on ball pressure and various zone schemes. His creativity as a former point guard is expressed in some of the most unique offensive sets in the NBA. Quite frankly, Earl Watson thinks outside the box, willing to bring new ideas to the Phoenix Suns, while sticking with fundamental basketball principles that work.

Watson has been under the tutelage of four legendary head coaches: John Wooden, Hubie Brown, Jerry Sloan, Greg Popovich. Watson’s coaching philosophy is a direct result of his time with these basketball minds. The lessons of competitive greatness from John Wooden, or the idea of keeping it simple from Jerry Sloan. Watson has been able to combine these ideas into his philosophy with the Phoenix Suns.

I’ll look at some of the strategic influences on Watson along with some of his tendencies as an NBA head coach.

Defensive Mindset

If you follow Earl Watson you know he’s a believer in the power of momentum. I am a huge fan of this concept as well. I also believe not just in basketball but in every sport, momentum is a key to success. Watson believes high energy + defensive aggression generate momentum within a game. Steve Kerr, head coach of the Golden State Warriors often talks about getting three stops in a row, the defense generates momentum.

Watson is willing to challenge the status quo of NBA defense. Not many NBA teams play a zone defense as often as the Suns.

Suns start out the game vs. Nets in a 2-3 zone. Listening to Suns players, they often discuss being the aggressors and setting the tone. That punch first mentality is why you see gambles to start games in a 2-3 zone.

Another zone concept Watson uses at times is a 1-2-2. This is his idea of generating momentum while attempting to get Lillard out of rhythm. In theory, once Lillard is in the high post Booker needs to be one step higher looking to trap him.

Watson made a living with his defensive tenacity. Moving forward you’ll continue to see the on ball pressure from the guard spot. Tyler Ulis is an Earl Watson type of player.

This is a clip that’s not really full court pressure but shows you the kind of defense Watson desires from his point guard.

Another aspect to watch for defensively moving forward is Watson’s tendency to press after the under six timeout in the third quarter. He loves punching first, that is a good moment in the game to shift momentum.

Offensive Influences

Jay Triano

For those not familiar with the Suns coaching staff, Triano is the lead assistant coach for Watson with a wealth of experience. One of the influences he has had on the Suns offensive system is the Twist action for Booker coupled with a quick hitter stagger or pin down.

Watson always has good sets to start games, this is Zipper Twist Stagger. You’ll notice a major philosophy within the coaching staff is to get Booker in motion to his right.

If you watch Toronto Raptors games, Dwayne Casey still runs DeMar DeRozan in similar twist action, the same idea has been brought to Phoenix for Booker.

Again, I’ll get more into Watson tendencies later, but notice how it’s the first play of the game. This is the variation with Booker coming off a Double Rip Pindown. Great job attacking on the catch.

Another Triano influence not really on Watson, but on Booker is how he turns Post-Ups into drives, and in general his post up game for a guard.

Jerry Sloan

Jerry Sloan had great sets, but kept things simple with fewer sets compared to many NBA head coaches today. Ty Corbin a Sloan assistant and former head coach of the Utah Jazz is also an assistant on the Suns coaching staff.

One of the influences you will see is the entry into the low post with the lead guard setting up the second stagger screen, also similar to many of the actions in Pete Carril’s Princeton Chin Series.

This is the set vs. Chicago Bulls. Watson loves getting Booker in motion to his right. Sloan used to have Karl Malone. Watson has Marquese Chriss.

Now in Toronto, Watson brings out the same set this time Chriss replacing Dudley as the screener. Booker makes a good read.

In the pre-season, Watson experimented with Booker as the lead guard setting the stagger screen and Warren meeting the 5, but Len decides to go away from the set.

The DHO was a secondary action in the Sloan offense, likewise Watson has similar action.

Ulis rubs his chin signaling the Watson Chin Series. Booker comes off a screen meeting Chriss into a DHO. Poor spacing to start the action.

The PG Side Iso concept is a patented idea by Jerry Sloan. With recent changes in NBA offensive systems, not many teams run the concepts the same way as Jerry Sloan. Watson still uses those ideas.

This is a PG Side Iso Spread Wing Ball Screen set with Ulis and Booker, Watson copied this right out of the Sloan playbook. Without a great low post scorer, Watson thinks outside the box and uses a shooting guard to set the screen.

Moving forward you will see Ulis in a ton of these sets with his size and quickness, same idea Sloan had with John Stockton.

Jerry Sloan used to run Jeff Hornacek in this same PG Side Iso Pin Down set looking to get an open 3. Watson loves running the same set with different variations, but Sloan would usually have the strong side cleared out.

My favorite variation Watson has is the quick split cut with Barbosa from the wing. Good back screen from Dudley. I would expect to see Josh Jackson in this type of action next season.

This is Watson at his best, thinking outside the box, willing to try new ideas. Same fundamental concept of PG Side Iso but has Bledsoe in the low post as a secondary option if the initial split cut is not there. In this case that saves the set from becoming broken.

Later in the same game you see Watson run the PG Side Iso Wing Ball Screen. His variation of using the SG in Booker works because of his attention to detail, sets a hard screen forcing Holiday once step slower to recover, leads to the Chriss dunk.

In the previous clip New Orleans elected to switch the action, which is the proper defensive scheme as it forces Bledsoe baseline with Hill hedging.

This time from the right wing, the Jazz elect chase Bledsoe, which exactly what Watson wants in theory.

Watson loves experimenting new variations in the pre-season, but goes away from it in the regular season, I would like to see him stick with the sets that work.

This is a pre-season game where Watson runs Booker in a cross down screen to get Bledsoe isolated from the wing. Instead of the wing ball screen with Len, they run a double stagger with Dudley setting the second screen, creates the switch onto Boris Diaw.

Almost every Elevator Set or weak side Double Pin Down in the Watson offense starts with the Sloan PG Side Iso Concept.

This is the wedge variation where Dudley comes of the Double Pin Down and Booker slips the wing ball screen.

John Wooden

Jerry Sloan ran many of the same concepts John Wooden used as the head coach of UCLA. In a way Watson combines both of their variations.

One of the fundamental concepts in the Wooden offense was the single high entry into the post with a guard going on a UCLA cut between the two players.

This is the set vs. Houston Rockets. Beverely and Gordon have miscommunication with the switch after Ulis inside foot hesitation on the UCLA cut, the hesitation is a fundamental idea Wooden used to stress to his players. Love how Watson is able to get a young player to pay attention to the details of the UCLA cut, a sign many fans don’t see when criticizing Watson’s player development ability.

The fundamental idea of the John Wooden offense was an entry into the 5 at the High Post and different elements of guards setting screens or getting open.

The High Post Split action is the result of this idea. In reality, Wooden would always want the guard to cut towards the side of the entry to create Blind Pig action. However, Watson really likes this action where Ulis sets a ram screen with Knight coming around the weak side. This is also the Golden State Warriors bread and butter action.

This is a High Horns set vs Denver Nuggets where Knight goes on a wide UCLA cut between Warren. Booker’s ability to post up for a guard allows Watson to add another wrinkle.

Watson has a great understanding of coupling fundamental concepts to fit his personnel. Instead of the High Post entry to Chriss, who is limited at this stage in his career, they run a Pistol Strong set with the lead guard releasing to the strong side corner. Allows Chriss to go back door for the alley-oop.

Also note the attention to detail Watson has in his sets with proper weak side action they get Kosta Koufos away from the paint. John Wooden used to design his sets the same way attempting to get multiple actions at once.

I also love the idea of using Booker to set back screens or flex screens as a simultaneous action to the entry into the High Post. Good old-school Give N Go action here with Ulis and Chriss.

The Suns offense is filled with UCLA screen the screener action. Watch how Booker sets a screen for Len before the Bledsoe - Len PnR. Allows Bledsoe to attack with Plumlee out of position.

Overall, the Suns like many other teams run the same concepts John Wooden had. Wooden had a bigger influence on Watson off the court teaching him about leadership and the principles of success.

Greg Popovich

Watson spent one year as an intern/assistant to Greg Popovich, studying the ideas of Popovich’s motion offense. When Watson first became head coach, many media members asked him about his offensive philosophy, he always said you’ll see the Suns run many of same actions as the Spurs.

Zipper Backdoor is one of Watson’s favorite ATO sets, a direct influence of Greg Popovich. No coach in the history of basketball has created better misdirection sets than Popovich.

This is a basic set you will see all the Popovich tutees around the NBA run.

When Watson needs a basket he loves Zipper Backdoor. This is an EOG set designed for Warren to go backdoor in SLOB without the low post entry.

Watson is able to create new ideas to fit his young players. This is a wrinkle the coaching staff adds out of Zipper Backdoor that allows Bender to get an open 3.

The 5 for the Jazz has no chance to recover once he takes one step towards Derrick Jones Jr.

Motion Weak is one of the most popular sets Popovich runs which has influenced modern NBA basketball.

After the strong side wing entry pass you see the guard Ulis release to the weak side waiting for Booker to come off the down screen.

Advanced scouting the Suns you could see Watson has a tendency to run motion weak with Booker as the first play of the second half.

With limited options it is tough for Watson to create different variations. He does a good job getting Alex Len in motion weak. Popovich used to run the same action with Tim Duncan coming off the down screen.

The Suns also use Popovich’s motion strong principle to get Booker in motion to his right.

Terry Stotts

Stotts is the current head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers. Watson played his final season under Stotts from 2013-2014. Watson has modeled his offense in Phoenix around many of the actions Stotts runs as both teams have guards as primary offensive options.

Watson has taken Stotts Thumb Series with him to Phoenix. The most common set you will see the Suns run with Booker and Bledsoe is Thumb Up.

Bledsoe puts his him thumb up which triggers the pitch back flare screen.

The One Chest variation is pretty much the same action but Booker comes on a Zipper cut, POR usually does not have the flare screen the guard just keeps going, similar with Booker in this clip, but it all depends on the flow of the set. Allows more secondary options if Booker is not open on the initial flare screen.

You’ll notice the slight variation has an impact on creating defensive miscommunication between Bogdanovich and Wall allowing Booker to fade into an open 3.

In general the idea of running Booker off flare screens requires proper strong side action to get the center’s eyes away from Booker. Watson does well designing these sets usually with Warren on a strong side pin down.

You will also see the Zip BS PnR for Booker after Bledsoe releases on the Chriss back screen.

Pin Stagger with the idea of having Lowry to chase Bledsoe. Lillard and McCollum run this to perfection, really good set for Booker and Bledsoe.

Both Watson and Stotts use the concept of Spain PicknRoll where a guard sets a back screen on the opposing teams big. The action is named after the Spanish National Team who first made it popular.

Bledsoe puts up one index finger triggering PnR with Chandler, Knight misses Valanciunas on the back screen or else Bledsoe would have finished.

This is the same set with Ulis, again you see the one index finger go up signaling Booker to set a screen from the the free throw line. In this case, Zeller hedges right on Ulis not allowing Booker to set the back screen on him.

The purpose of Spani PnR is to get a clear driving lane for the PG to the basket by blocking the rim protecting defender. One of the problems the Suns have is the predictability of the set due to various reasons.

For example you can tell Ingles reads it extremely early as he starts hugging Booker before he can set the back screen on Gobert. Suns get away with it as Gobert does not hedge left leading to the argument between Ingles and Gobert.

Stotts does a better jobs disguising the Spain action usually running the guard off a flare screen before setting the back screen, something I would expect Watson to start as well next season.

The Suns run Double High PnR at least a couple times per game, Stotts is the same way. However, Watson gets a bit more creative looking to have Chriss - Bender lock arms, this was a trend I saw in the early portion of the season, but Watson gradually went away from it as the season went on.

Bledsoe puts his fists together signaling the lock of arms, which sets a stronger screen.

Tendencies

Philosophy: Consecutive Actions

Earl Watson has a strong belief in finding a match-up or set that works and sticking with it. He looks to run the same action with different variations consecutively. I’ll try to explain.

Continuing on the theme of Spain PnR. Let’s go through a sequence of Watson in game coaching.

If you saw the Spain PnR earlier vs Hornets this is the same game. Watson runs Spain PnR again at the 6:47 mark in the fourth quarter, this time with Derrick Jones Jr. (DJJ) setting the back screen on Kaminsky.

Very next set at the 5:44 mark Watson comes back with the same Spain PnR set this time with DJJ looking to set the back screen on Zeller.

Watson stays with DJJ in Spain PnR - Fist Down for the third time in a row at the 5:20 mark, gives you an inside look at his philosophy as an NBA head coach. If the Suns were a playoff team playing slower games with more half court sets this philosophy would be more apparent.

Watson always has good sets to get Booker open corner 3’s. This is Fist Baseline Down Exit.

Watson comes back the next possession showing the same set but Bledsoe makes a read for the jumper out of PnR.

One of the main ideas within the coaching staff is to get TJ Warren isolated from the center of the floor, it is their main SLOB set.

You will also see Watson run Horns PnR to get Warren isolated from the top of the key.

Once Watson likes a match-up he will expose it, never going away from what is working. This the next possession, Horns PnR, OKC elects not to switch the action this time.

Philosophy: Create the Consecutive Action

This is a great principle idea Watson has. Once he sees a player get confidence, he’ll look to run a set to get that player another open look.

A good example is how he uses Dragan Bender, who is a bit of a streaky shooter. Bender makes a 3 in transition here forcing Quin Snyder to take a time-out.

Advance Scouting Watson you know after the time-out he is looking to draw up a set to get Bender another open wing 3. This is his go to Elevator Set, like I discussed earlier the majority of them start with the Sloan PG Side Iso Concept. (Watson usually hand signals with his index finger - middle finger coming together, making the elevator, unfortunately I do not have a clip, but if you re-watch the last game for the Kings you can see it. It was the same Bender Elevator Set)

Game Time Tendency

I outlined some other game time tendencies Watson such as running motion weak for the first play of the second half or Zipper Twist for Booker as the first play. Another Watson tendency is to run this Curl Set for Booker from the top of the key to get him going.

Booker was struggling in stretches this past season with getting a early rhythm in the game. Watson creates this set for that reason. Also not the proper strong side action, a key to many of his sets.

This time at home they bring it out again to start the game vs Cavs.

The one aspect of Watson you have to respect is his willingness to adapt his offensive philosophy to fit his personnel, a sign of a great young coach. He wants Booker to get going early in games, this is the perfect set to get him a good look.

Earl Watson is truly the ultimate apprentice, learning under some of the most legendary coaches, he has developed an offensive system that will flourish in the Valley of the Sun. Earl Watson is going to win many games as the head coach of the Phoenix Suns.

Pablo Picasso once said, “Good artists copy. Great artists steal”, In my view, “Good coaches copy. Great coaches steal”. Basketball is a game of who can reverse engineer what works best, Earl Watson has done a fine job so far.