Golden State’s worrier: ‘Papa Smurf’ Ron Adams keeps it honest as Warriors’ stickler for small stuff

When the Golden State Warriors are in tune with the game, moving the ball on offense and in sync on defense, assistant coach Ron Adams experiences it as poetry. When they are not, he feels the absence of harmony just as viscerally. The Warriors, who may boast the greatest collection of talent the league has ever seen, are more than capable of winning despite periods of uninspired play. Regardless of their record — 10-1 this season; 275-64 since Adams joined Steve Kerr’s staff in 2014 — if they are not sharp, Adams is not pleased. 

“Well, I’m a bit of a purist,” Adams told CBS Sports. “You know, it’s not always easy. When you coach as long as I have coached, you start in small college, in college where the whole thing is hustle and fundamentals and so on down the line, it’s difficult.”

The small college where he started: Fresno Pacific, in 1969. Now in his 50th season as a coach, just shy of his 71st birthday, Adams called it a privilege to work with this particular group of players. He loves this year’s mix of youth and experience and the attitude they’ve had since training camp began. None of this, however, changes how he feels the game should be played: all-out, with great aggressiveness and an artist’s understanding of technique. If a Golden State player disappoints him in this respect, he will not hesitate to say so. 

“When you make it to the pros, a lot of people try to sugarcoat stuff and blow smoke up your ass, especially when you’re a star in this league,” Kevin Durant told CBS Sports. “Ron just keeps it honest no matter what.”

Durant, who spent two years with Adams in Oklahoma City before reuniting in the Bay Area, appreciates that Adams is as likely to correct him as he is a rookie. “I think he expects so much out of us that he wants us to strive for perfection,” Durant said. Another way to put it: Adams is the Warriors’ preeminent worrier.

Obsessed with fundamentals, Adams intently watches the players’ positioning when Golden State is on defense. “It’s all about stance, it’s all about your feet, it’s all about fitting into schemes,” he said. Jordan Bell, a 23-year-old big man, calls Adams “Papa Smurf,” an apt nickname because of his intellect, energy and watchful nature. Bell said that Adams mostly keeps quiet when the Warriors are on offense, but he’s the loudest person on the bench when they’re on the other end.  

“If you see us do a bad defensive play, you’ll see Ron on the sidelines throwing his head back,” Kevon Looney said. “He’s always yelling, ‘Jump out!’ That’s what he takes pride in: defense and all the details and the small things. I know if I ain’t doing it right, if I look over, I can see Ron and all his facial expressions. But when you’re doing good, he always motivates you and he encourages you, too.”

At a recent practice, Adams told Durant how much he thought the superstar had improved on offense: He is cutting better and his driving game is more potent than ever before. Adams believes at his core that everyone can grow. 

“I watch games, I just look at the small stuff, when done correctly, that gets you over the top, and then, conversely, the small stuff that isn’t done correctly that really spells trouble,” Adams said. “That’s kind of how I look at the game.”

At Madison Square Garden two weeks ago, Durant disposed of the New York Knicks with a 25-point fourth quarter and subbed out with the Warriors up comfortably. For the final two minutes, Bell shared the floor with Quinn Cook, Jacob Evans, Alfonzo McKinnie and Jonas Jerebko. That unit, which Bell referred to as “the people who get the garbage minutes,” received defensive instruction from Adams just like Durant, Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson did. 

To Adams, no part of the game is more worthy of attention than another: “It’s all the same thing.” Late-game minutes are critical for young players trying to prove they can perform.

“It’s not garbage time,” Adams said. “For the young guys, it is the time that they can show what they can do within the context of what they’ve been taught in your program. Unfortunately the game can sometimes get sloppy, and even officials let up a little bit. It’s hard when you see these young guys who finally get a bit of a chance and the game isn’t going their way from that aspect.”

Golden State is relying on Bell, Looney and the 23-year-old Damian Jones at center until DeMarcus Cousins returns from injury. According to both Adams and Kerr, their enthusiasm has contributed to the positive vibe around the team. Adams has spent countless hours tutoring each of them before and after practices since they entered the league. There is never enough practice time during the regular season, though, so he must do much of his teaching in individual film sessions between games. 

Adams enjoys this part of the job: “I think all of us are trying to simplify the game for them, distill it down to its essence for each individual. And that is, ‘What do I have to do when I’m on the court to look good, be successful and get more minutes?’ And that’s kind of a fun process with young people.”

“He’ll nitpick everything,” Jones said. “Like, within the first five minutes he’ll nitpick everything about what I do, defensively and offensively.”

The three bigs all know Adams is a stickler. He wants them to understand how to challenge shots with discipline and maintain proper position on defense, even against the craftiest veterans with the most convincing shot fakes. When it comes to rebounding, he wants them to see the shot and make contact with an opponent before crashing the boards. This stuff doesn’t sound complicated, but if they don’t do it properly, it will cost the team and they will see it on video.

One misconception about player development is that it’s always about expanding a player’s game. Most young guys come into the league trying to do too much, Adams said, but the greats of the game started by doing very little, very well. Adams’ goal is to help Bell, Looney and Jones perfect a few skills and add nuance to them over time. 

“You get these young guys and they’ve been out in this big, big pasture, just roaming and doing all sorts of things — I’m talking about from a basketball standpoint — and then our job is to put them in a smaller corral that allows them to be successful at this level,” Adams said. “It’s a fun process, but it’s a process.”

Adams hopes each of his pupils can develop the ability to see the subtleties of the game in his mind’s eye. For some, though, the picture is clearer than others. Not everyone can be a Draymond or an Andre Iguodala. Even for those who struggle to internalize his lessons, though, he will keep working with them to get to the point where they can be more efficient and have a better understanding of the habits that lead to wins and long careers. 

“I think he likes developing young men, on and off the basketball court, with his presence,” Durant said. “I think he’ll do that for the rest of his life, no matter if he’s on the sideline or not. I think he’s going to always pour into young people and continue to lead young people in the right direction. And he’s just using basketball as a tool to do so.”

“At first I was kind of scared of Ron — I ain’t gonna lie,” Looney said. “I came in, working on shots. He’s so serious, he’s talking about defense. I’m like, I’m going to stay away from him.”

Looney now credits Adams for the player he has become defensively. Taking criticism is easy, he said, because Adams loves the game and is “so much fun off the court” — Looney described Adams as hilarious and “kind of X-rated sometimes.” Occasionally, Adams offers relationship advice. 

“One time he came up to me [to talk] about my girlfriend,” Looney said. “Like, ‘Man, your girlfriend is tall. She’s a tall athlete, man. You’re probably going to have some tall kids. You be ready for that.’ You wouldn’t expect that. It was actually first thing in the morning. I just woke up. He just came to me like randomly. I’m like, ‘What are you talking about?’ But it’s so much stuff like that. He’s just funny all the time.” 

A sense of humor might not be a requirement in Adams’ profession, but it helps. He needs to be able to communicate effectively, and he needs players to trust him. There are not a lot of drill sergeants left in today’s NBA, and, for as frank as Adams can be, he sprinkles in plenty of self-deprecation. 

Adams understands the complications that come with being a professional athlete in the social media age. He knows players are scrutinized from all angles. “I don’t care if you’re an All-Star player, you’ve got a lot of haters out there,” he said. Adams remembers the days when a coach might chide a player in an attempt to coax development out of him. Few would dare to work that prove-the-coach-wrong angle now, but Adams still maintains that, as long as you know the person you’re dealing with, you can and must be firm and blunt. 

“Caring about someone, wanting them to do well can take different forms,” Adams said. “I desperately want everyone who I touch on a team, especially a younger player, to be successful.”

Unless he’s trying to be heard over the cacophony of in-arena noise, Adams is not a yeller. During his basketball conversations, Adams asks lots of questions. When he breaks down clips from a game, he makes sure it is clear why he chose them. Everyone respects his half-century of experience, but it’s just as important that he gets why it’s so hard for a young center to learn how to anchor a defense. 

Adams sometimes has to instill confidence in players and make them think bigger. “Other times, you have guys where the reverse is true and they have a much bigger idea of themselves than maybe is healthy,” he said. Either way, he has to get them on the right track. That cannot be done without being direct.

“I do think that you have to be honest with people. If you’re trying to help someone, you have to praise whenever you can, you have to teach whenever you can, you have to be constructively critical whenever you can. And the problem is that even constructive criticism now is viewed as kind of criticism in general. And it shouldn’t be. But that’s changed a little bit, too; as a coach, you have to be aware of this. You have to be nuanced. You have to find teaching moments and hope that it works. Because that’s your job.”

Part of the challenge of coaching the Warriors is navigating the stretches where they look out of sorts. There are fewer of them these days, but as a result of their talent and style of play, it is obvious when they are not quite right. Last year, however, they won their third title in four years after a difficult, inconsistent regular season. This team has taught Adams about keeping a broader perspective.

“We’re dealing with a group of human beings, who are together all the time, who generally flow with each other, but as in any family, flowing all the time is an impossibility,” Adams said. “At those moments, you learn a lot about yourself. You learn a lot about your team, you learn a lot about yourself and you develop nuance in terms of working through it.”

Adams admires the way Kerr has empowered the Warriors’ players. It is commonplace for them to share their thoughts on strategy, and Adams finds this “terribly important,” both because they should know their thoughts matter and because the coaching staff would otherwise be missing out on a wealth of knowledge.

“I think this is certainly the transition I have made as kind of an old-school coach over the years,” Adams said. “That transition is we’re in it together, and the people who are the participants in many cases have a greater insight or, certainly, as good an insight as you do.” 

In Adams, Durant sees a coach who is content with his station, happy to have found a home with this organization and enjoying every day he wakes up and teaches the game. “He’s a free spirit that really appreciates life,” Durant said. “He appreciates people and values relationships. And he’s a basketball genius.” Looney said he makes coming to work every day fun.

Adams believes that, on any championship-caliber team, you have to worry about motivation. He does not believe that let’s get to the playoffs and we’ll be fine is an acceptable mentality. He wants Golden State to give maximum effort, be as focused as possible and never forget the little things — or the fact that, historically great as it may be, it has room to improve. 

All of this is why Adams picks nits. It’s also why he’s so fulfilled when the Warriors play beautiful basketball, when a young player makes progress and when the team is immersed in the process. That same day Adams told Durant how impressed he was by his cutting, he observed a particularly heartening scene. 

“Steph was sitting on a training table — we have one out on our main practice court — with a clipboard, drawing a play up as the other five guys were out there doing some offense,” Adams said. “And Draymond was next to him and K.D. was next to him. I mean, it doesn’t get any better than that, I’m sorry. It just doesn’t get any better than that.”

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