Bob Donewald Jr. is a rolling stone, in basketball coaching terms. After getting a start as a student assistant at Western Michigan, Donewald has been an assistant at Morehead State, a head coach and general manager in the British Basketball League, working with three separate teams, a scout and assistant GM for the New Jersey Nets, an NBA assistant coach under Paul Silas with the Charlotte/New Orleans Hornets and Cleveland Cavaliers, a head coach of a couple professional teams in Brazil, an assistant coach at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, a coach in the ABA, a coach in the Ukraine, coach of the Shanghai Sharks and now, he’s the head coach of China’s national basketball team. What, you thought the ‘journeyman’ tag just applied to players?
After winning once and losing four times in group play, China is very lucky to be in the round of sixteen at the FIBA 2010 World Tournament. If you want to get technical, had it not been for a David Huertas last second three-pointer when his team, Puerto Rico, lost to the Ivory Coast, it would have been the African nation of 20 million instead of the Chinese country of 1.3 billion advancing to the knock-out stage. But China makes no apologies as they move on to face heavily-favored Lithuania on Tuesday. Donewald is now in the most recognizable position he’s ever been throughout his travels as a coach and the basketball-crazed millions in China have taken notice.
The coach inherited a young, inexperienced team, also coming off a sour loss to Iran in the China-hosted Asia Games in August 2009 — Hamad Haddadi and the Iranians gave the Chinese a beat down in the championship game, winning 70-52; Yi could only muster 11 points on 5-17 shooting. And to put himself even more behind the eight-ball, Donewald accepted the job in April 2010 fully knowing that Yao Ming would not be available for the FIBA Worlds, if not completely retired from international play.
But Donewald has taken the reigns and whipped new culture and fresh blood into the Chinese program, and it has shown with their competitiveness. In arguably the toughest group, Group C, China has lost by less than double digits in all games except against Turkey, when Yi and two other starters didn’t play. By the way, under Donewald, Yi and China got revenge on Iran with an 86-64 late-July win over them in the Stankovic Cup, a tune-up for the FIBA Worlds.
As his team prepares to face Lithuania in Istanbul, in the biggest game of Yi Jianlian’s international career, and perhaps for the coach himself, Donewald took the time to answer some of my questions over email. Here’s the transcript:
Truth About It.net: Yi has experienced tumultuous times during his tenure in the NBA, both as a player and in terms of acclimation to a vastly different culture. Also considering his huge stature as the face of Chinese basketball, what has been your assessment of Yi’s situation?
Bob Donewald Jr.: “I know a lot of NBA players, having coached in the NBA myself, who are not in the right situations but can flat out play. I believe now that Yi is heading to Washington he will thrive. He has a passing point guard and an organization that is really excited about having him. This summer he has worked as hard as any player I have seen to get his body and skill work as good as he can, and it is really showing as he is dominating the World Championships and playing with a lot of confidence.”
TAI: What were your impressions of/level of interaction with Yi prior to you being named China’s coach? And how have you approached Yi psychologically from a coaching perspective?
BD: “I always knew Yi was a special talent. He is a hard worker, and as coachable as any player you could ask for. With that combination you just need to put the player in the right positions to be successful. I believe coaches are fortunate to coach great players, and I see myself very lucky to work with a guy that is not only a great player, but a great teammate. Now, Yi has led China to the Final 16 of the World Championships, in what everyone considered a rebuilding year for China. He is the leading rebounder and third leading scorer in the entire tourney. His hard work is paying off.”
TAI: When you took the position as China’s head coach, what was the first thing you told yourself as an answer to … ‘Okay, this is what I must change to make this program succeed.’?
BD: “The confidence of the team without Yao was always lower then it should have been. Also, having lost to Iran in the Asian Championships by 22 points I knew that confidence would be low. We needed to get to work, change the mentality of the team into a defensive team, and slowly get the confidence out of the work that the guys were putting in. Now, I think we see some changes, and that credit needs to be given to Yi — has been a great leader and is giving all of his teammates great confidence.”
TAI: The energy and enthusiasm from China during the FIBA Worlds have been a noticeable change from the past. What has been your approach in how hard China practices, if it’s different from the past, and how it has affected the team’s energy?
BD: “We still practice two times a day during our preparation. However, skill work and shooting for an hour to an hour and a half has changed from the full contact longer practices of the past. Then in the afternoon session, I have tried to up our intensity and lower the practice time — to me this gets up playing harder and more ready for game speed situations. So far my guys have responded great — the effort everyday we go to work has been outstanding, and the results are showing on the court.”
TAI: This Chinese team is very young, what have you noticed about Yi’s role, in his attitude and in his game, in mentoring/leading some of the younger players and the team as a whole?
BD: “We have seven players on this roster that have never played in the World Championships, I was told we are also the youngest team in the tournament. Also, this is the first big stage where Yi is the “face” of the team. So, it has been a process where Yi has gradually taken on a more vocal role, and each day you can see him embracing the fact that this is his team, and we can win games with his leadership. As Yi has grown into these shoes you see Team China playing better and better. His teammates love him, respect him, and want to win with him … this is very important.”
TAI: Can you comment on the seemingly increased passion and aggressiveness Yi has displayed?
BD: “To me, I don’t know any other Yi than an aggressive, dominate Yi. Since we met for the first time, and discussed how confident and dominate he must be with this group, he has shown me nothing but that attitude.”
TAI: Talk about some of the greatest challenges you’ve faced coaching Chinese players (working through a translator, etc.), during your time with the Shanghai Sharks and the national team. Has Yi’s level of English helped to communicate your message, etc.?
BD: “You would be surprised how many of the players on my team actually understand English, and I have the best translator in China … but yes, Yi’s ability to speak English is a HUGE plus in helping continue to teach and push what the coaches are teaching.”
TAI: What assets will Yi bring to the Washington Wizards/how will he be able to fit in? And do you think this is the year where he finally elevates his game on the NBA level?
BD: “I think he will be in a situation where he is comfortable, confident, and aggressive. His skill set is that of a high level NBA player — if put in the right spots I see a great year coming from Yi.”
Many thanks to Coach Donewald for taking time out of his busy schedule.
Yi Jianlian Injury Update:
Donewald also emailed that his team went through a light practice on Monday and Yi should be set to go against Lithuania, and indicated that it was “nothing that serious, just soreness that needs some rest.”
Other sources have indicated that the issue has had little to do with Yi’s Achilles tendon, but rather is a “skin irritation or lesion” that has been causing soreness. An MRI on his Achilles, which was taken as a precaution because of the area where Yi was experiencing soreness, came back negative, as previously reported on Truth About It.net.
The game will be played at 11 am on Tuesday, September 7, and can be seen on NBA TV or ESPN3.com.