At the conclusion of an afternoon session on day five of training camp, Washington Wizards assistant coach Sam Cassell cracked smiles while rebounding for John Wall, Jordan Crawford and Shelvin Mack as they performed a shooting drill. Cassell is about to begin his third season on the bench for the Wizards. Forever known for his personality, he doled out positive instruction to the young guards, sharing stories with Wall about a certain game in his playing career where he “killed it” and got the win. Cassell also proclaimed Crawford as the funniest dude he knew, the camaraderie among the trio being rather overt.
The three-time world champion with 15 NBA seasons under his belt is essential to the development of both guards. He’s constantly teaching the young Wizards moves and positioning. Even though Flip Saunders had this to say after practice,:
“Sam does a good job because he has good knowledge as far as played the position. One thing that’s a little bit different is that Sam played a lot different than these guys. And sometimes you have to talk to Sam because the things he wants them to do, as far as shoot mid-range shots and those type of things, that’s not what their game is. Sam’s speed has definitely never been close to those guys. So that’s one thing we gotta watch out a little bit. But he’s got a good knowledge of what to look for.”
Either way, certainly the athletic can learn something from the tactics of the non-athletic. Cassell has also enjoyed past friendly battles of one-on-one with the likes of John Wall, Nick Young and JaVale McGee. Something left in the tank is sometimes best spent on education.
Cassell’s strengths are his bubbly personality, ability to relate to young players and cerebral understanding of what it takes to succeed in the NBA. And that’s not just from 136 playoff games and numerous big shots, but he’s also played under accomplished coaches such as Rudy Tomjanovich, George Karl, Cotton Fitzsimmons, Doc Rivers and Flip Saunders. For those participating in a ‘NBA Coaches Sam Cassell Played For’ Jeopardy category at home: Jim Cleamons, John Calipari, Don Casey, Kevin McHale, and Mike Dunleavy.
One of my favorite recurring moments watching the Wizards from up close is when Cassell greets a player or a coach from the opposing team at half court during pre-game shoot-around. Cassell’s trademark shiny bald head and demonstrative facial reactions can be seen from afar. He appears to be engaged in the funniest conversation ever. The most memorable of these encounters was him trash talking current Magic assistant coach Patrick Ewing about a game winning shot he hit on the former New York Knicks star. Cassell started recreating the shot and would not let up on the vocal reminders, even after the two had parted ways from center court.
Another memorable is Cassell’s interactions with Goodman League president Miles Rawls during Wizards games. Rawls, a season ticket holder, sits directly across from the home team’s bench, and his funny one liners are hard to ignore in a quiet Verizon Center, especially during dead balls. Rawls will sometimes call out Cassell by name to make a request, such “Put in Cartier [Martin], Sam!” Cassell usually responds with a big grin, which is much more amusing than grown adults wrestling over flying burritos and T-shirts.
Considering the tumultuous incidents and roster upheaval in Washington over the past two seasons, the current coaching staff has, for the most part, been given an incomplete grade. I believe this to be fair and a conventional wisdom assessment. However, this season will be key to truly evaluating the performance of Flip Saunders’ staff from start to finish.
The Wizards exceeding any expectations and showing signs of real progress could coincide with increased NBA coaching opportunities for Cassell down the road. He interviewed for Houston Rockets top job last spring, but is still seen by some as too green for his own team.
Wall becoming an All Star/MVP candidate and Crawford turning into a super sub 6th man or reliable starter, along with team success, are potential scenarios that would produce strong pro-Cassell arguments for NBA GMs. He could also take some credit for Nick Young’s evolution into a more dependable contributor.
Due to the unavailability of Wizards assistant coaches for interviews, I could not get comment from Cassell on his coaching methods, but I asked Wall, Crawford, and Mack, and Saunders about his influence on the program, as seen in the video above. (Honestly, I have just been dying to know more about the Cassell dance and have him hook me up with some golf tips.)