PHOENIX – Looking out at the assembled media and fellow Phoenix Suns’ employees, Earl Watson spotted his players.
“I appreciate you (guys),” he said, during his introductory remarks at a press conference formally naming him head coach.
All 14 players received a phone call early Tuesday afternoon from general manager Ryan McDonough informing them individually that the Suns had decided to retain Watson and make him the 17th head coach in franchise history.
“It was pretty impressive and impactful to me and to us that all of them said, ‘That’s great; when’s the press conference and can I come?’ That tells you how they feel about Earl as our permanent head coach,” McDonough said.
Most players had prior commitments, but a handful rearranged their schedules and found the time to attend the 3 p.m. announcement.
Guards Devin Booker and Brandon Knight arrived in basketball shorts and t-shirts. Forward Mirza Teletovic blended in, sitting with reporters. And veteran guard Ronnie Price threw on a sports coat to mark the occasion.
Each wanted to show their support.
“It’s exciting,” Booker said. “We’ve already developed a relationship as a team with Earl, so I think it’s going to be good for us moving on.”
Added Knight, “Everybody wanted, I think, for him to get a fair shot. This is most important. The Suns and us trying to get things right is important to me and the rest of the guys.”
Watson won only nine games after replacing Jeff Hornacek on Feb. 1.
The win-loss record, however, didn’t weigh as heavily according to McDonough.
“We saw the respect that Earl gained from our players; and he earned that respect and I think the respect is mutual,” McDonough said. “You were able to see that manifest itself on the court with the effort level over the last month or month-and-a-half of the season.”
Knight pointed to how honest and straightforward Watson was; something Knight noticed right away.
“His comments were always comments that would help our team,” he said. “I always knew that he had a great basketball mind. He said the right things at the right times. The first meeting he said things that weren’t said all year long and things that needed to be said, so I think from that point on, especially the veteran guys, they were happy with him being the head coach and excited about what he could bring to our team.”
When did Booker know Watson might be permanent head coach-material?
“Once I saw the energy in our team change, the trust in our team change and the winning attitude change, I knew he would be a great fit. I want him as head coach because of that,” he said. “Everybody in the locker room respects everything he has to say. Everybody’s drive to win rose that much more. No one got comfortable with losing. I think at one point in the season we were comfortable with losing and once when Earl took over that mindset went out the window.”
Booker may have had the closest relationship with Watson this season.
The two worked extensively together when Booker was just getting his professional career started and Watson was an assistant in charge of player development.
“Earl has meant a lot to my development so far,” Booker said. “And now he gets to be my head coach. It’s crazy. We were at the ASU gym working out right when the season started and now he’s the head coach. So it’s just crazy the different paths that people take to get to the certain situations that they’re in.”
At 36, Watson is currently the youngest head coach in the NBA.
But that’s following a 13-year career in which he appeared in 878 games with Seattle/Oklahoma City, Memphis, Denver, Indiana, Utah and Portland.
“He’s young but he understands what he’s supposed to do,” Teletovic said, “and I think it’s very important for this team to have somebody like him.”
Teletovic, a soon-to-be unrestricted free agent like Price, was among the more vocal players to express their support for Watson as the season drew to a close.
They all wanted him back, and now that the interim tag has been removed, Watson’s presence as head coach can only help the Suns moving forward.
“It definitely helps. Definitely helps,” Teletovic said, referring to a possible return to the Suns. “Even if I’m not here, I think this is the best decision they could do. Whenever I go I’m always going to have high thoughts about Earl. A lot of respect towards him. Even though I play against him, I will tell everybody else we’re going to have a tough time winning against him.”