Suns remove 'interim' tag, retain Watson as coach

OAKLAND, CA - MARCH 12: Phoenix Suns Head Coach Earl Watson talks to his bench during the game against the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on March 12, 2016 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)
AP Photo

PHOENIX (AP) Without formally interviewing anyone else, the Phoenix Suns retained Earl Watson as their head coach for next season.

Watson was named interim coach after Jeff Hornacek was fired on Feb. 1.

The team went 9-24 under Watson, finishing the season with the second-worst record in franchise history (23-59). But general manager Ryan McDonough liked what he saw from the young coach.

''He reminds me of a young Doc Rivers,'' McDonough said at a news conference on Tuesday. ''... When they speak there's some natural leadership qualities and characteristics that kind of emanate from them.''

McDonough said that, in the final 2 1/2 months of the season, other potential coaches were considered.

''The more and more we discussed it,'' he said, ''Earl continued to emerge from the front of the pack and really had anything we were looking for in terms of the ability to connect with and motivate players, the ability to communicate effectively and directly and the ability teach and inspire while also being direct with the players and holding them accountable.''

Watson got a three-year contract.

The decisions leaves the Suns under young leadership as they attempt to end a streak of six seasons without making the playoffs. Both Watson and McDonough are 36 years old.

Several players had voiced their support for Watson.

''The players have been great,'' he said. ''The ability to teach, nurture and also love them allowed them in the process to grow. The thing about growth is you have to give them the opportunity to fail and they understood that and they embraced it. ... They embraced everything that came along with me.''

A handful of players attended the news conference.

''He has that relationship where he knows how it is to be a player,'' said Devin Booker, one of the league's most promising rookies, ''but at the same time when he speaks as a coach, everybody listens. He's gained that respect from everybody in the locker room.''

In an interview after the news conference, Watson said he had wanted to be a coach from the moment, as a UCLA freshman, he walked into John Wooden's condominium.

''The way he spoke to me and the way he talked to me inspired me to be more than just a basketball player,'' Watson said, ''to one day have the ability to connect, reach young people, inspire, change lives, however you want to put it, to make them a better man.''

Watson, who played in the league for 13 seasons, is the NBA's youngest head coach. His only coaching experience was as an assistant for the San Antonio Spurs' Developmental League team in Austin in 2014-15.

He was hired as a Suns assistant for player development last summer and moved up to a bench coach position when Hornacek's top two assistants were fired in early January.

A second-round draft pick out of UCLA in 2001, Watson played point guard for Seattle/Oklahoma City, Memphis, Denver, Indiana, Utah and Portland.

His coaches included Hubie Brown, George Karl and Jerry Sloan.

McDonough said that Watson became interim coach in February, ''under some of the most difficult circumstances I could imagine.''

''From day one I think he came in and did a great job of settling things down,'' McDonough said, ''getting our team to play hard and give it everything they had.''

As time went on, McDonough said, he saw Watson and the players grow comfortable with each other. There was a marked improvement in ''the culture and the vibe of the team over the last month and a half of the season,'' he said.

After an 0-9 start under Watson, the Suns went 9-15, winning two of their final three games.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide—from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Andy Staples, Grant Wahl, and more—delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.