When the US team defeated Serbia Sunday for the gold medal of the FIBA World Cup, the season of international basketball for NBA players effectively came to a close. Among the Bucks, Giannis Antetokounmpo figured most prominently. Coming off the bench for a Greece team that went undefeated in group play, Antetokounmpo averaged 6.3 points and 4.3 rebounds per game while playing around 15 minutes per game and routinely mixing in a jaw-dropping highlight or three.
Zaza Pachulia was busy helping Georgia qualify for FIBA’s 2015 European championship (Eurobasket). His dominating performance (17.5 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 3.3 apg) pushed Georgia to the top of a four-team group that also included Hungary, Portugal and the Czech Republic.
One other member of the Bucks was also busy with international play this summer: top assistant coach Joe Prunty. Prunty, who came to Milwaukee with Jason Kidd from Brooklyn, has spent the past two summers as the head coach of Great Britain’s national team.
Prunty may not be a household name, but his years as an NBA coach probably outnumber those of the rest of Jason Kidd’s staff — Kidd included. Prunty’s NBA career started as an assistant video coordinator in San Antonio in 1996, the same season that Spurs general manager Gregg Popovich fired Bob Hill and named himself as head coach. Six seasons later, Popovich promoted Prunty to an assistant coaching position, and Prunty was part of three titles in San Antonio before leaving for higher ranking jobs in Portland (2005-08), Dallas (2008-10), and Cleveland (2010-13).
Two years as the head coach of an international team add to Prunty’s lengthy credentials. But this summer did not go as Prunty would have hoped.
After a promising Eurobasket 2013 campaign last summer — when Britain finished 2-3 with wins over Germany and Israel — the British attempted to qualify for Eurobasket 2015. Grouped in a bracket with Iceland and Bosnia-Herzegovina, they finished 0-4 after completing a home-and-away series with each opponent.
Despite the difficulty, Prunty holds the support of longtime national team captain Drew Sullivan, who has been a part of Great Britain’s team since it’s modern re-inception in 2005. “Coach Prunty coming in last year just absolutely breathed life back into the program,” Sullivan noted, “and I think that’s the biggest compliment I can pay him.”
Great Britain assembled a team many years in advance of the 2012 Olympics, anticipating the automatic bid that is typically granted to the host country. They finished winless in five games, a result that left them at the bottom of a 12-team field.
Prunty took over shortly afterward. It is difficult to compare the Olympic squad with the teams Prunty has fielded, according to Sam Neter of Hoopsfix.com, the top basketball blog in England.
“The Olympic team had all of our stars: Luol Deng, Pops Mensah-Bonsu, Joel Freeland and the like. Meanwhile, post-2012 since Prunty has come in the squad has looked incredibly different, being forced into way more of a team style of basketball.”
Sullivan, the team’s captain, says that Prunty operates as an equal-opportunity coach. “Joe is a very personable guy and he’s very approachable. He talks to all the guys on a certain level regardless of what your status level is or what you’ve done — it never really comes into the equation. He treats us all equally whether you play at the highest level in Europe or whether you play professionally in England.”
Prunty joins a staff in Milwaukee full with a number of player development specialists: Eric Hughes, Josh Oppenheimer and Sean Sweeney, coaches whose resumes are shorter but also full of experience teaching skills to NBA players. Prunty has more background as an X’s and O’s guy, but Sullivan also sees him as an expert in player development in his own right.
“Coach came in and helped (the younger players) find a foothold in the program and you could see how much more relaxed they were,” Sullivan said. “They never really worried about getting yanked because they made a mistake. He built a comfort level within the whole team. That doesn’t mean we were relaxing. We still played hard, but we understood that we were allowed to play through any of our mistakes. If we were to get pulled it wasn’t necessarily because of a mistake. And if we did get pulled because of something that happened in the game, he would quickly try to teach you in that moment and you would go back in soon after.”
Those skills may come in handy in Milwaukee. Of the Bucks on the roster, nine are 23 years old or younger. Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker and Damien Inglis are teenagers upon whom the organization is pinning its hopes for the future.
Sullivan thinks that Prunty’s talents will eventually land him an NBA head coaching job in his future. “He’s the kind of coach who is like, ‘What can I do now for you to become better?’ I don’t only think that Coach will be a head coach, I think he will be a very good head coach in the NBA.”