Why 'good cop' Ime Udoka should be a NBA head coach

Ime Udoka speaks to San Antonio Spurs players LaMarcus Aldridge and Dejounte Murray. Mark Sobhani/NBAE via Getty Images

With the NBA regular season in the rear-view mirror, the start of the off-season coaching carousel is set to pick up speed, and former Nigeria small forward Ime Udoka, now coaching with the San Antonio Spurs, should be considered for a top job.

Some teams, like the Knicks and the Magic, took less than 24 hours to announce the dismissal of their coaching staff, while others will likely make announcements over the next few weeks.

As The Undefeated's Marc Spears pointed out recently, there are several deserving African-American assistant coaches that should be in the mix for those top-job interviews, and Oregon-born Udoka is one of them.

Throughout his 12 active years in the NBA, in which he donned the jerseys of several teams, Udoka built a reputation with teammates and coaches as a pro's pro. He brought calm and smarts to the court as a shooting guard and small forward for the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks, Portland Trail Blazers, San Antonio Spurs, and Sacramento Kings.

Six years removed from his playing days, Udoka is now a fixture on the Spurs bench next to head coach Gregg Popovich. Udoka can usually be seen next to Pop, sometimes separating his mentor from NBA referees when Pop feels compelled to give officials an earful.

When the five-time NBA champion coach sees red and prepares to go after the referee unfortunate enough to draw his ire, Udoka is usually the assistant tasked with preventing a ruckus.

"My first year when I came, the coach I [replaced], Don Newman, that was his role, so it kind of fell on me," Udoka explains to KweséESPN. "The first time he [Pop] ran out, I honestly wasn't prepared.

"Now it's second nature, I definitely got a better sense of it now. I can see when he's getting in that mode or when he's going to go after somebody. And at times he wants to so you gotta feel it out and let him do what he wants, but there's times in certain games we want him to stay in there and it's very important.

"I know now after six years, I let him get one if he wants. I know when he wants to get the team riled up but also you can feel the flow of the game and how the ref is calling the game and feel things starting to build, so you have to be ready at those times."

With a masterful wit and incisive sarcasm, Popovich has shown himself to be equal parts strict and caring as it pertains to his players, and coaches typically require a good cop to their bad cop.

Udoka understands this aspect of the job, saying: "I think regardless of how I approach things, if Pop is getting on the guys, we gotta play some good cop, bad cop with them.

"He's going hard on the guys and is very demanding on them and we have to at times give them some love and help build them back up when Pop gets on them. Overall my approach is similar to Pop, very demanding as well, but don't get rattled on the outside."

The Popovich coaching tree has produced fruit in Brett Brown (Philadelphia Sixers), Mike Budenholzer (Atlanta Hawks), and Mike Brown (Golden State Warriors assistant coach), and with Udoka on the rise, the tree continues to flourish.

What's the most important thing coaches learn under Pop? "Probably the most important would be the relationships with the players," Udoka says.

"Anybody can do Xs and Os and game plan for a team and scheme. Pops got all the bases covered, he's great in all areas but he's the best at relating to the players. Building a relationship with those players.

"Obviously, showing he cares for them is a big part of it. That's the thing I'll probably take away the most, the overall relationship with players. Once they know you care about them you can coach them a certain way and they allow you to coach them, but if it was that easy anybody that has a job would be able to coach guys and that's not always the case," he adds.

Spurs forward Kyle Anderson admits as much, telling KweséESPN about Udoka: "If he has to get on you he'll get on you but he knows how to talk to us, [he] knows how to handle players."

LaMarcus Aldridge, the All-Star forward/center in his second season with the Spurs, tells KweséESPN that his good relationship with Udoka goes back to their time playing together in Portland: "We got cool when he came [on] with the Blazers.

"He's a good guy, works hard so I just got close to him then. He's been kind of like the middle man, trying to help me and how I feel [get] across to the coaching staff. He's trying to help me feel more comfortable every year.

"He's been the guy that I work with every summer since I've been here. He's been a big part of me getting more comfortable."

Udoka hasn't been limited to working with Aldridge, also spending time with Argentinian veteran Manu Ginobili, and most recently played a role in the development of forward Kawhi Leonard into an NBA All-Star.

"It's my sixth year now. I had Manu for my first few years, Tim (Duncan), Kawhi a little bit. Even in the summers I go see Kawhi in San Diego and work with him so it's not like I'm only working with bigs or guards," Udoka says.

The summer league is when NBA assistants get the opportunity to take the reins of a team and show what they can do. Coaching the Spurs summer league team in 2013 and 2014, Udoka gained further appreciation for the job.

"You definitely learn from all experiences," he says. "I'd done some clinics before that and coached some Adidas Nations in the summer so that stuff always helps keep you sharp.

"Assistant is one thing but to be a head coach is a whole different mindset, so I love to do those things. Not only do you get to implement your own stuff but you get to use your own voice a little bit more."

The Spurs have won five championships, and as a player, Udoka missed out on the 2007 championship by a year. But in his second year on the bench with Pop, in 2014, he finally got his championship ring.

Udoka reflected on the best moment of his coaching career so far: "The [finals] one after Miami came back, obviously that was special based on the previous year and how heartbreaking it was. We were basically on a mission. To do that against Miami was even more sweet.

"What I love about Pop, [on] the first day of training camp we watched the video and he said, 'This is what happened, we're not running from it and we're gonna use it as motivation and fuel throughout the whole year'.

"That was a great thing to do, not hide from it. We owned the loss and saw the things we could have done to obviously win that championship. To carry that motivation throughout the whole year, and use it against the team that beat you, was great."

As for the possibility of coaching his fatherland Nigeria, the country he played for in several AfroBasket tournaments, Udoka says: "I talked to them last year and they wanted me to do something with the men's team, but they had a made a change with the federation and it was three weeks before the tournament and I had summer plans mapped out.

"I'm not sure what direction they're going in. They've reached out to me, the new president has, so I'll be talking to him soon.

"I want to be an NBA head coach, obviously, and the opportunity and time to do international coaching would be now while I'm not a head coach, because once that happens you'd be too busy with your team and that would obviously be the focus."

Despite the belief in Udoka by many around the league, the 40-year-old is as literal as his first name. Ime means Patience in the traditional Efik-Ibibio language of Akwa Ibom in Nigeria, where his father grew up.

When the opportunity arrives to interview for the right team in the right situation, Udoka believes his time learning from Popovich and the Spurs will have him prepared to continue the production from the Popovich coaching tree.

His former Blazers teammate Aldridge says: "I think he's gonna be a big time head coach. He understands the game, he played, he's kind of like Pop's right hand man at times here. I think once he gets the opportunity, he's gonna be great."

Until then, Udoka will continue learning from the esteemed Popovich while doing his best to keep his mentor away from the NBA referees.