Shaka Smart Is A Really, Really Good Leader…

Every now and again, Shaka Smart allows us all into the inner sanctum of VCU basketball. Smart gave us a peek last night, in a big way, on his weekly radio show at Home Team Grill.

It wasn’t about Xs and Os–and as you will read that isn’t even the most important facet–but rather how they approach the program and what is important to winning. It works, as Smart is VCUs alltime winningest coach, but it isn’t easy. In fact, it’s a daily battle.

Smart didn’t really hold court but he absolutely held your attention. Host Greg Burton read Smart a Billy Donovan quote about commitment and good decision-making. Donovan has suspended one of his best players, Dorian Finney-Smith, for a violation of team rules. It prompted one of the better segments you will ever get from a coaches show.

Burton read the Donovan quote, and then Smart began, and spoke with passion:

“We talk to our guys all the time about the difference between interest and commitment. When you’re interested in something, you do it when it’s convenient. When you’re committed to something, you do it all the time, even when you lost that feeling that you originally had when you you made the original commitment.

But the problem with today’s society, and especially in our basketball culture, is kids grow up learning to be conditionally bought in. In other words, ‘if things are going well for me then I will listen and I will follow the plan and I will do what you ask me to do coach. If things are going well for me then I’m going to have a good attitude; I’m going to be coachable. But if they’re not, I’m going to get off the page and I’m going to do what I want. It’s okay for me to violate team rules; it’s okay for me to not be coachable; it’s okay for me to take a bad attitude; it’s okay for me not to be a good teammate.’

And the reality is that it’s a disease that impacts the vast majority of teams. What most fans don’t realize is this is the number one thing that we fight as coaches every day. It’s a daily battle. People think it’s about pick and roll and dunking the ball and making jumpers. If our guys have a clear head for being committed to what goes into winning, then we’re going to win most of the time, unless we play a team that’s just that much better than us.

But when you see us struggle it’s not because we didn’t work on free throw shooting or work on our three point shot. It’s because maybe a guy got off the page, or maybe a couple guys did, and I try to tell our staff all the time it’s not about the scouting report. It’s not about how we’re going to guard pick and roll. It’s about ‘does this guy have a clear mind?’ If he has a clear mind like Mike Gilmore did last game, then he can score 10 points in 14 minutes. If he doesn’t have a clear mind then he shoots the ball off the side of the backboard. Its’ the same guy.”

Burton then followed up by asking about this being a systemic problem, part of the culture of basketball.

“It’s a systemic problem in our entire culture. You know me; I’m a really positive person…when you get to the higher levels of basketball the reality is it’s a question of supply and demand. There’s a small supply of great players out there, great in quotes, whatever that means. There’s a huge demand for great players.

Is Treveon Graham a great player? Well, it’s all relative, right? For us, he sure is. At that level? No. So if he goes to that level, he has to do every single thing perfect. From an attitude, from an approach standpoint, from a  coachability standpoint. Guess what? He’s done that for the most part here. That’s why I’d recommend him to anyone at that level.

But if a guy can have success at this level but not do things necessarily the right way all the time, or not be a great teammate, eventually that’s going to catch you. No one has the level of talent, except for the top 1% in the NBA, that they can be an absolute jerk, do things the wrong way, and still get away with it. Even Josh Smith got waived from the Detroit Pistons. He’s uber-talented and they just waived him, they cut him, they said we’re going cut our losses with this guy. And what happened when they did it? They won a bunch of games and they are a better team.”

Burton then referenced Smart’s well-known mantra of playing with a clear mind.

“…we can work on it and talk about it ad nauseam, but the reality is as an individual you have to make that choice to push certain things out of your mind…especially as a male, it’s a difficult thing sometimes to push the opinions of others outside of your mind.

I’ll give you an example. Jonathan Williams. Jonathan Williams really, really cares what people think. He really, really is concerned about perception. I’m trying to get him to understand ‘forget what they think. focus on what I think. I’m the coach!’ If you do what I want you to do, you’re going to be successful. Well, easier said than done. As he’s made progress with that, guess what?, he’s played better.”

Burton referenced social media.

“Social media is a bear. I’ll use Mel as an example, too. We hit a stretch in the season where Mel was very upset with the media, with certain fans. Unfortunately this guy reads message boards sometimes. And people are being critical of Melvin because he’s missing shots. Mel’s like, ‘well I’m not missing on purpose.’ Mel don’t be so sensitive. Clear that stuff out of your mind. Focus on the next thing we need to do. But again, Melvin Johnson is a young man. He has feelings.

Kornheiser said it…it’s a really, really good point that he made. A lot of us are really, really good at staying focused when people say good things about us…but as soon as someone says one negative critical thing we flip out. We can’t handle it. Especially at that age, that’s a challenge. As coaches thats a big part of what we need to be doing.”

Burton then referred to Donovan’s quote about the decisions you make are an indication of your level of commitment.

“…take our team. Take any team. Down the stretch. Let’s be honest. All our fans…let’s win every game…let’s be the best team we can be…let’s win out. It comes down to this: does our team have a commitment to having a championship spirit? Are we committed to one another over our individual agendas? If we are then we’ve got a good chance. It’s not guaranteed. If we’re not, we have no chance. It doesn’t matter. We have zero chance if we’re not committed to having a championship spirit and honor the things that go into winning every day. If that doesn’t happen, forget about it.”