Rick Pitino’s wild practices underscore his Iona mission
“Your ass, your ass, your ass,” Rick Pitino barks out from underneath his mask, instructing his forwards to violently use their backside against the defender. “Hit him with your ass.”
Moments later, the Hall of Fame coach with two national championships and seven Final Four berths is getting on freshman Johan Crafoord for his free-throw shooting form.
“You’re shooting like you’re throwing a baseball,” Pitino says.
Later, he repeatedly corrects junior Berrick JeanLouis’ jump-shooting form. JeanLouis is drifting and taking too long on his release.
“One-two, get it off,” Pitino tells him, as he mimics a shooting motion.
This is hours before Iona College will practice as a team, three 42-minute skill-development sessions Pitino holds five days a week that forward Dylan van Eyck described as “nonstop activity.” It’s early November and the games won’t begin for a few weeks, but even when they do, these workouts — Pitino calls them the players’ time to improve — will continue.
Most coaches include skill work in regular team practices. Not Pitino. He separates the two. His regular practices are too intense to last more than a few hours. The morning practices are instrumental to his success, the overriding factor in his 649-273 record. They are how he has produced 29 players who were either drafted or played in the NBA during his legendary career.
“All coaches can coach, all coaches scout, all coaches prepare, all coaches recruit,” he says. “But I think player development has always been the key for me.
“It’s tiring for everybody. But it’s worth everything to your program.”
The skill-development workouts are broken down in three groups: guards, wings and post players. Some of what players do in these early-morning sessions they aren’t allowed by Pitino to do in games. For instance, big men shoot 3-pointers and handle the ball, something they won’t necessarily do when the ball is tipped. The guards run every pick-and-roll imaginable. There is nonstop shooting and skill work.
Most of the drills, though, are predicated on the motion offense Pitino runs, the kind of shots it will create. This is about their future. He will have his players practice NBA drills that will be used at workouts.
One of them is a 55-shot drill he got from his time coaching the Celtics. A player has to take 55 different shots, all on the move. Pitino began using it at Louisville. One of his players, Terry Rozier, had a pre-draft workout with the Celtics, and after scoring well in it, he asked general manager Danny Ainge to do it again.
“Danny said he never saw a guy do it again,” Pitino recalled. “Then [Terry] said, ‘Can I do it a third time?’ ”
Rozier ended up going 16th in the first round to the Celtics and signed a three-year, $56.7 million deal with the Hornets in the summer of 2019, joining a long list of former Pitino players to make it big in the NBA. Obviously, such lofty goals aren’t ingrained among Iona players — playing professionally overseas is more realistic.
“He’s showing us things other people might not see to get us to the pro level,” starting point guard Asante Gist said.
“I signed eight players this year, and six of the eight had no idea what state Iona was located,” Pitino said. “They came because of player development. They wanted to be developed as basketball players.”
What stands out the most about these sessions is Pitino himself. He’s not delegating. He’s not sitting down. He’s front and center in these workouts yelling out instructions. He’s on top of his players. At 68 years old, his passion for the game hasn’t waned.
If you don’t bring it, he’ll kick you out, former Louisville national champion point guard Peyton Siva recalled. They are daunting and intense. After his first workout, he couldn’t stand up. Pitino demands intensity and focus, because that’s what he brings himself.
“There’s never a day off,” said Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard, who served as an assistant for Pitino with the Celtics and at Louisville for nearly a decade. “He never comes in half-ass. Every day he has a work ethic and a passion that is unmatched. No one will ever have what he has in my opinion.”
At his age, Pitino was asked why he still does it, and he pointed out what he doesn’t do. He doesn’t have to talk to boosters or handle office work. He’s on the court for six hours a day. When he took the job, he made sure that was part of the deal.
For virtually his entire coaching career, Pitino has held these skill-development sessions outside of team practices during the season. It began at Boston University in 1978. When he took the job at Providence College in 1985, the team had yet to finish above last place in the first six seasons of the Big East, and Pitino didn’t have time to recruit a new roster.
His only option was to maximize his talent. So five days a week he and his assistants would work individually with players for an hour prior to a three-hour team workout. Back then, of course, there weren’t limitations on practice times. Pitino fondly recalled playing 2-on-2 games for milkshakes at 10 p.m. and working on plays before breakfast.
The player who benefitted the most back then was current Bulls coach Billy Donovan. Prior to Pitino’s arrival, Donovan was a seldom-used reserve who averaged 3.2 points per game his sophomore season. In his second year with Pitino, he led the Friars to the Final Four, averaging 20.6 points and 7.1 assists per game.
“It basically started with him,” Pitino said, “and it just mushroomed from that point on.”
At Kentucky, he developed NBA players such as Antoine Walker, Jamal Mashburn, Walter McCarty, Tony Delk and Ron Mercer. At Louisville, it was Terrence Williams, Earl Clark, Samardo Samuels, Francisco Garcia, Gorgui Dieng, Montrezl Harrell, Donovan Mitchell and Rozier.
“I see why him and his teammates from before accomplished all they accomplished, because he puts the time in,” freshman guard Ryan Myers said. “He’s not just sitting at home. He comes in and grinds with us.”
Several of Pitino’s assistants carried on the skill-development sessions after getting their own programs. His son, Richard Pitino, does them at Minnesota. Kevin Keatts does them at N.C. State. Willard does them at Seton Hall. They are tiring, Willard admitted, but worth it. His program is known for players improving year to year, a major reason the Pirates have emerged over the last half-decade as one of the better teams in the Northeast despite average recruiting.
“You have to put the time and effort in to get kids better,” Willard said. “That’s what he drilled into me.”
Pitino has repeatedly said this will be his last job. He wants to retire from coaching when he leaves Iona. He’s backed up that talk so far. He’s raised nearly a million dollars for a new weight room and locker room. He’s already signed four players for the 2021 recruiting class. He’s treated this job just as he did at Kentucky and Louisville with his player-development work. Assistant coach Casey Stanley marveled at his dedication, how hard Pitino will work with a walk-on who isn’t going to play.
“We will do [drills] until the footwork is right with guys who realistically won’t step on the court here,” Stanley said.
The players have noticed. His hands-on approach has shown how invested he is, supporting his claim that taking the Iona job wasn’t a stepping stone to a return to high-major college basketball. He really is intent on turning Iona into a mid-major powerhouse.
None of this, of course, is a surprise. Pitino has won wherever he’s coached by making players better. He only knows how to do the job one way.
“It’s him,” Myers said. “I was expecting a lot out of him. He’s expecting a lot out of us and we expect him to push us to the next level.”