Jay Wright spent more than six weeks away from home as an assistant coach with USA Basketball for the FIBA World Cup in China. He learned a lot from head coach Gregg Popovich when it came to basketball as well as food and wine.
And when he finally returned to the Villanova campus, he found nothing had changed.
“As Patty, my wife, says to me, ’45 days away, Villanova’s still standing, you’re not as important as you think,’ ” Wright recalled with a laugh Tuesday as he led his Wildcats through their first official practice preparing for the 2019-20 season.
“Then I watched the team and they looked better and I’m thinking, ‘I’m really not that important,’ because our assistants have done a great job with them, and they’ve done a good job while I was away.”
Wright served on the Team USA staff in the World Cup with Popovich, the long-time head coach of the San Antonio Spurs, and alongside NBA head coaches Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors and Lloyd Pierce of the Atlanta Hawks, a former 76ers assistant coach. The team trained in Las Vegas and Los Angeles before heading to Australia for exhibition games and finally China.
Playing without a number of invited NBA stars who were injured or needed a rest, including Anthony Davis, James Harden, Kyle Lowry and Tobias Harris, Team USA finished seventh, its lowest in an international competition. Injuries hit the final roster so hard that the team was down to nine healthy players for the final game.
“We thought we were good enough to win the gold medal, and I think we were,” Wright said. “But we knew we had to stay healthy, which we didn’t. We knew we had to play close to perfect, which we didn’t. I think we had a good healthy respect for FIBA basketball and I think our expectations were pretty much on point.”
Popovich fired back at those who criticized the team’s performance and wanted to play “the blame and shame game,” which he called “ridiculous.” Wright said he learned a lot about leadership from him.
“We lost some games,” he said. “We played in some tough environments, and just watching him handle every situation was really helpful to me.”
Wright called himself “the scrub coach … the college guy with the NBA guys” and said it was fun being an assistant coach again. He split the scouting duties with Kerr and Pierce, assumed team responsibilities on defense and charted minutes.
Wright said he took a lot back to the Main Line, including in the areas of offensive execution and attention to detail, He said the NBA coaches’ “ability to answer any defensive situation with an offensive response was something I learned a lot from being with them, among a ton of other things, and the players being able to execute that immediately.”
While he was away, Wright said he texted his Wildcats assistant coaches every day and spoke with them on the phone “maybe every couple of days.” He said he and his staff planned all the team workouts before he left.
“The assistants did a great job,” he said. “Being in practice with them now, I can see a big difference from when I left during the summer, which means the time they spent with the assistants was really effective.”
Wright’s trip wasn’t strictly basketball. He said of all the great moments on his trip, his visit to the Great Wall of China with his wife was the best, a trip he called “awe-inspiring, an amazing sight to see.”
He also learned about fine dining in Australia and China from Popovich, from whom he learned much about wine.
“The team had its own chef,” he said. “Pop goes to dinner every night and it’s the greatest. He finds the best restaurant in every city – Sydney, Melbourne, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Beijing. He knows where they all are and I loved it every night. And I’m the heaviest I’ve ever been.”
Team USA did qualify for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, and Wright and the coaches will get to do it all over again next year.