Jay Wright has achieved more than his share of success coaching Villanova to two national NCAA championships and numerous Big East regular-season and tournament titles while preparing several talented players for careers in the NBA.
But when it comes to coaching alongside Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr, two of the league’s most accomplished leaders, having combined for eight NBA championships, Wright is like an eager young coach trying to learn as much as he can.
Wright will join Popovich, the head coach, and fellow assistants Kerr and Lloyd Pierce, the former Atlanta Hawks head coach and 76ers assistant, on the sidelines for Team USA when it starts play at the Tokyo Olympics on July 25. He is to leave for Las Vegas on July 3 for the start of preseason workouts three days later.
“It’s a really challenging coaching opportunity because they’re not coaching their own guys, so it’s really interesting to watch them handle each situation,” Wright, who will be coaching in his first Olympics, said Wednesday.
“You have to put a team together quickly. Then you have to deal with personalities when you’re away for 40 days, and you have to build a team. So to watch those two do that under a lot of pressure in this short time span, it’s like getting a doctorate in 40 days. It was really enlightening as a basketball coach.”
Wright was part of the coaching staff in 2018 when Team USA participated in the FIBA World Cup. That was his introduction to “learning Pop’s terminology, learning Pop’s structure for practice and team meetings and staff meetings and all the logistics.”
“Steve played for him, and he picked it up a little faster,” Wright said. “Lloyd being in the NBA, he picked it up a little faster. They have a lot of common NBA terminology that’s different than college. So that was, for me, a great experience learning all that terminology. I’m actually reviewing it before we meet again in Las Vegas.”
Several outlets have released the names of the 12 Team USA players selected to compete in Tokyo, but USA Basketball has yet to make an official announcement. Wright said that because of the short practice period before the team leaves for Japan on July 19, the team must be in place before workouts begin.
“We don’t have time to go through a training camp and try guys out,” he said. “Also, it’s such a unique year the way the NBA season is going and the way free agency falls. Some guys can’t play because they’re going to be free agents, so they can’t be over there as a free agent and get hurt. Some guys with this COVID season, they’re worn out from that.”
Wright said flexibility is a key in the case of Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker, who may have to meet the team in Tokyo if the Suns make the NBA Finals. The same is true with two Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern finals, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday.
Team USA will be seeking its fourth consecutive gold medal in men’s basketball. It is trying to bounce back from a shocking seventh-place finish in the 2018 World Cup.
Wright said he is excited to be going to Tokyo, a city he has never visited. He had planned for his family -- his wife, Patty, and their three adult children -- to spend some time at the Olympics, but spectators from abroad have been banned.
“I was really excited for the Tokyo Olympics,” he said. “What I was more excited for was my family was going to be able to come and experience the Olympics and Tokyo. But that was the most disappointing thing about it, that no fans can come, and no families can come. So I’m personally looking at it like I’m coaching. I’m working.”
Unlike 2018, when Team USA played exhibition games in Australia and around China before beginning World Cup competition, this year’s squad will play exhibitions in Las Vegas against Argentina, Australia, Nigeria, and Spain before departing. The first exhibition game is July 10.
Wright said that he spent much of the last few weeks with the Wildcats and that the assistants are ready to watch over summer workouts while he is away. He said some past players, such as Jalen Brunson, James Bell, and Darrun Hilliard, will help with workouts and pickup games.