SAN ANTONIO – Gregg Popovich didn’t become one of the greatest coaches in professional sports by being reluctant to challenge convention.
Whether stacking the Spurs’ roster with international players or hiring the NBA’s first female full-time assistant coach, Popovich always has thought outside the box.
Pop was at it again Sunday when he handed the coaching reins to Becky Hammon for the first half of the Silver and Black’s 122-100 victory against the Denver Nuggets.
The Spurs led 66-54 at the half, and assistant coach Will Hardy coached the last two quarters. When the final buzzer sound, it was Hammon, not Pop, who spoke to the media.
“You never see me out here talking to you guys,” Hammon said, drawing a laugh from reporters.
But, Hammon sounded like a seasoned coach in her postgame interview. Besides talking about the game and some of the Spurs’ players, Hammon commented on what it was like to coach in a preseason game for the first time.
“It’s an amazing opportunity for me,” Hammon, 40, said. “But, we’re a teaching program, and that comes directly from (Popovich). So, for him to give us this opportunity and the guys here a different voice, that’s what his (coaching) tree is kind of all about. It’s mentoring and bringing people along.”
The game was the second in a row that Popovich watched from the team box at the AT&T Center. On Friday night, he sat with No. 1 assistant coach Ettore Messina, general manager R.C. Buford and Monty Williams, the franchise’s vice president of basketball operations, as assistant coach Ime Udoka coached the entire game in a 113-93 win over Sacramento.
“For me, Will Hardy, (assistant) coach Borrego and Ime, it’s a nice opportunity to get out there, and hold the clipboard and kind of be in the action,” Hammon said. “My feet hurt, though.”
That brought more laughter from the media before Hammon exited the interview room.
The Spurs (2-1) host the Orlando Magic (2-2) in their final home preseason game Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. San Antonio ends the preseason at Houston on Friday night, and opens the regular season against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Oct. 18 at the AT&T Center.
Hammon became the first female full-time assistant coach in NBA history when Popovich hired her in August 2014. Hammon coached the Spurs’ Summer League team in July 2015, a first for a female. The Silver and Black went on to win the Las Vegas Summer League title with Hammon at the helm.
Sunday’s game was one more step toward Hammon’s goal of becoming an NBA head coach someday. She is preparing for her fourth season with the Spurs.
“I know it’s different because she’s the first (full-time) female assistant coach (in NBA history), but she’s a coach,” veteran Spurs guard Manu Ginobili said. “And she is doing a great job. She is smart. She understands the game. She’s another coach we respect.”
A six-time WNBA All-Star, Hammon is one of the greatest players in the history of the women’s league. Hammon spent half of her 16-year WNBA career with the San Antonio Stars before retiring in 2014. In 2016, she was named one of the WNBA’s Top 20@20, which honored the 20 greatest and most influential players in the league’s 20-year history.
Hammon, who had her jersey retired by the Stars last year, will be inducted into the San Antonio Sports Hall of Fame in January.
Trying to find their groove: With forward Kawhi Leonard and point guard Tony Parker still sidelined as they rehab injuries, the Spurs have spent most of training camp working to mesh without them.
A player who has received plenty of attention is second-year pro Dejounte Murray, who is expected to be the team’s starting point guard on opening night.
Parker ruptured his left quadriceps tendon in Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals, and isn’t expected to return to action until late November at the earliest.
“He’s starting to figure out that setting a tone for us defensively is pretty important, so he’s starting to take pride in that,” Popovich said of Murray. “And then besides that, he’s trying to figure out how to run the team. What we need, time, score, who’s on the court for us.
“He’s got to think like a coach, basically, while he’s out there. He hasn’t done that for a while. It’s just a steady process with him.”
Leonard is expected to miss the entire preseason as he rehabs a sore right quadriceps.
Tuesday night's game will mark the return of former Spurs guard Jonathon Simmons, who played two seasons with San Antonio before signing with Orlando in July.
Lauvergne impressive: One player who has raised eyebrows in the preseason is Joffrey Lauvergne, a 6-foot-11 forward/center who has played on the French national team with Parker and former Spur Boris Diaw.
Signed by the Spurs in July, Lauvergne played with Oklahoma City and Chicago last season. He started his NBA career with a two-year stint in Denver (2014-16), and was traded to OKC in August 2016. He played with the Thunder until being traded to Chicago last February.
Popovich has been impressed Lauvergne’s skills and his ability to adapt to the Spurs on and off the court.
“He’s caught on to everything very quickly,” Popovich said. “He’s got a great way about him. He’s blending in with the guys. He’s got a good sense of humor. He likes wine. What’s not to like?
“I think he’s just got a congenial personality. He works really hard on the court, so everybody respects that. He’s just included himself in most everything we’ve done. He does it an appropriate way. He’s been accepted very quickly by everybody.”