April 13, 2014 by Jacob Freedman
“It’s ok. You did a good job, you made him go right, and he just finished. You didn’t come out [of the game] for that. It’s alright,” Brian Scalabrine says to Santa Cruz Warriors center Ognjen Kuzmic Saturday night. The former USC great has taken the 7-foot rookie center under his wing, giving him pep talks like the one above and giving him words of wisdom each time he subs out.
Yet, as the Golden State Warriors clinched a playoff berth on Friday night, Scalabrine is moving on to the second round of the NBA Development League Playoffs after Santa Cruz swept their series with the Los Angeles D-Fenders with a 138-126 win Saturday night. It’s a strange transition for the “White Mamba,” who was sent away from his Golden State assistant coach position two weeks ago by head coach Mark Jackson. The reason: a difference in philosophies, according to Jackson. Instead of prepping for a likely series against Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and the Los Angeles Clippers, Scalabrine is going to be traveling to Iowa or southern Texas in a few days for the next round of the D-League Playoffs.
In the D-League Warriors’ win, in which they fought through a 15-point deficit to control the game for almost the entire second half, Scalabrine was usually the second coach off the bench behind head coach Casey Hill, whether it was arguing calls, doling out high-fives or talking strategy with Hill. And while most of his encouragement went to his own players, he showed he hasn’t lost his sense of humor, shouting “Just admit it. It’s ok. We all make mistakes,” to one of the referees after Kuzmic was called for a blocking foul after a possible D-Fender charge.
Kuzmic, a 23-year old big man born in what was then called Yugoslavia, appears to have become Scalabrine’s pet project. “He’s helped me on offense and defense, and taught me to help on ball screens,” Kuzmic noted. Known as “Kuz”, the 23-year-old matched his age with a career-high 23 points, 18 rebounds and at least three sideline chats with Scalabrine in the win. “I think the one thing he’s been trying to work on with Kuz is his speed of play,” Hill said post-game on Scalabrine’s coaching efforts. “[Kuzmic] has to get used to the tempo of the game, and obviously it’s had a bit of an effect. Kuz had a heck of a game tonight.”
Like Scalabrine, Kuzmic began the season with Golden State. Unlike Scalabrine, it’s normal for players to get shuttled in between the NBA team and its D-League affiliate. Scalabrine’s case is the first time an assistant coach on an NBA squad has been sent to coach on the franchise’s D-League team.
Like so many players, Scalabrine will enter the offseason trying to end up on an NBA team by next fall. His first year of coaching might not have gone the way he wanted, but for Scalabrine, his job right now is coaching Santa Cruz, one Kuzmic piece of advice at a time.