The Guard Whisperer: LaVall Jordan helps Wolverines harness untapped potential

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By Max Bultman, Daily Sports Editor
Published April 19, 2015

Nik Stauskas remembers it clearly. The game. The play. The trap. But mostly, he remembers the timeout.

It was his sophomore year, and Michigan was playing Minnesota. Normally able to create his own shot off a ball screen, Stauskas was struggling to get open.

Frustrated, he went to the sideline during a timeout, where Michigan assistant coach LaVall Jordan was waiting with the answer to a question Stauskas hadn’t even asked.

“I remember going to the timeout and he was like, ‘Reject the ball screen. Just fake middle, go baseline, and you’re gonna have a wide-open layup,’ ” Stauskas recalls Jordan telling him. “I was like, ‘Alright, whatever.’ ”

When he went back in, Stauskas did exactly what Jordan told him to. Jordan Morgan passed him the ball and rotated over for a screen. But as Minnesota’s Daquien McNeil started to cheat the screen, Stauskas blew past him, finishing a layup at the rim. He finished with a game-high 21 points.

“I looked back to him, and he was like, ‘I told you so!’ ” Stauskas said.

Stauskas could have been a junior this season, and as he recalls the moment, he could be getting ready for a trip to Northwestern. Instead, he’s talking on the phone in Orlando, where his Sacramento Kings are preparing to play the Magic.

On the same day, Trey Burke, who could be a senior, is in Philadelphia, getting ready to play the 76ers. Tim Hardaway Jr. is in New York, between two games against the Indiana Pacers. Darius Morris is in Brooklyn, where his Nets will soon host the Phoenix Suns.

And while on March 5 they were spread across the country, getting set for NBA games, the common thread woven through all of them is the same — they once stood on the sideline, taking instruction from LaVall Jordan.

One of the wonders of John Beilein’s tenure at Michigan is how the Wolverines have been so successful at producing NBA-caliber guards.

The answer, or at least a big part of it, is Jordan, one of the best-kept secrets in college basketball. But Jordan doesn’t want the spotlight, nor does he seek it. He’d rather it be on his players.

That way, he can stay under the radar, seeing the openings no one else does.

***

Jordan likes to use the phrase “Chess, not checkers,” when thinking about the game. It’s a nice phrase to turn, but it’s also a window into the way he plays, watches and now coaches basketball.

He honed his basketball mind at Butler, where he played from 1998 to 2001. He never put up huge numbers or had NBA scouts calling, but he was a steady contributor during a particularly successful period in Bulldogs history.

While he was there, Butler won three straight Midwestern Collegiate Conference titles and appeared in three NCAA Tournaments. During the stretch, Jordan was named All-Conference twice.

And after his stint as a player, Jordan moved quickly into coaching, serving as the Bulldogs’ coordinator of player operations in 2003 and becoming an assistant coach a year later.

He left Butler to work in the same role at Iowa in 2007, before ultimately being hired by Beilein in 2010.

And it’s no wonder he has ascended so quickly. He observes the floor like a chess master looks at a board, viewing his opponent’s move less as a threat and more as an opening.

“He sees things that I think a lot of people don’t see,” Stauskas said. “He sees things before they happen.”

Added sophomore guard Derrick Walton Jr.: “The game is a lot mental, but he takes it to another level.”

There are a few words that hold a universal meaning to Jordan’s players. He likes to do what he calls “bullet-point coaching” from the bench, shouting phrases meant to elicit specific responses.

Without revealing their exact meanings, players know exactly what to key on when they hear words like “Bingo” or “Hostage.”

But in some cases, words or phrases are tailored to individual players.

“The one he used to always say to me was ‘one one-thousand,’ ” Stauskas said. “When he said ‘one one-thousand,’ it was pretty much him telling me I need one one-thousandth of a second to get a shot off.

“That was basically him telling me there’s no one out there who can stop me, just go out there and do you.”

But getting to the point where athletes buy in requires Jordan to relate to his players in a way many coaches don’t.

Much like Jordan finds otherwise-unseen opportunities on the floor, he sees them in his players. He can take a talented guard with the right physical tools and unlock whatever it is that puts him over the top.

“You’ve gotta tell them your stories,” Jordan said. “When (they’re) going through good times or tough times, just to let them know they’re not the only one to go through what they’re going through.”

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For Stauskas, unlocking his talent meant helping him harness the killer instinct he already had inside him.

He could shoot; there was never any doubt about that. But Stauskas’ sophomore year he turned into a bona fide threat to drive, dunk or distribute.

“Any time I was struggling, any time I was doubting myself, any time I was second guessing anything, he would look at me and be like, ‘Nik, one one-thousand,’ ” Stauskas said. “And I would just go out there and just play.”

Sometimes, it can be as simple as a verbal reminder. In other cases, it takes a long-term effort. But no matter what it is, Jordan almost always sees his guards turn into standouts, breaking through the ceiling they once thought limited them.

Stauskas was called “just a shooter” his freshman season, but turned into the Big Ten Player of the Year as a sophomore. Sophomore guard Zak Irvin had a similar label until he won the team’s Loy Vaught rebounding award this year. Junior guard Spike Albrecht was supposed to be a bench player — more of a feel-good story than someone to game plan around — but averaged over 30 minutes per game this season and shared the Wolverines’ MVP award with Irvin.

“Watching them grow, that’s the fun part,” Jordan said. “Watching them think and understand the game at a higher level, because it is a thinking man’s game. You’ve gotta be athletic and have the skill and all of that, but you also have to have the understanding and the IQ and an acumen where you can be a little ahead of the play.”

***

In 2000, Jordan’s junior year of college, his Butler team was leading Florida in the first round of the NCAA Tournament by one point. With less than 10 seconds left, Jordan missed two free throws, giving Florida a chance to bring the ball down the court for a late win.

Mike Miller hoisted up a two-point jumper, and Jordan went for a block, sprinting in from behind. His fingers missed the top of the ball by mere centimeters.

The shot dropped.

“I thought I had it,” Jordan said, chuckling all these years later. “And our point guard tried to take a charge.”

But he has never told any of his players that story. At least not that he can remember.

“Maybe if they bring it up, or if one of them has a similar experience,” Jordan said. “I’ve had guys miss what’s perceived to be a game-winning shot, or maybe a big free throw or two, and you just have a testimony you can share that it’s not the end of the world. It happens.”

But rather than tell them, he has done his teams one better. His attention to detail and game preparation have kept Michigan from suffering the same fates time and again.

In 2013, before Michigan’s game against Kansas in the NCAA Tournament, Jordan had a particularly difficult problem to solve. The Wolverines relied heavily on pick-and-rolls in their offense, but then-sophomore Trey Burke and then-freshman Mitch McGary appeared to be outsized by Kansas center Jeff Withey.

So Jordan turned where he often finds himself turning when he wants to see great guard play — Chris Paul.

An admirer of Paul’s backcourt artistry, Jordan encourages players to watch film of Paul and how he handles different situations. Usually, he watches it with them.

So when he was game-planning for Withey, Jordan knew that Paul’s game film could have the answer to his problem. As then-senior Josh Bartelstein remembers it, Jordan queued up clips of Paul running pick-and-rolls against tall centers who contested shots, and he crafted an attack based on those.

“They would drop the big, and, for Trey, he’s not going to really be able to finish on a 7-footer like that,” Bartelstein said. “So many coaches you hear say, ‘When you pass the ball, don’t jump.’ Cause that leaves you with no options.

“Chris Paul would be great at throwing lobs to DeAndre Jordan, they called them ‘Lob City.’ Against (Kansas), we practiced all week, Trey going up to shoot, and at the last second instead of shooting it, throwing up a lob to Mitch. If you go watch the highlights of the Kansas game, Mitch probably had 10 points off just straight pick-and-rolls where Trey would go up to shoot, and Jeff Withey would go up to block him, and Trey would lob it to Mitch and Mitch would lay it in.”

McGary had 25 points on 12-of-17 shooting in that game. He might have never even taken that many shots without Burke’s lob passes to get around Withey.

That’s the move of a chess master. Jordan can find a weakness and quickly figure out how to exploit it, even if it means doing something conventional wisdom would prohibit.

“Val is a champ at giving me different options,” said Michigan coach John Beilein at last week’s team Award Ceremony. “He looks at it a bit different perspective. He’s definitely not a yes man.”

***

In his five completed seasons with the team, Jordan’s impact was perhaps never more important than 2014-15.

The Wolverines lost their entire starting backcourt — Walton and junior guard Caris LeVert — to injury midway through the season. For most teams, and most backcourts, that would have meant a complete collapse.

But for Michigan, which had Walton and LeVert as the centerpieces of its offense, it meant a completely new starting backcourt stepping in and, somehow, remaining the focal point of the offense.

And as the season wore on, it was Irvin — a guard-turned-forward who previously spent extensive time working with Jordan — leading the charge.

After LeVert and Walton went down, the team didn’t have a go-to scorer, and Albrecht was its only proven distributor. Seemingly out of nowhere, Irvin came alive in the final few games and delivered polished, determined performances both passing and shooting the ball, sparking the Wolverines late in the year.

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“(LeVert and Walton) were second and third (on the team) in assists, and they didn’t play half the year,” Beilein said. “So passing was a big issue for us this year, and all of the sudden, Zak Irvin’s dropping dimes, like five a game down the stretch? Big.”

But it wasn’t so sudden when you think of the context. Irvin had been working with Jordan for two years, trying to locate the spark that would round out his game and push him over the edge.

Late in the season, it finally paid off.

“Coach Val — he’s incredible,” Albrecht said after the Wolverines thumped Illinois in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. “Best point-guards coach in the country.”

***

While Stauskas talks on the phone from Orlando in March, he’s at a bit of a crossroads. His NBA career didn’t start as smoothly as he might have hoped.

Over the first half of the season, he averaged less than four points per game. He played under three separate head coaches and had to battle with Ben McLemore for playing time. But Stauskas came on strong late, nearly doubling his first half scoring average after the All-Star Break.

There are flashes of the greatness he showed off his sophomore season — the greatness Jordan helped him and so many others harness.

But even still, Stauskas hasn’t yet found the type of success he had at Michigan.

No one reminds him to embrace his killer instinct. No one tells him, “one one-thousand.”

“I’ve kind of forgotten it this year,” Stauskas says. “It might be good for me to kind of remember that.”

Jordan’s words haven’t failed him yet.