Jacque Vaughn spent seven seasons on the Brooklyn Nets’ coaching staff before landing the head coaching job. During that time, Vaughn quietly became a significant voice behind the scenes, cultivating relationships with players and providing a high-IQ, defensive mind on the bench.
The longtime assistant now finds himself leading one of the most dramatic turnarounds in franchise history, with the Nets winning 19 of their last 22 games. Vaughn got his coaching start with the San Antonio Spurs, spending his final two seasons as a player and his first two as a coach under Gregg Popovich, with whom he developed a close personal relationship.
Vaughn said he still speaks with the Spurs head coach regularly. And the Nets tactician credited Popovich prior to Brooklyn’s matchup with San Antonio Monday for taking him under his wing early in his coaching career.
“I’m in this position because of him. He saw something in me as a player, he saw something in me when I was done playing,” Vaughn said. “To have me a part of that organization, to share an office with him to see how he prepared for regular season games, for playoff games, for shootarounds.
“To see how he cared for my family, to see how he is still a mentor to me. I can call him to talk about my kids, my wife, my job, all of the above. So a very important person in my life and I wouldnt be here without him.”
Vaughn played 12 NBA seasons before getting his start on San Antonio’s coaching staff, carving out a reserve role as a high-energy defender in the backcourt. Popovich said the intangibles the Nets coach brought as a player have served him well during his coaching career.
“He’s just one of those guys that was a natural high basketball IQ guy,” Popovich said. “He wasn’t the most talented player in the world, and usually those guys have to figure out how they’re gonna make their career for themselves and what they’re gonna do to make themselves important to a team.
“He just intrinsically understood what was going on: time, spaces, clock, score. He engendered the respect of his teammates because of the way he played and the example he set.”
Vaughn has certainly commanded the respect of Brooklyn’s locker room during his two months at the helm. And Popovich said despite the Nets coach’s quiet nature, Vaughn knows how to hold his players accountable during the grind of an 82-game season.
“The thing about Jacque is that he doesn’t want the camera, he’s not going to seek attention. He’s a quiet dude, but he’s very contemplative, he thinks things through,” Popovich said. “He engenders respect and he doesn’t do anything unnecessarily. He’ll have standards, he’ll hold them accountable, and he knows what he’s doing. So I think with the experiences he’s had, taking over now is really a good position for him to be in.”
Following an eight-game suspension early this year, Kyrie Irving has played the best basketball of his Nets career during Vaughn’s time as head coach. And the seven-time All-Star echoed Popovich when speaking about Vaughn’s leadership after Brooklyn’s win over Charlotte Saturday.
“He gives you an ease when you come into the locker room. Nothing’s forced. He’s not too high or too low. He’s just holding himself to a high standard and exemplifying what a leader should look like,” Irving said. “As our head coach, our leader, I’ve been able to learn some things from him and that’s just being able to have relationships with everybody and being able to get the best out of everybody.”
The coaching dynamic in a locker room is just one of several things Vaughn, and many others, learned during their time under Popovich. The pairing won a championship with the Spurs in 2007, one of Popovich’s five with San Antonio.
The Nets are on a league-best 11-game win streak. After a 2-6 start, Brooklyn now holds the NBA’s second-best record. Vaughn said he took note of the culture and championship pedigree shared by each of his Spurs teams led by Popovich. And the head coach said there’s hope a similar camaraderie and shared accountability could be brewing in Brooklyn amid the historic hot streak.
“I do think being around championship culture matters,” Vaughn added. “I learned that being in Spursland. We won a lot of games but we were consistently trying to get better and it was incremental gains. We used our dinners together. We used our shootarounds together. We used our bus rides together to create a culture of wanting to be accountable to each other.
“That was part of the most special time in my life of being around guys who cared about each other and cared about performing for each other. Not letting each other down. So if you can create that in the locker room, that’s what this thing’s about… Hopefully you’re trying to foster that with this group and hopefully that leads to us having a parade one day.”