PHOENIX — Earl Watson is taking a strictly business approach to turning around the Phoenix Suns.
He wants his players to jell and find their own style. He doesn’t want them swooning over other great teams and star players. He doesn’t even want his players following stars such as Golden State’s Kevin Durant and Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook on social media.
“This Twitter friend, Instagram friend, let’s cut them off, say hi to them in the summer,” Watson said. “We respect the other team, but it’s not an admiration of their game. We don’t admire them so much that we’re like, ‘One day, we want to be like them.’”
Watson wants his young players, such as rising star Devin Booker, to find their own identity, not imitate that of another player. And the Suns coach, who is in his first full season at the helm, won’t let his players find him being a hypocrite.
Take Phoenix’s game at Oklahoma City on Friday as an example.
Watson was coaching against Westbrook, who he has known since the Thunder guard was a teenager. They both played for UCLA and were teammates for one season in Oklahoma City — Westbrook’s rookie campaign in 2008-09.
But Watson didn’t talk to Westbrook, whom he relates to a “little brother,” when the Suns traveled to Chesapeake Energy Arena.
Not a single word.
“He had a great game, I really don’t care. I love him in the summertime,” Watson said. “Right now, we’re just so competitive that we don’t care about each other.”
On Sunday, Watson faced another former teammate in his team’s game against the Warriors at Talking Stick Resort Arena. Durant played with Watson for two seasons — in 2007-08 with the Seattle SuperSonics, then the following year when the franchise relocated to OKC.
But as the Suns went up against the former MVP and seven-time All-Star, Watson didn’t want his players to idolize the superstar. He would rather them study the journey Durant endured to bring a struggling franchise back to relevance.
“We never played another team saying we wanted to be like them,” Watson said of his time in OKC. “We played another team saying we’re young, we’re going to come out there, we’re going to play hard. And somehow when you do the right things and you do it with your heart, who you are becomes concrete for everyone to see.”
Sound familiar? Perhaps because that’s exactly the same philosophy Watson is now trying to instill in his own roster, one filled with players in their early 20s.
Golden State coach Steve Kerr can mildly relate.
It wasn’t exactly the same situation when Kerr was a rookie head coach for the Warriors in 2014-15. Golden State was already on a clear path to success when the former Phoenix general manager took over at the helm.
But early that season, the expectations weren’t as high. It wasn’t like today where Warriors losses are so rare they instantly become national headlines.
“We were sort of flying under the radar two years ago,” Kerr said. “People thought we might be good, but nobody thought we could win a championship. It was all kind of easier in terms of just going about our business.”
Kerr described the Suns with a lot of the same traits that can be attributed to the Warriors — fast, athletic, quick up-and-down the court in transition and playing at a high tempo.
“Obviously they’re young, but they’ve got good energy, good spirit,” Kerr said. “It just looks like they’re together and on the rise.”
Perhaps the Suns are on a similar path to success as the Warriors? Watson certainly hopes so.
Phoenix boasts some talented young players with a lot of potential. Especially Booker, the second-year guard out of the University of Kentucky who celebrated his 20th birthday on Sunday.
“He doesn’t look like somebody who should be a junior in college,” Kerr said. “He looks like a guy who’s been around for a while. He’s going to be a star.”
The Suns just hope Booker’s potential stardom and future championship-level success will go hand-in-hand — and they plan on doing it their way.