After years of veteran teams that walked the ball up the court, new coach Lon Kruger says the Atlanta Hawks are going to give their young players the freedom to run.
"We're going to get after it," said Kruger, a college coach for 18 years including the past four at Illinois. "I know only one way to coach."
Kruger, introduced Thursday as the Hawks coach, believes in an up-tempo style, the kind general manager Pete Babcock wanted Lenny Wilkens to employ this season with a team full of youngsters. Wilkens, the winningest coach in NBA history, resigned April 24 after a 28-54 season the worst in Atlanta history.
Kruger has talked with several of his new players.
"I think they want to work hard to get it done," he said.
Although he never has played or coached in the NBA, Kruger sees a lot of similarities to the college game.
"It's still a game of matchups and putting people in position where they can be successful," he said.
Kruger said the Hawks have the potential to improve quickly.
"The base is here," he said. "Dikembe (Mutombo) is a great starting point. The combination of veterans and youth is encouraging. They're anxious to get going. I'll learn more from them than they'll learn from me. We'll do things with each other, for each other."
He called Mutombo "the best defensive player in the league."
Kruger was the second Big Ten coach to be offered the job since Wilkens' departure. The first was Tom Izzo, who led Michigan State to the NCAA title. Izzo considered a reported a five-year, $15 million contract, then decided to remain with the Spartans.
Kruger said he talked with Izzo about the Hawks job when Izzo was trying to make up his mind, never considering his own chances of getting the position.
Babcock said Kruger, Big Eight player of the year at Kansas State in 1973 and 1974, works well with young players and is a good teacher.
"We wanted someone who had a strong sense of discipline, structure, who played the game the way we think it should be played," Babcock said. "This was just a perfect fit for us."
Babcock said Kruger will easily make the adjustment to the professional game.
"He understands it's a players' game," Babcock said.
Although terms of Kruger's contract were not disclosed, it is believed to be a five-year deal worth $10 million.
Kruger said the biggest drawback was having to leave a young Illinois team he led into the NCAA tournament in three of his four years. Athletic director Ron Guenther "was very supportive" of his move, Kruger said.
"I would always rather replace coaches because of their success," Guenther said. "This was a personal, career and financial decision by Lon and his family."
Kruger had a record of 318-233 at Texas-Pan American, Kansas State, Florida and Illinois. He took the Gators to the Final Four in 1994 and was 71-48 in four years at Illinois.
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