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New Celtics Head Coach Ime Udoka Has Earned Gregg Popovich's Respect: 'He's A Pro'

BOSTON (CBS) -- Compared to the likes of Sam Cassell or Chauncey Billups, the name Ime Udoka may not exactly  be considered a household name. But the 43-year-old is certainly well-known in the basketball world, and it's no surprise that the Celtics have chosen him to be their next head coach.

Udoka played in 316 games as an NBA player, and he's been an assistant for three teams. But it's where his coaching career started -- in San Antonio, under Gregg Popovich -- that certainly stands out the most.

Popovich was impressed by Udoka during his time as a player on the Spurs, so the team gave Udoka his first coaching gig in 2012.

"Ime Udoka possesses an outstanding work ethic as well as a natural inclination to teach," Popovich said when Udoka joined his staff. "We are excited to add someone with his potential to our coaching staff."

Early on his life as a coach, Udoka was delivering on exactly what Popovich expected when he hired the former player.

"Ime has been just as we thought he would be," Popovich said in 2013. "He's a pro. He enjoys the discussions, the arguments about pick-and-roll and post defense and all that kind of junk. He understands what's to be gained from watching  and figuring things out that way. He's at work all day, either in coaches' meetings or watching or on the court, trying to get better at his craft."

Popovich added: "The guys have reacted great to him. He has earned their respect, so much so that in his first year I put him in charge of 10 [opposing] teams. He is responsible for scouting reports for them, telling me what he thinks we should do against them. We talk about it, then he addresses the team [at shootaround], giving them the scouting report. He is doing the whole nine yards. He has been wonderful, he really has."

Even then, in his first season as an assistant, Udoka had shown Popovich that he could be an NBA head coach some day.

"Absolutely," Popovich said of that possible development. "Ime has the toughness and the mind to where he understands how to maintain discipline. A lot of coaches will give in and do what's easy. He knows how to handle players. He has been able to stroke them and stay on them at the same time. That's a really good quality. The players know he cares about them, but he can make demands and they respond to him. That's important for a head coach. Players have great 'BS antenna.' If they think you don't know what you're doing, they're going to call you out immediately."

Udoka remained with the Spurs for seven years, before moving on to the 76ers and then the Nets.

It's obviously difficult to forecast how well an assistant coach will transition to a head coach. But Popovich's comment on Udoka in 2015 is worth a look in Boston as Udoka takes that next step in his career.

"He exudes a confidence and a comfort in his own skin where people just gravitate to him," Popovich said in a 2015 ESPN story. "He's a fundamentally sound teacher because he's comfortable with himself, he knows the material and players read it. Often times, I'll say, 'Ime, can you go talk to so-and-so? Go talk to Patty Mills, go talk to Timmy [Duncan], go talk to Kawhi [Leonard].' And he'll do it better than I would do it -- and I'm not blowing smoke."

That experience and comfort talking to star players -- something he experienced on the superteam Nets this past season -- should obviously serve him well going forward.

Popovich, though, did fault Udoka in one specific area.

"The only thing I don't like about him is that he doesn't drink, so I can't enjoy a glass of wine with him," Popovich lamented. "He's really boring at dinner."

The Celtics are probably all right with that.

In 2018, Udoka said he shared some traits with Popovich.

"Overall my approach is similar to Pop, very demanding as well, but don't get rattled on the outside," Udoka said.

That being said, Udoka is wise enough to know that Popovich cannot be emulated.

"I would always emphasize in the meetings, 'I learned a ton under Pop and been blessed to see what he does, but I'm not Pop. I'm my own person,'" Udoka said in 2019. "You have to stress that. The worst thing you can do is try to be somebody else and not be genuine with who you are. So, he's always said that from Day 1. He said, 'I brought you here to be yourself and be able to talk to guys and do what you do. They hear enough from me, so you got to be authentic in who you are.'"

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