Teaching pros to play better basketball among biggest challenges for John Beilein

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

Detroit — It’s a different set of surroundings for John Beilein.

Instead of the cushy confines of Crisler Center on the University of Michigan campus, he’s doing interviews in the bowels of Little Caesars Arena. Make no mistake, transitioning from a big-time college coach to the NBA is a big step, with a bigger set of perks and pay.

At the heart of it all, Beilein, 66, still is in his element — with the relaxing, repetitive sounds of basketballs pounding the floor around him — as his Cavaliers prepared to take the practice court for morning shootaround ahead of Friday’s preseason matchup against the Pistons.

The faster pace of the NBA allows him to do one of the things he does best — talk basketball — almost daily. Carrying the college game with him after a dozen years at Michigan is a tall task. While NBA players tend to think they know they game already, Beilein brings a sobering reality that there still is more to learn.

After the Cavaliers opened the preseason with a win on Monday, there was plenty of game film for Beilein to break down and adjustments to make before getting back to it Friday. It’s much longer than the typical turnaround but Beilein takes the time to start from square one with his young backcourt, including Collin Sexton and rookie Darius Garland.

“We watched a lot of film since that day and they’re learning the little things are very important to basketball. Were you in the right stance? Did you talk? Did you take the right man in transition? Did you run the lane?” Beilein said. “It’s not just understanding the system. Did the big man run the court and take people with him? Did the (wings) run the court so the big got open?

“Those are the things we’re trying to do. Summertime basketball does none of that, if they play full-court — and they don’t a lot in the summer.”

John Beilein

It is Beilein’s focus on fundamentals that many detractors thought would be the hardest transition to the NBA. Many of the players spent only a year or two in college and going back to work on the basics can be a hard sell, especially for a new coach.

Cavaliers forward Larry Nance Jr., who is in his fifth season, has changed his tune after seeing Beilein work in practice on those same skills in practice.

“At first, it’s a culture shock. A lot of times, you get to the highest level and never go back to the things you’ve done to get there,” Nance said. “I said, ‘Pivots?’ Then I started to break it down and realized I forgot the different pivots I’m supposed to do.

“You realize it’s pretty good to revisit some of these things and go back to the basics and fundamentals and make sure those are solid before continuing your progress with everything else.”

The NBA had come calling previously, but this time, Beilein answered and took the helm of the Cavaliers, shocking the Michigan fan base. Michigan alumnus Juwan Howard was hired and the UM program will move on without Beilein, who was the program’s winningest coach.

Beilein said he likely won’t be back to see Michigan games because of the Cavaliers' schedule, and the convergence of his other fandom with other sports teams, including Niagara University, where his son Patrick was named head coach.

He added he hasn’t kept in close touch with Howard so far but plans to meet with him in the coming weeks “just to talk.”

“I’ll watch (Michigan) on TV. The Niagara games I’d like to see in person if I can,” Beilein said. “I’m coaching the (Buffalo) Bills, (St. Louis) Cardinals, Cavs, (Niagara) Purple Eagles and I’m not coaching Wolverines anymore, but I love the Wolverines.

“(Michigan) is an incredible university and we have so many resources there to help (Howard) along and make it work. I don’t think he’ll have any trouble building relationships.”

Beilein was regarded as one of the best tacticians and X-and-O coaches in college, but the transition to the NBA won’t be easy, especially for a Cavaliers team that was 19-63 last season. The roster has some pieces, including All-Star big man Kevin Love and the talented young backcourt of Sexton and Garland, that fit into Beilein’s style of motion and perimeter offense.  

Turning things around will be a tough task, but that’s the rebuild that Beilein was brought in to engineer. Instilling his principles and installing an NBA style of offense will be among the early challenges, but he’s excited about the opportunity.

“It’s been good. They didn’t turn it over a lot last year, but they did take a lot of tough shots and our defense was not good last year; that’s where a lot of the focus is,” Beilein said. “As you learn the nuances of playing by passing the ball more, there’s going to be more turnovers for a bit until we get it.”


Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard