ST. FRANCIS, Wis. — There are a lot of words that can be used to describe Nick Van Exel’s NBA career, but future coach probably didn’t come up too often in conversations about the former point guard.
With a brash personality and a reputation as a bit of a bad boy as a player, Van Exel had multiple incidents as a player that probably didn’t scream future coach at the time.
But 24 years after he left Wisconsin as a prep star, Van Exel is back and ready to start his NBA coaching career with the Milwaukee Bucks.
Though he hasn’t played in the NBA since 2006, the 41-year-old is hoping he can be the bridge between Bucks coach Larry Drew and the players.
“You have to relate, and I definitely speak their language,” Van Exel said. “I don’t dress like them — they are into the tight clothes and all of that — but I can talk like them. I’m going to tell them the truth, I’m going to shoot it straightforward and it’s going to be told just like it is and the way it’s supposed to be. I think they can respect that.”
After retiring from the NBA in 2006, Van Exel spent the 2009-10 season as an assistant coach at Texas Southern University before Drew gave him his first opportunity in the NBA as Atlanta’s player development coach.
When Drew was hired as Milwaukee’s head coach, Van Exel came along and was bumped up to a full-time assistant coach. For Van Exel, his career has come full circle. His NBA coaching career is beginning roughly 40 miles from his hometown of Kenosha, Wis.
“It’s great,” Van Exel said. “I’ve talked to a lot of family and friends. I’m really excited for this opportunity. We have some potential, and we have talent here. That’s always a good thing for a coach.”
Ever since his hiring was announced, Van Exel’s phone has been ringing off the hook, welcoming him back to Wisconsin.
“I can’t put a number on it, but it’s all been love, and it’s all been good,” Van Exel said. “I think they are probably more excited than I am.”
Starring at Kenosha St. Joseph’s High School from 1987-89, Van Exel led the Lancers to the state championship game in his junior and senior seasons. At the time, Wisconsin still had a separate private school state tournament, as St. Joseph’s fell to Marquette University High School and Saint Thomas More High School in the private school state championship games.
“I can remember them like it was yesterday,” Van Exel said. “I’m just mad you brought it up. Just going to the state championships, those were fun times with my teammates.”
From there, Van Exel’s journey to the NBA continued at Trinity Valley Community College in Texas before he earned his way to play for Bob Huggins at the University of Cincinnati.
Leading the Bearcats in scoring at 18.3 points per game in his senior season, Van Exel was named an All-American and was a finalist for the Wooden Award. Despite all of his accomplishments, Van Exel slipped all the way to the second round in the 1993 NBA Draft before the Los Angeles Lakers picked him with the 37th overall selection.
Five years with the Lakers kicked off a 13-year playing career that included stops in Los Angeles, Denver, Dallas, Golden State, Portland and San Antonio. An All-Star in 1998 with the Lakers, Van Exel averaged 14.4 points and 6.6 assists while shooting 40.5 percent from the field in his career.
But what Van Exel prided himself the most on was his ability to play defense, having the so-called “junkyard dog” mentality.
“I was a great shooter some nights, some nights I was a terrible shooter,” Van Exel said. “Defense wins championships. We saw that this year in the finals, Miami and San Antonio are two great defensive teams. Stops are the most important things to winning basketball games and winning championships.
“I played for a couple of defensive coaches in high school, and then Bob Huggins was a defensive guy. It was kind of instilled in me. When I got to the NBA, it wasn’t that hard. High school through college playing for Huggins, they taught me how to buckle down on defense.”
Van Exel grew up going to games at the Milwaukee Arena, idolizing Marques Johnson, Sidney Moncrief, Brian Winters and others on the Bucks roster at the time. Though he admitted the Bucks let him down quite a bit when they lost to talented teams in the playoffs, he’s happy to be working for the organization he grew up a fan of.
“It’s very surreal because I was so little and those guys were like giants to me,” Van Exel said. “The one thing I remember is those guys being so big, just superhuman. For me to be a part of that and in that environment every day is definitely a blessing. Hopefully the things I have learned I can teach these young guys.”
Having worked for Drew for the past three seasons, Van Exel is confident his boss is the right man to lead the Bucks into the future.
When Van Exel first got to Atlanta, Drew instilled a mindset in him right away. His message was to not expect the players to know even the most fundamental things just to make sure they know it. Just because they are in the NBA doesn’t mean everything is known. Drew wants to slow it down and break it down for the players.
“Coach Drew is a players’ coach,” Van Exel said. “He’s a guy whose offensive system is going to let everybody be involved. He has that open-door policy. In this league you need an open-door policy. If a guy feels he’s not getting enough playing time or he feels he should be playing a little bit more, Coach Drew’s door is open. This day in age, you need a players’ coach.
“It’s totally different (from when I played),” Van Exel said. “Now coaches have to adjust to the players. It’s a player’s league, we all know that. You have to adjust to the players.”
That’s where Van Exel comes in. Be it draft prospects or current Bucks players, bring up Van Exel’s name and he instantly is respected because of what he did in his playing career. Now he hopes he can take the respect level, mix it with his ability to still relate to today’s players to give Drew a go-between on his staff.
“It’s a great advantage because in this league, players and coaches need that buffer,” Van Exel said. “I’m the buffer. I hear all the things from the players and I hear all the things from the coach. I’m the middle guy.
“The most important thing I try to tell them is to play with confidence. Once NBA guys see fear, it’s like blood in the water. Just play with confidence, don’t get down when things get tough and stay positive. There are going to be tough times, just fight through it.”