A sparkling new basketball center, first-round NBA draft picks in consecutive years and a team that went 27–9 last season: Life is pretty good for Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak, now in his sixth year at the helm in Salt Lake City. Before the Utes kick off practice on Oct. 1, Krystkowiak chatted with SI.com about summer vacation, international players and how you develop team leadership.
Lindsay Schnell: School is starting and basketball is just around the corner. What did you do all summer, besides recruit?
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Larry Krystkowiak: We go to Montana, to Flat Head Lake, that’s been a long-standing vacation. It’s right around Fourth of July, and that works out well because then I start recruiting and my boys are playing AAU.
LS: Did you watch a lot of the Olympics?
LK: Oh, yeah.
LS: Can you watch men’s basketball, at that level, as a fan? Or are you always looking at it strategically?
LK: You know what’s embarrassing? I didn’t watch one men’s basketball game, for any country. Our family was together and we have twin 8-year-old girls and they were really into the Olympics. My wife and I would say, “O.K., 12 years from now, you’re gonna be 20, that’s Olympic age. We’d like to go watch the Olympics then, so what sport it is gonna be?” Unfortunately they picked gymnastics. One of our 8-year-olds is 4’10”. I looked on the bio of Simone Biles and said, “You know, hon, you’re her size right now. I don’t think gymnastics is going to be your future.”
LS: Do you girls come here, to the university, and watch gymnastics? The Utah gymnastics team is really, really good, as you know.
LK: Yeah, they do. And it works out, there’s a correlation that we’re almost always out of town (at an away game) when they have home meets. So I don’t see many, but my wife takes the kids and it’s cool.
LS: Do you have a desire to work with USA Basketball as a coach? Has that ever been a goal of yours?
LK: No, I can’t say it’s ever been a goal. To me it’s a little bit of a conflict of interest with college coaching. Someone’s gonna have to explain to me why it’s O.K. for [Mike Krzyzewski] to coach 12 years [with Team USA]. To me it’s somewhat of an advantage. And yet I can’t coach my own boys? So I’ve got a little bitter taste in my mouth as to what the politics are and what it really is, and who decides that. Now, having said that, I have the utmost respect for Coach K; it’s nothing personal to him.
LK: They’re 17, 15 and 14. It’s hard. It’s unique. There are advantages, but there’s a bunch of little rules like. My kids finish playing (for the weekend), but I’m in the gym all day Sunday. By rule they can’t come in and sit with me and watch the games. I don’t know why. They’re into hoops, obviously, and they want to watch championship play. And for us not to be able to sit together is kinda unique. But yeah, I’d like to coach them. I’d like to be able to help them a little bit more. I don’t want to be their coach at an AAU event, but I’d like to be able to work with them at a practice in town.
LS: You grew up by the Blackfoot Indian Reservation. When you were growing up, did you ever play in tournaments on the reservation? Natives are known for being ballers, and they have some epic tournaments.
LK: No, there weren’t really any tournaments when I was growing up. We had camps when I was growing up and that was the extent of it. I coached at a camp out on the Crow Indian Reservation (next to Hardin, Montana) years ago. As a sophomore in high school, the year Browning won state, that was a big thing. We played them, and I remember they had four guys that were 6’6” that started, which was unbelievable. Floyd Cross Guns, Beaver Spear Son, Eddie Runs at Night … I remember their names. And they’d come out before games in a full headdress, head to toe. They’d come out and run circles around you. It was super intimidating.
LS: When we talked last year around this time, you guys were gearing up for a brutal nonconference schedule that included games against Miami, Wichita State, Duke. This year it’s a little easier, but you have so many new faces. I’m thinking it’ll challenge you in different ways?
LK: You know, I think scheduling might be one of the hardest things to do. Recruiting and scheduling—two of the hardest and most important things. Scheduling, it’s not an exact science…. We lose a bunch of guys, so we’re not ready for that kind of bar. It would be a disaster to play last year’s schedule this year. But I thought last year, we had a number of seniors and with Jakob Poeltl’s development, it made sense. When ESPN called and said, “Do you want to play Duke at Madison Square Garden?” I originally said no. Then three days went by and I was like, “Wait a minute, these are the type of opportunities college kids will remember most their lives. There’s a reason they’re calling—we’re pretty good.” Just thinking about this, I’m getting goosebumps. So I call them back, we play them and it winds up being one of the best things for our program. But it would be not such a great idea this year. Plus they’re not calling us!
People assume with scheduling, you just call whoever you want and play whenever you want. No. That’s not how it works. Everyone’s looking for a win-win. If you don’t have a team that’s considered to be a top team, Duke has nothing to gain by playing you at Madison Square Garden.
LS: With Jakob and Delon Wright going in the first round of the NBA draft in back-to-back years, how has changed recruiting? Are you in the mix with more high-profile kids than you were before?
LK: I think so. I haven’t really sat down and analyzed it, but based on the kids on our list and who we’re bringing in for official visits, I think it’s safe to say it was a pipe dream three years ago to be involved with that kind of kid. But having said that, we’re not in search of five-star kids. I’ve seen a lot of ratings on kids where I’m not sure what they’re thinking. And at the same time, a two-star kid can be a Damian Lillard. It’s been the same mission statement or mantra since we’ve been here: Wherever we are, we get up and grind.
LS: But their individual success, which helped lead to team success, plus this incredible practice facility we’re sitting in, even when you’re on the road recruiting, is it different—
LK: Oh, yeah, I know what you’re saying. It is different. But at the same time, life as a way of jumping up and biting you right in the butt. It’s funny because when you look at our program, three years ago our conversations were about perseverance. There’s all these books on how to get through tough times. Well, just as challenging is when your team starts to become decent and how you don’t let them become complacent. There’s a reason you got here, right? So you never get too caught up in it. We’re searching for a certain type of player. I think we can tell a player, and I do promise our guys this: Players are going to reach their potential. If you bring it and you’re willing to work, we’re going to get the most out of you as a basketball player. I think that’s what kids want to hear…. And I think there’s a little bit of a blueprint now. We’ve proven we can do that. There’s a little more of a belief factor.
LS: Are you used to Jakob being gone yet, or do you still miss him? He was so important to you guys at both ends of the floor. How can you replace someone like that?
LK: He’s been around the last week playing open gym with our guys. I’m actually very disappointed he got as good as he did, as fast as he did. I think if he would have been on a little slower trajectory, we could have had him for three or four years.
There’s no doubt we miss a lot of those guys but at the same time, this is kind of refreshing: a bunch of new faces, couple of key guys and trying to put it all together. It’s cool because now we’re teaching a lot again, basic terminology and footwork. It’s sort of like if an elementary school teacher got to go back and teach a younger grade, it’s refreshing.
LS: You signed a kid from the Czech Republic, Jakub Jokl. I’ve often thought international players come into college a little more seasoned. They’ve usually played against older guys and have a better feel for the game. What do you like about international players?
LK: The ones that I’m familiar with, they’ve paid a little bit of a price. No. 1, it’s a commitment to say, “I’m going to a university.” That’s what people don’t realize, when you’re growing up in that environment, it’s easy to go make six figures and become a young pro and kinda do your thing. It makes it a little bit special when kids commit to [college].
Like Jakob Poeltl, for example. I made two trips to Austria and the one trip I made, you sit back and evaluate what he does on a daily basis: He wakes up really early and goes to high school, comes home, maybe grab a bite to eat then he’s on a subway to a train that takes him to his practice with the men. Practice against men, then back to the train that takes him to the subway that takes him to his house. By the time he’s home you think, he’s committed this long part of his day. Just imagine if we could get him to a campus and condense all of this, and focus and gain weight. With him, he gained almost 30 pounds as a freshman during the season, which is unheard of. There’s a little different background for those guys as opposed to our American system. Not that there’s outliers everywhere, but it says a lot about a kid that he’s willing to leave and commit to university.
LS: You signed three junior college players, too. Sometimes with jucos, it can take a year to adjust. Why do you think these guys can contribute right away?
LK: Well, in the case of [forward] Tyler Rawson, that was a kid we watched in high school here, in Utah. His juco team [Salt Lake Community College] won the [NJCAA Division I national championship]. He’s kind of a European throwback almost. Skilled, a good passer, doesn’t do anything great but good at all the other stuff…. Overall, it’s not easy. [Guard] Tim Colema has a lot of toughness but if you talk to him, it’s an adjustment. That’s where I thought Delon [Wright, a juco transfer] was a little bit ahead of the curve. Usually I say until Christmas, you don’t “have” the juco guys. There’s no pressure on them; it’s just an adjustment. I think they’re seasoned and a little more mature, that would give them an advantage over a high school kid.
LS: You lost so many key pieces from a team that went 27–9. How do you start the process, in the summer, of developing leadership?
LK: I think that’s important but it can also be a disaster if you try to force it. You can’t just put the crown on somebody and say, “You’re going to be our leader.” We had a team meeting recently and watched a little motivational video and it was on the same topic…. We anoint leaders as being someone who is super special. This guy’s argument is the same as mine, you all are somewhere on the leadership scale of 0 to 100. Why would you think you’re a follower at any point?
You can show a form of leadership on a daily basis by picking a teammate up, showing encouragement … we’re at a point where I think [junior forward] Kyle Kuzma and [senior guard] Lorenzo Bonam understand it and know what it takes. They’re doing a nice job leading, sometimes to a fault, where they want to help everybody else. My argument with them is, “just focus on yourself,” because they’re making enough errors on their own … I don’t want to force-feed anything. They say, “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” So it’s about, let the process take place.