Checking in with Atlanta’s new head coach—and assistant coach Marlon Garnett ’97.
In his college days, he was Leaping Lloyd—a shut-down defender who could rocket to the rim with rare explosiveness. If Steve Nash ’96 was lobbing up alley-oops in Toso Pavilion in the mid-90s, it was almost certainly Lloyd Pierce ’98—a 6’3” guard—soaring to pull them down.
“He was probably the best athlete we ever had while I was at Santa Clara,” says his old head coach Dick Davey, who spent 35 years with the program.
These days the 42-year-old Pierce looks lean as ever, but he can’t tell you how much of that fabled 40-inch vertical leap remains. “You’ve got to actually try it to know,” he says. “I’m more of a tread mill, elliptical, core-strength guy now.”
But in his post-playing career, Pierce is still flying high. In May, after a decade as an assistant in the NBA, mostly recently with the Philadelphia 76ers, Pierce was named head coach of the Atlanta Hawks. “This is a day I’ve been working toward for a long time,” he said when the news broke.
The move is a bet for both sides. Pierce gives up his place with the soaring Sixers, a star-laden squad knocking on greatness, to take the helm of a team that finished last in the NBA’s eastern division. But Pierce says he was impressed with all aspects of the Hawks’ organization from its players to its facilities to its room to improve under the league’s salary cap.
And he’s keenly aware that the world’s best basketball league doesn’t come knocking with such opportunities often. “There are 30 head coaching job in the NBA. To be part of that elite group, it’s an honor that’s not going to get lost on me,” he says. “It’s humbling.”
MENTOR AT SANTA CLARA—AND TO STEPH CURRY
The Hawks meanwhile are putting their faith in an untested head coaching talent, though one who GM Travis Schlenk says checks all the boxes including leadership, defensive chops, and ability to connect with young players. It’s a bet that has the endorsement of one of the league’s megastars. “I think it’s a great thing for the Hawks and it’s a great hire,” the Warriors’ Steph Curry said after the decision.
Pierce was an assistant with the Warriors early in Curry’s career, and the future two-time NBA MVP made a point of reaching out to him for extra drills and workouts. “He invests his entire self into the game,” Curry said. “He’s a player’s coach and he’s going to try to put the guys in the right positions and really care about them.”
Pierce’s talent for building rapport with players like Curry or executives like Schlenk would hardly have seemed likely when the San Jose high school star first arrived at Santa Clara on a recruiting visit and barely uttered a word. On the night before his last day on campus, a desperate Davey pulled guard Marlon Garnett ’97 aside to ask for help getting Pierce to break his silence. “He said, ‘Marlon, I don’t know what you’ve got to do, but you’ve got to get this kid to talk,” Garnett says with a laugh. “If he doesn’t talk, we can’t sign him.”
By the time Pierce graduated, his old muteness had been long forgotten—he’d become a leader who instinctively mentored others, on the court, in the locker room, or on the team bus. At the post-season banquet his senior year, he gave a speech that was supposed to go 10 minutes. Instead, Davey says, it neared an hour. “There were some things that just needed to be said,” Pierce recalled a few years later.
After graduating, Pierce played in Germany, Mexico, Australia, and Turkey, returning to SCU in the off-season to work out and help the team. It was there, he says that Davey first put the idea of coaching in his head, something he’d barely thought about to that point.
Lloyd Pierce served on Davey’s staff for four years, taking the details and logistics of his new job and finding satisfaction in sharing hard-won lessons from his own playing days. After Davey’s departure in 2007, he decided to try for new challenges landing with the Cleveland Cavaliers and, in turn, the Warriors, Memphis Grizzlies, and finally the Sixers, the accolades growing with each stop. “S/O my great friend Lloyd Pierce coaching for Philly in summer league. He’s really good and is climbing that ladder. #LaFamilia,” LeBron James wrote on Facebook in 2014.
Early on, Nash—at the height of his NBA stardom—gave Pierce advice in handling players: Be authentic, the key to gaining trust and buy-in. It is an approach that’s central to Pierce’s success. “What they feel from him is this genuineness and that’s what these guys want,” says Garnett, who sees it as up close as anyone.
As his long professional playing career began to wind down, Garnett—who Davey calls the greatest shooter he ever coached—began attending the NBA’s summer league season on his own dime to scope out his own coaching opportunities. Pierce was impressed by Garnett’s drive and helped him make connections, which ultimately led him to jobs with the San Antonio Spurs then Phoenix Suns.
A week after his appointment in Atlanta, Pierce brought Garnett for the Hawks. “It was an easy hire for me once I got the head job here.”
He’ll need some good help to lean on. Not only is he taking on the new job, in August 2018 he became a first-time dad with his wife Melissa. Lloyd Pierce is still reaching new heights.