A year ago Mike Woodson made a quick trip back to New York soon after he was hired and introduced as the new head coach of Indiana.
The former Knicks head coach and assistant was greeted by his former players one-by-one with hugs and smiles on the court at Madison Square Garden, providing a quick window into the respect pros in the NBA have for him.
You could find the same sentiments verbalized from some of Woodson’s former Knicks players from when he was head coach of the franchise. Several of them commented on him during an episode of Knicks Fan TV recorded in September of 2020.
“I love him to death, he still should be the coach there (in New York) in my opinion,” Raymond Felton said on the show. “He’s like a coach, a father figure, all of the above for me.”
“I know how much players respect him and love playing for him,” long-time NBA player Jamal Crawford said on the same show. “He knows how to coach and hold everybody accountable. He’s a straight shooter. But he also knows how to understand and I just loved playing for him.”
“He allowed us to be men first and foremost,” Kenyon Martin said. “He held us accountable… Not every coach can do that. Not every coach can demand that respect. Woody did that.”
Jared Jeffries, a former IU star and Knick, struck a similar note.
“Woody is a proven coach,” he said when Woodson was hired. “He did an amazing job with our Knicks team. One of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. Most of all understands our school better than anyone.”
The praise extends beyond New York.
Last month, former NBA guard Mike Bibby spoke about playing for Woodson in Atlanta.
“Just meeting Mike Woodson. He is probably the best coach I ever had, if not the best. Just all the way around – the way he treated the guys and how he was as a person,” Bibby said. “That’s what stuck out most to me.”
But what does one of Woodson’s most famous players, Carmelo Anthony, think?
Trayce Jackson-Davis had the same question, and he was able to ask Anthony when Woodson was hired in 2021.
“I asked around, I asked last year, Carmelo Anthony, he told me he was his favorite coach he ever played for, and I can see why now,” Jackson-Davis said.
All of that positive energy Woodson created during his time spent in the NBA seems to be manifesting at Indiana right now. Yes, the Hoosiers lost four players in the transfer portal — but they had to with four freshmen coming in. It isn’t a stretch to say Woodson got every player back he wanted back and had a spot for.
The Hoosiers return more than 90 percent of their scoring and 78 percent of their minutes played from last season. Both figures are best in the Big Ten.
So why was he successful bringing everyone back during the transfer portal era?
You could see some of the reasons why behind the scenes. A giant hug for Rob Phinisee in the media room after his game-winner against Purdue. Playful banter with Xavier Johnson as he stood and waited for his turn at the press conference.
The answer from Jackson-Davis sounds a lot like what Woodson’s former NBA players would say.
“I just think Coach Woodson was just from the beginning, the moment that he got here, he told us it was going to be a family,” Jackson-Davis said. “I think all the players took that to heart. We all hold each other accountable. We pick guys up, and he’s the same way.”
It isn’t all hugs and jokes. Jackson-Davis found out first hand at the Big Ten Tournament, Woodson can light a fire under someone when he feels like he needs to.
But the respect remains.
“He’s a great coach, and he does things the right way,” Jackson-Davis said.
Woodson’s career 315-365 (.463) record as an NBA head coach gets used as a negative against him. But a look at the details shows his win totals in Atlanta increased every year he was there. Same in New York, until the run ended in year nine. The Knicks have still only made the playoffs once since he was fired after the 2013-14 season, and that was the 2020-21 campaign he was part of as an assistant.
In many ways Woodson became a victim of his own success in the NBA.
“We grew up as a team and as players. He helped a lot of players get better,” Hawks center Zaza Pachulia told the AP in 2010 after Woodson was fired. “But when you get better, you want even more. I think we’re in the stage now where it’s not about progress. It’s about winning a championship.”
Now Woodson has Indiana turned around from a 12-15 2020-21 season to Big Ten favorite in 2023.
Woodson is probably what you’d call a player’s coach, whatever that means. He views the authoritarian style he played under at IU a thing of the past. However you want to describe Woodson’s approach, he seems to be pressing all the right buttons in Bloomington, at least at the moment.
But now he has to deliver under the heavy weight of expectations at IU.
As has seemingly always been the case, Woodson’s players believe he is the right man for the job.
“He’s an all around a great guy, and he has great character,” Jackson-Davis said.
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