Coaching the Best
A conversation with Huntington Prep coach Rob Fulford.
Rob Fulford has been around the block. He has been in the coaching game for a while now and has had no shortage of talent at both Mountain State Academy and at his current home, Huntington Prep. Amongst the myriad of D-1 prospects he has coached, the one that everyone is most interested in hearing about at the moment is the current No. 1 player in the country, Andrew Wiggins. We had the chance to have a detailed conversation with Fulford about the challenges he goes through, what it’s like to have a completely new team every year, and what it’s like coaching the best high school player in America.
SLAM: What are some of the challenges that you encounter as a coach trying to divide shots and playing time within such a talented team?
Rob Fulford: I think that this year the main thing that I had to do was find a lot of pieces. We had points coming back with Xavier and Andrew, so we had to find some role players. We got a shot blocker in Moses [Kingsley], Dominic [Woodson] has size, we got a point guard who is pass first and a lockdown defender in Treyvon [Looney], and then everyone that we had coming back got better. Gabe (Williams Gabriel) got better, Norvell [Provo] got better, and Tekky (Montague Ceasar-Gill) is a steal for us. We knew he was good, but he’s a lot better than anticipated.
With us, we stress defense. I don’t take guys out for offensive mistakes, but if you mess up on defense, you’re coming out. That’s kind of how we dictate playing time. If you’re doing the right thing defensively, taking pride in shutting your man down, and being in help side when you’re supposed to be, you’ll play. Those are the kind of things that we do to eliminate some of the playing time problems.
SLAM: How hard is it being a longtime coach and now that you have such an elite level of talent, not running too many sets and just letting the guys go out there and play?
RF: Being from Mullins [West Virginia], I know Coach D’Antoni well. A lot of things that we do are things that I’ve met with him about from when he was in Phoenix. It’s simply getting guys to spots and then just letting them play. We put stuff in if we need movement or motion plays. We’re not going to have 35 sets and make these guys run a bunch of stuff to where you ‘pass to this option, then give it to Andrew and get out of the way.’ We put guys in spots where they can make plays. Treyvan is a good penetrate and kick guy. Dominic…we need to get him to role more instead of popping. Those are all habits that we need to break of those guys.
We will run a lot of pick and roll stuff. We’re going to spread the floor a little bit and let these guys go. It’s really just getting guys in spots and letting them make plays. We really don’t want to overcoach them. That’s for sure.
SLAM: How does this year’s team compare to the teams that you’ve had over the years, both at Mountain State and Huntington Prep?
RF: This is the most well rounded team that we have had. I think last year’s team was a little more athletic, but IQ-wise, this is a better team overall. We had a really good team last year with some really good players. We have a shot blocker this year with Moses and eventually I think Dominic can become a shot challenger. I’m just trying to get him to step over and use his big body as opposed to getting the hell out of the way. I think he’s a good kid that is learning, though. Defensively, I think we can be really, really good. Treyvan is great on the ball, Xavier is a really good defender, and Wiggins is a lockdown defender who can guard multiple positions. We’ve got a chance to be special defensively.
SLAM: Most high school coaches have the same or close to the same team each season. You have to field nearly a completely new team each season. What are some of the challenges that many coaches don’t understand in having to go out and find a new team each year?
RF: It’s tough. It’s really hard to find the right mix of players. From a public school standpoint, guys 9, 10, 11, and 12 probably aren’t going to be a huge factor. For us, guys 9, 10, 11, and 12 were brought in to play and probably won’t receive as much time as they’d like. Those are the things that you have to manage. Playing time is always an issue, but chemistry is also always an issue early on. These public schools have guys who have been playing together for years. That’s why in our open gyms, we don’t coach them and just let them play. We want to see how they play together, what they do good, what they do bad, etc. That way when practice starts, we have an idea of what to work on. It’s definitely a challenge because naturally bringing seven or eight new guys in every year is going to take some time to develop on the court. Off the court, these kids become family pretty quick. It’s always a challenge though.
SLAM: Well, how do you keep guys 9, 10, 11, and 12 happy then?
RF: Some of the kids understand the situation. Our guys who are here in that range are good kids and are not just here for basketball, but are also here for academics. It’s a win-win situation for those guys. Our 9, 10, and 11 guys are probably division one players, but they’re playing behind Wiggins and Xavier. They’ll see time, but they know how things are. Here’s what I tell them: “In the first two weeks of open gym, we’ve had over 40 coaches in here. We keep track of wins and losses of every game. To this date, we have played 32 games of basketball in front of college coaches. Those are the type of things that you wouldn’t normally get at your regular high school.”
We tell them to look at the day-to-day grind of playing against Andrew and Xavier every single day in practice, and knowing that it’s going to get you better. Whether it’s Calipari, NC State, Illinois, or Ohio University, there is a level for all of our guys at the collegiate level. Playing in front of coaches every day is one of the benefits that the guys have just in practices.
SLAM: What’s the average day like for a player at Huntington Prep?
RF: I’ll tell you it starts by them getting to school at 7:50 a.m. They get out at 3:05 and Monday, Wednesday, Friday they come straight here (Marshall University’s Rec Center) to lift weights. We do an hour of weights, then we hit open gym. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, typically we do study hall and then go to open gym. This group has done really well academically so far with a team GPA of 3.14, so I’m not rocking the boat in terms of study hall. Now the ones who don’t maintain that at the end of the nine week academic session, I’ll set up some tutoring for those guys. I’m not one of those guys that is ‘My way or the high way,’ so if they’re doing great academically, I’m not going to step in and change that.
SLAM: Now you’re a guy who has worked your way up the ladder to reach the point that you are at now in your coaching career at Huntington Prep. What has been the most rewarding thing over the years?
RF: Take a kid like Gorgui Dieng, for example. He came over from the Senegal and didn’t speak any English. He spoke five languages. He still speaks…well, I won’t give him five; I’ll give him four and a half [laughs] since his English is getting better. You see a kid like that who just takes full advantage of everything and then you see him in the final four…It just makes you proud. The list goes on and on of guys that have come out of here and are being successful. I’m not just talking on the court, either. These guys are getting it done academically and are doing good things on the court. It makes you proud to sit back as a coach and watch one of your former players on television. Jevontae Hawkins from South Florida just texted me a picture of us in the huddle today with a caption that said ‘Coach, I miss you and I miss the Huntington Prep days.’ The players may not think that stuff means a whole lot, but as a coach, it definitely does. Those are the types of things that make my day as a coach.
SLAM: Speaking of the talent you’ve got, you’ve got a pretty good one in Andrew Wiggins. What is it like coaching a player like that who just blows you away with something every day on the court?
RF: You are right, he does something daily that blows me away. Like today, you got to see him and X go at it for a while. The one thing with Andrew is that he’ll coast for a while until he doesn’t have to coast, or he gets pushed a little bit and he turns it on. He’s really easy to coach because he’s very humble and he wants to get better. Does he have bad habits? Absolutely. He’s a 17-year-old kid. I’d love for him to give 120 percent all of the time, but he’s still a kid. Again, he’s so gifted that he has that “on/off” switch. I’d love for his help side defense to get better and I’d love for him to compete 120 percent all the time. From a basketball standpoint though, he’s so easy to coach because he’s so humble and wants to be coached.
SLAM: In the two years that you’ve been working with Andrew every day, what areas have his game have you seen the most improvement in?
RF: His ball-handling and his jump shot. The athletic ability has always been there. He’s really gotten his handle tighter this year and has gotten stronger when he gets in the lane. Those things don’t bother him as much as they used to. The improvement has really come in his jump shot, though. What separates him from other guys is that he’s so quick and he can get it off anytime he wants. If he’s hitting jump shots, he’s unguardable.