Vogel, Collison and Their Pacers
Learning together as they go.
by Brendan Bowers / @StepienRules
In 1996, Frank Vogel transferred from Juniata College in Pennsylvania to spend his senior season studying basketball as a student manager at Kentucky under Rick Pitino. About that same time, in Rancho Cucamonga, CA, a young point guard named Darren Collison had just embarked on his own lifelong lesson in the same game.
Fifteen years later, they’re learning together.
Vogel, as the 37-year-old head coach who Larry Bird hired to lead the Indiana Pacers, and Collison, as his 24-year-old point guard. A coach and a player who will continue to grow together, as they look to rebuild the Pacers back into an Eastern Conference power.
“As soon as I got here to this organization I was introduced to Coach Vogel,” Collison told SLAMonline earlier this week.
“He kinda took me under his wing, and he molded me into the player that I am right now. He said some things to me back then that I probably didn’t want to hear when it came to watching film, but it helped me. It helped me gradually improve my defense and my offense.”
That player Collison is right now, beyond his averages of 12 points and 5 assists per game as the starting point guard in his third NBA season, is also a guy his coach says leads his team in categories you can’t quantify.
“Darren probably leads our team in desire,” Vogel told SLAMonline. “He’s got such a pure heart. His effort, his focus, his mental preparation, he watches more film than anybody on our team.
“Those things all lead into just desire and wanting to win, and wanting to be a great basketball team, and that carries out on to the court.”
Indiana opened this season looking like that great basketball team already. Prior to winning in New Jersey on Thursday night, however, they had since dropped five straight and fallen to 17-12. Even at that point though, one where an NBA head coach in his first full season on the job probably could be pretty nervous, Vogel remained confident in what his young group is capable of building season.
“I’m not really concerned, to be honest with you,” Vogel said after their fifth straight loss on Wednesday in Cleveland. “I’m not happy with the losing in anyway, but we have a good basketball team. We’re a little under-manned right now, and we’re in a little bit of a funk, but every team I’ve ever been a part of goes through a little bit of a funk like this. I have a great deal of confidence that these guys will come out of it.”
On Thursday the Pacers did come out of it, and they were certainly helped by a guy coming back from one of those recent injuries. After missing the last game and a half, Danny Granger returned to drop 32 on the Nets, and get Indiana back up to 18-12 by way of a 93-88 win in New Jersey.
While this Pacers team does not employ that one superstar-type player, they do have a collection of guys who are more than capable of hanging a number like Granger just did on the board any given night. Something that can be both a blessing for an NBA team, as well as a curse, depending on how shots, minutes and egos are managed.
For Vogel though, he views all that as his team’s greatest strength.
“We’re trying to play a 10-man rotation, trying to take advantage of our depth, and having a tag-team mentality,” Vogel said. “We try to wear teams down with the first team, and then come in with the second unit and do the same.”
A great strategy to be sure, but one that can’t truly be effective without a team that buys into the idea of sacrificing points, minutes and statistics for the greater good.
Something Collison says that this group of Pacers, to their credit, buys into already.
“On this team, we all stick up for one another,” Collision added. “We all hold each other accountable, and most importantly we all help each other. We never have to worry about if this person is going to help me or if I’m going to help this person. We just try stick to the basics.”
One of those basics includes capitalizing on the strengths of a dominant NBA center, if you have one. In Roy Hibbert, the Pacers do right now, and both Vogel and his point guard have certainly capitalized on that this season. Hibbert earned his first ever invite to the All-Star game later this month, and he credits his team’s collective effort for that opportunity.
“Personally it’s a great accomplishment,” Hibbert said on being named an All-Star. “But I couldn’t have done it without my teammates, the organization, and the coaching staff. Everyone played a role big time in that.”
“Coach Vogel is doing a good job of time management, and everything like that this season,” Hibbert added. “It’s a learning process. He’s learning, we’re learning, and I think the marriage has been going well so far.”
With Collison, according to Roy, being a big reason why.
“Darren’s having a good year, and everything starts with him,” Hibbert said. “He brings a lot of speed, quick hands, and he can get up and down the court with the ball faster than anybody. He’s up there with DRose I believe. He’s just a great teammate, a great friend and he can really play.”
Even after losing five of their last 10, the Pacers are still solidly positioned to be a Playoff team again this season. So while the losing has been tough recently, Collison also recognizes that there’s still a lot of basketball left to play here.
“You just gotta take it one step at a time. We’ve never been in this position where we faced adversity,” added Collison, on the five-game losing skid that was eventually snapped on Thursday.
“Last year we have, but I’m talking about this season we haven’t. This is the first time we faced some adversity, and it hurts. But then again, it’s a long season.
“Some of the veterans told me that you gotta have a short-term memory, and next game is it’s own opportunity. So you just gotta focus on the next game.”
It was a sentiment echoed by his Coach heading into Thursday’s win in New Jersey: “Quite honestly, injuries are not an excuse,” Vogel said, “but I think our guys are worn-down. It’s been a tough stretch of the schedule, against a string of good teams, and then we hit a slew of injuries.
“All of that has resulted in a little bit of slippage on offense and on defense, but it’s just something that will come back around.”
A big reason both guys remain confident things will come back around is their big man in the middle. A guy Collison says has been bringing it every night.
“Roy’s been doing it all season long,” Collison said. “He makes my job easy as a point guard. He makes everybody else’s job easier. And not just offensively, he’s doing a good job defensively too.
Roy’s going to continue to do him, we just gotta continue to take care of the other things that we can control.”
What Collison, Vogel and their Pacers can control more than anything is their continued approach to building this thing together. As they strive to keep their talented group going 10-deep productively involved every night, they’ll lean on the relationship they have with each other to help get that done.
“My relationship with Coach Vogel is great,” added Collison. “When he became the head coach, he never changed as a person. He’s always been that same person who took me under his wing.”
It’ll be that same person, and the point guard he’s learning with, who will help this team collectively take that next step they’re all trying to take. A step they’ll both take together, just like all the rest since that first day they teamed up in Indiana.