By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
It comes as something greater than coincidence that the University of Washington men’s basketball team has gathered some of its biggest regular-season honors when trying to fit two of the program’s more polarizing figures into Lorenzo Romar’s system.
In 2008-09, Romar welcomed a tiny, shoot-first guard to campus but had to find a way to use him without giving up too much on the defensive end. Three years later, he survived some early bumps in the road while trying to get used to a high-flying guard with a faulty jump shot and a propensity to miss free throws as the worst possible moment.
Both those players — Isaiah Thomas three years ago and Tony Wroten Jr. this season — overcame some early struggles to lead the Huskies to regular-season conference titles while earning freshman-of-the-year honors to boot.
Even more telling? Those were the last two times Romar was named the conference’s coach of the year.
For every Twitter twit and bulletin board bully who has taken to criticizing Romar’s X’s and O’s, early season struggles and inability to get beyond the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament, there are countless more subtle reasons why he has been the most successful coach in UW history.
And handling budding superstars with unique skill sets may well be Romar’s most important asset.
“Lorenzo has flexibility on his approach to coaching,” longtime UW assistant coach Jim Shaw said early last week, before the Huskies departed for their all-too-short appearance in the Pacific-12 Conference tournament.
“He’s willing to make the adjustments necessary to maximize the talent in his players.”
No two cases have been more obvious than the ones involving Thomas and Wroten. While history will probably look back on a pair of NBA players and assume Romar had it easy with them in the fold, the truth is that both players provided some of his more challenging strategies.
Thomas joined a veteran team that already had scoring options in guys like Jon Brockman, Justin Dentmon and Quincy Pondexter. Yet, he wasn’t shy about taking the ball into the trees and showing his ability to score.
Romar had to adjust his offense to bring out the best in Thomas, and he also had to plan around the defensive liabilities that came with a 5-foot-8 off-guard who arrived at UW without any concept of playing lockdown D.
Wroten, although just as aggressive on the offensive end and just as green as a freshman defender, is a much different player whose game demanded other adjustments from the UW system. The 6-5 guard always has been better with the ball in his hands, yet Romar teamed him with point guard Abdul Gaddy a few games into Wroten’s freshman year and allowed the two to share ballhandling duties. With very little semblance of an offensive game outside of eight feet — and that’s putting it lightly — Wroten has been able to stay among the Pac-12’s leading scorers and one of the top freshmen in the country.
Asked last week to pinpoint the key to coaching both players, Romar said: “Patience. And an understanding of what they might be if you give them a little latitude.”
Romar has used a similar approach with other stars-in-waiting, but never quite to the level of Thomas and Wroten. While fans watched in horror early in the players’ careers, the veteran coach allowed both Thomas and Wroten to make mistake after mistake so they could show what they could, and couldn’t, do on the floor. It was all by design.
“When you have a guy like an Isaiah, or Tony Wroten, who have all this talent, all of this will and heart, once you begin to chop them down and say, ‘You can’t do this, you can’t do that; how dare you mess with my system’ — I think you take away their initiative,” Romar said. “You take away what makes them great.”
Romar credits two former coaches — Don Nelson, who coached him when Romar was playing with the Milwaukee Bucks of the NBA, and Jim Harrick, who was his boss when Romar was an assistant at UCLA — as being masters at bringing out the best in star players. Both coaches, he said, allowed players to work through mistakes and show what they could do before breaking down their game and figuring how best to use them.
Romar said earlier this season that his hands-off approach at the beginning of seasons has been a big reason why the Huskies have struggled out of the gates, but it’s also been the most visible reason why UW has finished so well.
“Coach (Romar) allows players to grow,” said Shaw, a UW assistant since 2004. “He gives them a certain level of freedom, which brings confidence. He allows them to play through mistakes. I think a lot of it is he was a high-, high-level player, and he’s been able to bring some of those things he liked and didn’t like as a player to the people he coaches.”
Romar’s style not only earns the respect of his players, but it also brings out the best in them.
“He recruited all of us, so he’s seen us all and knows what we do best,” Wroten said. “That’s how you treat players: you don’t want to turn them into a robot; you just let them play.
“He’s one of the best coaches in the country, and he knows what he’s doing.”
A 5-8 scoring two-guard and a 6-5 point guard who can’t shoot are not necessarily on the blueprint to conference titles, but Romar had no qualms about bringing either one of them into his program.
“With (Thomas and Wroten), you saw that they were serious competitors,” Romar said. “They had an unbelievable will about them. And regardless of who they were playing against, usually they were going to impose their will on the opposition. You take that, for starters, and you can find a way to deal with the rest.”
Two unique players, two freshmen of the year and two coach-of-the-year honors. That’s no coincidence.
“Both those times,” Romar said with a grin, “we won the league outright, too. That’s why you give those guys a little more latitude — that exact reason.”