Q&A: Andrej Lemanis on Building Relationships, his Dante Heartbreak and Aiming for Gold

Fresh off leading the Boomers past New Zealand and into the Rio Olympics, Australian Boomers head coach Andrej Lemanis spoke to Downtown about a wide range of topics.

 

It’s been nearly 2.5 years since you took over the role, what have you enjoyed the most about it?

There are lots of enjoyable parts to this job. I guess first and foremost is just continuing to build the relationships with the core group of the Boomers. Also getting to know some of them for the first time, like Andrew Bogut – I hadn’t worked with him before and this campaign was the first opportunity to work with him.

You just enjoy working with good people and ultimate professionals who are really good at what they do and it’s fun working with these guys who are passionate about playing for their country. When you spend time with them you understand why they get where they are. Their attention to detail, their professionalism and the way they look after themselves and their knowledge of the game, it’s where you would expect it to be for people achieving at the high levels that they are achieving.  It’s just good to see that and it’s fun working with those guys.

You also enjoy seeing the success and the improvement that comes as a result of being involved with the national team. Going on the journey with someone like Aron Baynes, to see his rise to where he is now. Someone like Ryan Broekhoff coming in off the back of a college career and establishing himself as a professional after being in the national team for a couple of years. Each year he’s gone back and improved in his club as a result of what he has done on the international stage and he has got better professional contracts as a result as well. Seeing those sorts of progressions that’s rewarding and you’d like to think you play a small part in that. I know I’m only with them for a small amount of time, but I like to think as a staff we can contribute to their development and they get some sort of rewards from being with the national team, not only playing with the national team but translating into their careers as well.

The other parts of the job I really enjoy are working with that next level of talent coming through.  Watching the U17 and U19 National Teams practice and play, going to the U18 National Titles… just seeing those kids and being able to have some direct influence at the Centre of Excellence and through the Australian development camps but also indirect influence via the coaches that are at that level; talking to them, working with them, sharing ideas, exploring things and hopefully adding to their ability to develop. I learn from them as well, that’s one of the beautiful things about coaching, there’s no right and wrong there’s just opinion and those sorts of discussions are a good way to add to your own knowledge base. That’s good fun for me and I enjoy the discussion and hopefully they get something out of it that helps them as basketball coaches as well.

 

You spoke about the relationships that you’ve been able to build with the guys… you also have those relationships with a number of the Tall Blacks. Was it difficult for you on some level being a key part of, kind of, road-blocking their path to the Olympics?

Yeah, that’s always an interesting one for me emotionally. Certainly during the series there’s no problems at all, we’re just doing the job that we need to do to qualify for the Olympics, 100% focused on that and obviously committed with these guys on this journey to achieve our goal. So during the process it’s really not anything that gets in the way or plays a part but afterwards, as you say, because I’ve been through so much with a lot of those Tall Black guys, developed relationships and we’ve ridden the highs and lows and all those sorts of things… I’ve been part of their journey as well in terms of their improvement as players. Once you’ve developed those relationships and won championships with a lot of them, which is a special thing, when you see the hurt in their eyes afterwards that hurts. That part of it is unfortunate and you feel for them obviously when people you care about are hurt, you feel for them, but it is an unfortunate reality of the system that we’re in.

 

Which is changing, which will be good.

Yes, it is changing so it will be the last time we have to go through that.

 

When Game 1 started and Paul Henare had his boys switching and denying that reversal action, it had a bit of an impact on you guys offensively.  How hard is it to get a group to adjust to something like that, on the fly, mid-game?

It’s one of the drawbacks or challenges of not having a group together over the course of a season; being fluid and comfortable with your counters, and having experienced different defensive strategies along the path.  As a team we hadn’t really dealt with anyone who had switched the weak side cutting action, as New Zealand did.  Obviously, in my experience over time, I’ve seen that plenty of times so you have answers for it but they don’t come smoothly to the group if they haven’t experienced that before.

If they continued to switch in Game 2 as they did in Game 1, I think we would have been much better placed to deal with it, perhaps exploit it with some of the counters we were able to practice over the two days leading in to that, but they went away from it in Game 2.

That’s one of the challenges of having a team for a short amount of time and one of the key reasons we’ve tried to keep this core group together over the last three or four years so that we can continue to build. I thought this year we were better for our time together at last year’s World Cup and I was so thankful that so many of the same guys were able to make themselves available to come in. We started at a high base and we were able to add Boges this year. Patty came in late but he missed last year’s World Cup campaign with us as well, so spending a little bit of time familiarising himself with the system should place us at a better starting position heading into the Rio campaign next year.

 

You spoke before about building a new relationship with Andrew Bogut, and you spoke after Game 2 about how much of a special performance that was by him… how close was he to not being able to play?

Yes interesting, that’s ultimately one you have to ask the doctors and, I guess, Andrew himself. Certainly the way he woke up on the Sunday after Game 1 the advice from our medical staff was ‘highly unlikely to play in Game 2’. So whatever they did in terms of treatment was obviously successful and a job well done. But also Andrew’s mental toughness to overcome it and say “no, I want to play, it’s important for me to play,” played its part as well and that for me was the really significant piece in all of this; Andrew’s dogged determination to play and be with his mates and go to battle in Game 2.  He was with them on our quest to try to qualify for Rio.

Obviously so much of that is just about him and who he is as a competitor but is there also an element of the seeds of that effort being sewn throughout the year in the relationship you developed with him in the lead up?  Going over to visit and staying in constant communication?

It’s hard to know how everything plays a part but in the end it’s important that the players trust you and know you have their best interests at heart. That’s certainly what I try to do with all our guys, just let them know that I care, keep paying attention, keep listening. You know they’re all experienced guys, not only in their NBA environments or European environments but on the international scene, they have experiences and opinions to learn from. Just spending time with them, understanding what they value, understanding what makes them tick… that helps add to the relationship whereby they gain trust in you as a coach and it’s important that the relationship is as strong as it can possibly be for us to get the success that we want.

 

So, with that in mind, what went through your head when Dante went down?

Ugh, that was heartbreaking. It was one of those moments where you have that little sick feeling in your stomach, you know.  I just felt really sorry for Dante on many levels.

First of all he was so keen and eager to play in this series; in Melbourne, in front of his home fans, in front of his family and to pull on the green and gold which is something that he really cherishes and to be able to do that, in the environment that was being created, was just something he was really looking forward to and he had sacrificed lot in order to put himself in a position to achieve that.  So to have that taken away from him was heartbreaking.

Then to understand that it’s an ACL and it’s nine months and it’s a long road to recovery, you’re going to miss your second year of the NBA and all of the development that comes with that… that was difficult to process and accept.

Looking in his eyes afterwards and seeing him the next day before he left to go to Utah was… it was tough. Just seeing how disappointed he was. He understood what the road was that was now in front of him. You build these bonds with people and you care about them, you care about what’s happening to them, so when they’re disappointed and have to face some challenges you feel for them for sure.

You made the tough call on Ben Simmons ahead of last year’s World Cup, saying that he “wasn’t ready yet”… Did you have the chance to see him play during LSU’s recent tour and if yes, how has his game developed over the past 12 months?

I’m actually still waiting for the footage to come up here. I haven’t got it yet so no I haven’t seen him play.  I’m not in a position to comment on that at this stage.

 

Do you think we’ll see Thon Maker in a green and gold jersey at some stage?

I certainly hope so. He’s someone else I’ve been reaching out to and trying to build that relationship with. It’s been limited at this stage. We’ve had a couple of contact points over the last couple of years when I’ve been able to go over personally. I met him in the States one time and went and saw him in Canada last year. Thon is a good talent but also a good person, I’ve really enjoyed the conversations I’ve had with him and also his brother Matur. They certainly still say all the right things in terms of wanting to represent Australia, feeling a connection to Australia and the national team and wanting an opportunity to wear the green and gold. That’ll just be a continuing process for those guys ensuring that they know we’re paying attention, we care, we’re here to help and hopefully over time the circumstances will get to that position where we’re able to get them in a green and gold singlet.

 

When you left the Breakers you spoke about the gradual build you had achieved and that a solid foundation results in sustained success. How proud of the club, the players and Dean [Vickerman] were you when they won the title last season?

I was over the moon for them to be honest. It was a fantastic reward for everybody’s hard work that they had put in, over the course of time. As you said there, when I left I spoke about building a foundation and that’s something I know that Paul Blackwell and his wife Liz as the owners of the club, were tremendous drivers of and big believers.  They invested resources and, more importantly, they invested into people to ensure that there was the ability to have sustained success, so we weren’t reliant on any one person and also not reliant on having to go and spend lots of dollars each year to make it happen.  They built a sustainable model over time and took some knocks along the way to get to the point where it is today. So again, just to see that reward, you go along a journey and a path you believe in and think is right and to see that coming to fruition is a fantastic result. Obviously Deano was a big part of the process in getting us to where we were in my time there.  The first year as a head coach is always a big learning experience and to his credit he did a wonderful job of learning from that first year and making the adjustments and putting the team in a position to have success the next year.  So I was really thrilled for him and everybody in the organisation who I know work so hard and care so much about the game.

 

Since qualifying, some of the boys have been talking about the gold medal being the goal for Rio next year.  Do you worry at all about heightened self-expectations or is aiming for the ultimate simply the competitive thing to do?

We had a good chat about that as a group after we qualified and we certainly all agreed that we have enough talent to go and get the gold medal and it’s important we put that out there because what that does is it keeps us focused and keeps us accountable to each other over the next twelve months as well. It’s one thing to say that everyone wants to go win the gold medal, it’s then ‘what’s the process of getting that achieved?’  So we are now in a position as a team to hold each other accountable to that process.  They all go back to their clubs now and continue to reach out, build relationships and continue to ensure we have some focus on the Boomers program as well. So that we’re not coming into July next year when our campaign starts and having to start afresh.  We want to continue to build and have it somewhere in the mind and continue working on those things that we need to do as a team to get us to that gold medal. We’re aware that others will scoff and think that’s a lofty expectation but we’re really not that concerned about the expectations of others. It’s what we expect of ourselves that’s important to us and we believe we can go and get this done.

 

Well good luck with that process and thanks so much for chatting and being so generous with your thoughts.

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