New Hofstra coach Speedy Claxton likes the view from the top
The distance between the chairs measures, maybe, three feet. The view is drastically different.
Speedy Claxton can see that now as he embarks on his head-coaching career after serving as an assistant to former Pride coach Joe Mihalich the past eight seasons. He now is responsible for the program he helped put on the map by leading Hofstra to the 2000 NCAA Tournament under coach Jay Wright, then going on to become an NBA first-round draft pick.
"I’m not offering my opinion about what this team should do anymore," Claxton, 43, said this past week. "I make all the final decisions. Whether we are successful or not? That’s all on me now."
Claxton believes he is ready. During a 10-year NBA career, he played for coaches such as Larry Brown, Don Nelson, Byron Scott and Gregg Popovich, and he said he will borrow from all of them.
Brown, his first coach with Philadelphia, clearly is an influence, but "Coach Mihalich is the biggest influence for me," Claxton said. "When [people] see us play, they are going to see a lot of the [offensive] sets we ran for him."
One major change Claxton is installing is a man-to-man defense. The Pride played a zone defense under Mihalich and mostly relied on a high-scoring offense to win. When the players started practice this season, the first handful were almost exclusively about defense, star guard Jalen Ray said.
"He wants us to practice like champions and the defense can win championships," he said.
The Pride were 13-10 overall and 8-6 in the Colonial Athletic Association during the coronavirus-compressed 2020-21 season, lost three starters and were tabbed for fifth place in a preseason poll of conference coaches. Said Claxton, "I understand why they did that and I might have done that, too, because that’s how it looks from the outside."
Ray, a preseason all-conference pick after averaging 19.3 points last season, is one weapon. Aaron Estrada, a 6-3 guard, transferred in from Oregon and was the Metro Atlantic Rookie of the Year at Saint Peter’s before that. Zach Cooks, a 5-11 grad student, was the centerpiece for the past three seasons at NJIT — averaging 18.2 points overall — and was an all-conference selection all three seasons.
"Jalen already is in that role that Desure Buie and Justin Wright-Foreman played," Claxton said, "and he’s going to have plenty of help this season."
Add returners 6-7 Kvonn Cramer and 6-3 Caleb Burgess to the mix and there is reason for Claxton’s optimism.
Hofstra opens Tuesday at 15th-ranked Houston and will play road games at No. 16 Arkansas, No. 21 Maryland and Richmond before conference play begins.
"There are new players but it’s a veteran team, and this is the kind of schedule they wanted to play," Claxton said. "We’ll know where we are and where we need to get to soon enough."
Claxton, one of six Division I coaches to have won an NBA title, has a pair of big things working for him in coaching and recruiting: He has walked the path from Hofstra to the NBA and he is among the younger coaches. Claxton’s pitch of "I have the blueprint’’ to reach the NBA attracted both Estrada and Cooks.
"He’s hard on us because that's how he should be," Cramer said. "But there is more of a connection because he’s younger."
"I may be hard on them, but I know what it takes and I understand that trust and love are the cornerstones," Claxton said. "With this generation, you have to love them before they allow you to coach them . . . Once they know you’re genuine, they let you be demanding and hold them accountable.
"I am expecting a lot and they want to give it."