Mike Woodson grew up in Indiana. He starred at Broad Ripple High School in Indianapolis and at Indiana University under Bobby Knight.
Now, he’s the head coach of Indiana University, a dream scenario for the 63-year-old. If the Hoosiers hadn’t called, Woodson would still be an assistant coach in New York under Tom Thibodeau.
“I would never have left the Knicks for any other job; there’s no way,” Woodson told SNY over the phone late last week. “That’s just how much respect that I have for Jim Dolan and what he’s done for me.”
Woodson’s focus right now is on Indiana, getting his program ready for the coming season. But he still checks in regularly with people in the Knicks organization. Last week, he spent time on the phone with Thibodeau.
“I’m just thrilled that they’re in the position they’re in,” Woodson said.
The Knicks, of course, are the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference, preparing for a first-round series against the Atlanta Hawks.
Not many people saw this coming. One Las Vegas sportsbook set the Knicks’ over/under win total at 22.5.
If you ask Woodson why the Knicks have been able to thrive this year, he gives you a succinct answer: “Tom Thibodeau.”
Thibodeau is a strong candidate for Coach of the Year. Julius Randle seems like a lock for Most Improved Player and has put together a strong case for a spot on an All-NBA team. Around Thibodeau and Randle, the Knicks have gotten key contributions from players, coaches, and the front office.
Woodson was there for nearly all of it. Earlier this week, he shared some thoughts about this Knicks season and looked ahead to the postseason.
In Part II of our conversation with Woodson, he offers his thoughts on team chemistry, Mitchell Robinson, Kenny Payne and more:
SNY: HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE CHEMISTRY OF THE GROUP?
WOODSON: “The chemistry is fantastic because you haven’t had any issues off the floor or on the floor. They don’t fight amongst each other on the floor; they push each other, they’re all positive. It’s just a solid group of guys that’s been assembled in New York this year, solid.”
SNY: THOUGHTS ON RJ BARRETT?
WOODSON: “He’s made a major, major jump. Johnny (Bryant)’s worked with him some and he’s made the leap. Everyone was questioning and doubting him coming into the season, saying he can’t shoot. And he proved them wrong. But there’s always another level. Is he there yet? No, he’s not there. But he’s headed in the right direction, I’ll tell you that.”
SNY: DID HIS SHOOTING THIS YEAR SURPRISE YOU?
WOODSON: “I think when you put time and work at it, good things happen. You half-ass it, bad things happen. He’s put the work in.”
SNY: YOUR THOUGHTS ON MITCHELL ROBINSON?
WOODSON: “When I first saw Mitchell last summer when I went to New Orleans with Kenny Payne to work him out, I was like, ‘There’s no way in hell this kid is going to make it.’ And when he got to camp and Thibs got a hold of him and Kenny (Payne) and Woody and Johnny and Andy (Greer) and all the guys that were pushing him started working with him, he started to get better. And then he really started to get better before he got hurt. He was plugging up the holes. He was playing great.
“He’s had his injuries but I can’t help but think he’s going to continue to grow because I think he’s starting to grow as an individual. That’s a big part of it. When you start taking your craft seriously, then you start to really grow and blossom and I think he’s headed in that direction.”
SNY: WHEN YOU FIRST SAW MITCHELL IN NEW ORLEANS, WHAT DID YOU THINK? WAS HE NOT IN SHAPE?
WOODSON: “He wasn’t in shape and I just didn’t know how much he would allow you to push him. I think he’s over that stage now. He’s starting to figure things out. Figuring it out means you have to work hard at improving. And he’s starting to do that.”
SNY: YOUR THOUGHTS ON KENNY PAYNE?
WOODSON: “I’ve known Kenny for a long time. I think what he and Cal (Kentucky head coach John Calipari) did together at Kentucky was phenomenal, along with Cal’s other coaches. Make no mistake about it: Cal is a great coach. For (Payne) to come to the NBA and work his magic at the highest level (is impressive), because you don’t know how guys are going to accept you. I think the fact that he knew Nerlens (Noel), he knew (Immanuel) Quickley, he knew Kevin Knox and he knew Julius made his walk in a little bit easier, compared to most other places he could have coached. But at the end of the day, those guys still have to accept his style and how he pushes guys to be better. Make no mistake about it, he wants nothing but the best for the guys. He’s genuine and they know it. He’s for real. And that’s what coaches should be about.”
SNY: YOUR THOUGHTS ON LEON ROSE AND WILLIAM WESLEY IN THEIR NEW ROLES WITH THE KNICKS?
WOODSON: “It was new for both of them but the fact that they’ve had a relationship for many, many years made their working relationship easy. And the fact that they hired a great coach in Thibs and put people around Thibs that they thought could help him – it became a perfect storm in terms of the growth and development of the team and how they’re playing. Even though I’m not there, I couldn’t be happier for our ballclub. I call them almost every other day and talk to somebody on that staff. I was on the phone with (Thibodeau last Friday). I’m just thrilled to death that they’re in this position because they deserve it based on the body of work that they’ve put in.”