By Melissa Rohlin
FOX Sports NBA Writer
Chris Paul gave Jason Smith a strong message 10 years ago.
“He said, ‘Anytime I pass it to you, it’s because I see that you’re open and you’re going to shoot it,'” Smith told FOX Sports. “‘If I pass it to you, and you don’t shoot it, I’m going to get mad at you because you’re open. This is me, as a point guard, telling you to shoot the ball.'”
Smith, a retired forward/center who was in his fourth season in the NBA at that time, initially didn’t understand how Paul could give him that mandate. Paul was in a completely different spot on the floor. There’s no way he could know how the defense was going to react.
“I was like, ‘How do you know that?'” Smith said. “‘How do you know that I’m open and I won’t get my shot blocked?’ He was like, ‘Because I’m a point guard and I’m that good.’ I was like, ‘You’re right, Chris, I’m going to start shooting the ball when you pass it to me.'”
Smith quickly learned that Paul saw things before anyone else. He was able to anticipate plays long before they materialized. It was something Paul also taught Monty Williams, who at the time was 38 years old and in his first season as a head coach with the Hornets.
And because of Paul, Williams quickly shifted his coaching style.
“I think early on in his career he was more of a no-nonsense kind of guy,” Smith said of Williams. “He wanted to run the plays he wanted to run. But at some point, Chris got him to buy-in like, ‘Hey, I got this, I can read defenses well. I know what plays to call.’ So it was kind of a back-and-forth exchange.”
Paul and Williams learned a lot from each other that season, lessons that resonated a decade later when they were reunited on the Phoenix Suns. Williams took over the helm in May 2019 and the team traded for Paul in November 2020.
They’re now just two wins away from winning the franchise’s first championship, with the Suns up 2-0 over the Milwaukee Bucks heading into Game 3 of the NBA Finals on Sunday night.
Smith witnessed when it all began for the coach-PG duo. He saw seeds of magic then and is not at all surprised they’re having so much success now that they’ve both matured.
“It’s fun to see them back together 10 years later,” Smith said. “It’s absolutely amazing to see how Chris is still at the top of his game, and Coach Williams learned so much over those years. It’s really really fun to see.”
Both Williams and Paul say they’ve grown a significant amount from when they were together in New Orleans. Williams acknowledges he initially was a “my way or the highway” type of coach before he learned that he’d be more effective if he loosened his grip. Paul acknowledges his leadership ability grew once he realized he had to speak to teammates in different ways based on their personalities.
“If you haven’t changed in 10 years, then something is wrong,” Paul said. “We’ve both seen a lot since then.”
Smith was with them at ground zero, when they were both evolving into who they’d later become. He acknowledged that Paul’s leadership style was “an acquired taste” back then. Some guys appreciated his brashness, while others were offended by it.
For Smith, it was career-changing.
When Paul told Smith to shoot, his confidence skyrocketed. Having Paul believe in him made him believe in himself. Smith’s next three seasons in New Orleans were the best of his career: He averaged 9.2 points per game on 49% shooting.
But Paul would also call him out.
He told him his defense needed to improve. He barked at Smith when he wasted opportunities on either end of the court. He didn’t sugarcoat things. Sometimes it was a tough pill to swallow.
“That’s what you want from your point guard,” Smith said. “Some people can take it, some people can’t. For me, I absolutely loved it. It gave me a sense of direction, a purpose out there.”
As for Williams, he taught Smith how to work hard and take care of his body.
He also gave him some tough love.
Williams always told Smith to “stay in his box.” He didn’t want the 7-footer to dribble or do things that were outside of his skill-set. Instead, he encouraged him to concentrate on what he was good at, such as the pick-and-pop and the midrange jumper.
“Anytime I got out of that box, he would bring me over and be like, ‘J, you’re out of your box. Stay in your box, do what’s gotten you here,'” Smith said. “It really didn’t make me feel good at the time, but if I actually stuck to my morals and my principles and I stayed in my box, I had a lot of success. So I really attribute that to Coach.”
Looking back at who he was 10 years ago, Williams refers to himself as “more of a doofus than I am now.”
He acknowledges that he was so focused on winning that he was probably too tough on his players at times. He had to learn how to deliver his messages in ways that players could receive them.
“[There] was probably a lot of insecurity, trying to show what I knew and prove it as opposed to just coaching,” Williams said. “That probably ruffled feathers.”
Smith played under Williams for three of his 11 seasons in the league, from 2010 through 2013. He watched Williams calm down as a coach. And he watched him mature into being a beloved leader.
One moment truly stands out above everything.
Smith’s father died in 2011 during the NBA lockout when coaches and players weren’t allowed to have any contact. To his shock, Williams showed up at his father’s funeral in Kersey, Colorado, a small town about an hour outside of Denver.
“I broke down,” Smith said. “You don’t expect your NBA coach to come to one of the hardest things you’ve ever had to deal with in your entire life. But he was there. It really resonated with me that he cared about his players. It was bigger than basketball.”
When Williams’ wife, Ingrid, died in a 2016 car crash, all of the love he showed his players came pouring back to him.
Williams, who was then an assistant coach for the Oklahoma City Thunder, eulogized his wife in front of a large contingent of coaches and players who showed up to support him.
“He’s really there for people,” Smith said. “That’s where it showed that people are really there for him.”
After taking some time away to grieve, Williams re-entered the coaching ranks in 2018-2019 as an assistant for the Philadelphia 76ers before taking the head coaching job for the Suns the following season.
When Williams and Paul were reunited this season, it was clear that they had both changed a lot.
Williams had turned into a player-whisperer of sorts. He knows what to say to get the best out of his guys. Paul calls him family. Suns backup guard Cameron Payne credits him for resurrecting his career. Forward Mikal Bridges put it most succinctly, saying, “Coach is just one of the greatest dudes on this earth.”
As for Paul, his teammates love who he’s become as a leader. Guard Devin Booker said he tries to be a sponge whenever he’s around him. Center Deandre Ayton added: “He was the best thing that happened to my career.”
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Smith has closely followed their development, culminating in the Suns’ historic playoff run.
Whenever Smith hears about how close Paul and Williams are, he gets a bit nostalgic, remembering how that synergy formed with the Hornets a decade ago.
“Chris knew what Coach was going to call before Coach even called it,” Smith recalled. “It was amazing to see the interactions between the two going back and forth of, ‘All right, let’s run this.’ ‘No, I think we can run this.’ They were just so in sync.”
They still have that connection.
But as much as Williams and Paul have both matured, they’ve also in many ways stayed the same.
That was never more clear to Smith than when Paul was asked how he felt reaching the NBA Finals for the first time in his 16-season career. Paul responded that it was weird there were no games for him to watch on television.
It reminded Smith of how Paul used to watch games and film ad nauseam, something he still does.
“It might take 30 minutes to watch five minutes of film,” Smith recalled with a chuckle. “He’ll tell you the intricate details of every little thing.”
Smith is incredibly happy for Paul’s and Williams’ success. He marvels at how their talent has only increased over time.
Paul was an MVP contender at age 36. And the 49-year-old Williams was named Coach of the Year by his peers this season.
When asked how Smith feels seeing them in this position, he summed up his emotions in one word.
“Proud,” he said.
Smith was there when this all began.
And ever since that moment, he’s been cheering for both of them.
Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She has previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.
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