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Blazers’ Tibbetts not afraid to sweat it out

Assistant coach forms bond with the players

By Erik Gundersen, Columbian Trail Blazers Writer
Published: January 29, 2015, 4:00pm

TUALATIN, Ore — The journey of Nate Tibbetts to the coaching ranks of the NBA sounds like a classic basketball story told time and again.

Being a coach was his destiny. The son of a high school coach in South Dakota, Tibbetts grew to play point guard at University of South Dakota.

“My Dad was the guy that I looked to all the time growing up,” Tibbetts said. “And I knew I wasn’t going to play overseas at the professional level so I got into coaching fairly quickly.”

And on the bench with the Trail Blazers, Tibbetts still gets a sweat on.

Recently, he played LaMarcus Aldridge in one-on-one as Aldridge tested the brace on his left thumb that has a torn radial collateral ligament.

But the journey from South Dakota to the NBA is not a common road. When Tibbetts started coaching back in 2001, the NBA D-League did not yet exist. He began his career at a liberal arts college, University of Sioux Falls, which was then an NAIA school.

But in 2005, Tibbetts matriculated to the D-League’s Sioux Falls Skyforce where he eventually became the head coach before the 2007-08 season. It was there in Sioux Falls that Tibbetts met Terry Stotts who was then the D-League’s coaching consultant.

“I think he saw and knew how green I was,” Tibbetts said of his first encounter with Stotts. “So I built a relationship with him and he came out a couple of different times, which was awesome.”

Then Tibbetts moved on to Tulsa, Okla., to coach the 66ers where he crossed paths with fellow Blazers assistant coach Dale Osbourne. His first job in the NBA was with the Cleveland Cavaliers, where he spent two seasons specializing in player development. He worked closely with Kyrie Irving during his time there before joining Portland’s staff in the summer of 2013.

Tibbetts has been a unique part of Portland’s coaching staff. It’s not uncommon to see Tibbetts working up a sweat, as well as assistant David Vanterpool, on a daily basis in practice, which he is thankful for.

“Sweat equity,” Tibbetts said. “It’s a blessing right now being younger and being able to move,” he said. “In 5, 10 years I’m not going be able to do it.”

Among Portland’s roster, Tibbetts has formed bonds with many players. He works against almost everyone.

After Will Barton played a major role in a win against the Wizards, Tibbetts was there to congratulate him.

But his relationship with Wesley Matthews has been one of the most notable. Matthews has always been lauded for his tireless work ethic, something Tibbetts tries to balance.

“He’s driven to be great,” Tibbetts said of Matthews. “At times you have to pull back and say slow down. Because he plays so hard, he’s got to pick his spots, when he works.”

Matthews’ game, whether it’s his post-up game or his ball handling, have made significant strides in recent seasons.

“I think, to me, ball handling is one of the easiest things to improve,” Tibbetts said. “You just got to put in the time. My big thing is just let guys be creative.”

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Matthews is now unleashing behind the back dribbles in transition and his step back jumper isn’t so much of a change of pace as it is his weapon of choice. Matthews’ has worked tirelessly but Tibbetts has been the coach that’s been with him the most.

In the summer, Tibbetts went to Madison, Wis., to work with Matthews.

“Get to see him in his home turf, meet his family and friends,” Tibbetts said. “There’s common ground there. Shoot, during the season we see these guys more than we see our families. A big thing is trust.”

“You know, he’s a player’s coach,” Matthews said. “Sometimes not in a non-disrespecful way but you don’t normally look at him as a coach. He’s just a genuine good guy and good person and he genuinely cares about basketball. Since he got here he’s shown us he was.”

Whether it’s putting on weighted gloves while sliding side to side with a basketball in the practice facility or sending YouTube clips of other ball handling moves from the league’s best playmakers to work on in Matthews’ home gym, the work hardly stops.

“When it comes to working with guys, the guys that are willing to work, it makes it real easy,” Tibbetts said.

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Columbian Trail Blazers Writer