Teaching the Game: Agler’s Style Connects

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Kevin Pelton, stormbasketball.com | May 19, 2009
When Seattle Storm Head Coach Brian Agler went out to speak to kids at local elementary schools about the physics of basketball last week, members of the Storm's community relations department noticed how well he connected with the youngsters. Agler's ability to teach should come as no surprise, given that instruction is such a key part of his job. This time of year, the early portion of training camp, Agler's instruction is on full display.

During the Storm's opening practice of the year, Agler installed the fundamentals of the Storm's offense and defense. More than merely describing actions on the court, he explained how each player's role helped determine the play's ultimate success or failure and what he was looking for as a coach. When it came time to execute the play, everyone on the roster knew not only what they were doing but why.

"It's a great way to learn. It's different from what I'm used to, but I like it."
Aaron Last/Storm Photo
While the team is going through drills, Agler never hesitates to jump in with a minor correction, or even to demonstrate what he wants a player to do by going through the process itself. Agler's is a hands-on style that relies heavily on his ability to impart his knowledge of the game to his players.

"I enjoy it," said Agler. "A lot of it's teaching; a lot of it's review depending on who was here a year ago this time. It's enjoyable."

Storm rookie Ashley Walker is getting her first experience with Agler's style, and finds it refreshing.

"He's a great teacher," said Walker. "He breaks it down for you really simple and then says go and you go full-speed. It's a great way to learn. It's different from what I'm used to, but I like it."

More than a decade ago, Shannon Johnson was in the same position as Walker. Her first professional experience in the U.S. after completing her college career at South Carolina was playing for Agler in the ABL's inaugural season with the Columbus Quest.

"At first, I took (Agler's coaching) personally, because I was just coming out of college," recalled Johnson. "I was a snot-nosed kid, thought that I knew how to play basketball. He made me better. When I saw my game go to another level offensively and defensively, I knew he was making me better. The players that were on that team made me better. He challenged all of us individually to make each other better, and that's how we won those championships when I was there."

After winning two titles with Agler in the ABL and playing two seasons under him when he was an assistant in San Antonio, Johnson considers Agler a father of sorts. She has stayed in touch with his family when they have gotten the opportunity to reconnect during the WNBA season, and describes Agler as the single biggest factor in her decision to sign with the Storm as a free agent during the offseason.

"He's always brought the best out of me," explained Johnson. "He's always challenged me, made me better, made me feel like I need to work harder. Whatever I did, he wanted more from me. Even when I'm out there playing, you can hear him talking to me, telling me different things that he expects from me defensively, offensively. It's a role that you've got to used to. He's never going to say anything to hurt you, but he's going to say things to make you better."

Last year, it was Katie Gearlds who was the recipient of much of Agler's most demanding coaching. He was admittedly hard on Gearlds, looking for improvement in her defensive game. At season's end, Gearlds described how much she appreciated the attention, even when it was critical, because she knew Agler had her development in mind - and because she saw the results.

"I love to learn from Brian," she said at Media Day. "He's a great teacher, and I feel like every day I'm learning something new. With every coach, they have different philosophies and different ways of saying things, but Brian sees the game so well and knows the game so well. I'm more of a thinker on the court, so it's nice to see what he's thinking too. Maybe if I ever coach, I can apply what he does with us here."

Drawing upon his experience as a player was how Agler first began to formulate his style, both in terms of X's and O's and in how he teaches the game.

"I was fortunate to have some really good coaches at the high school level and the college level," he said. "I think you take how you learn the game and maybe some things you play against that you like and incorporate and it turns into a hybrid - a mix and match."

As he works with his assistant coaches in Seattle, Nancy Darsch and Shelley Patterson, and faces the WNBA's top generals, Agler continues to add to his style.

"I'm sure that I will be a little bit different five years from now," he said. "You take what works for you and you're always looking for better things. I don't think you ever get to a point where you're the best you can be and the way you teach the game or how you run things is the best it can be. You always want to be open-minded and proactive and adjusted and get better."

Johnson recognizes how Agler's system has evolved since they first worked together - and center Janell Burse, who last played for Agler in Minnesota in 2002, described dramatic differences in the offense she remembered - but the core values, including his teaching, remain the same as what helped her develop into one of the top point guards in WNBA history.

"We're doing the same drills," Johnson said. "He hasn't gotten away from his philosophy. He knows how to get up under you and challenge you. When he challenges you, he's trying to make you better. A lot of players sometimes let that get to them, but he's just trying to make you mentally strong. He's your coach; he's trying to make you better."