ATLANTA — At the start of his first news conference as Hawks coach, Lloyd Pierce looked down at a row filled with four of his new players.
His thoughts immediately turned to his passion: defense.
“If we weren’t doing this press conference right now, I’d probably have these guys doing some defensive drills,” Pierce said Monday. “That’s who I am.”
Pierce, the former Philadelphia 76ers assistant whose agreement to become the Hawks’ coach was announced Friday, said his first priority will be assembling a staff. Pierce will be looking for assistants who share his passion for defense and his proven ability to connect with young players.
The Hawks leaned heavily on such young players as rookie John Collins and second-year forward Taurean Prince this season. More youth is coming in the June 21 NBA draft. The Hawks have three first-round picks and hope to land the No. 1 overall pick in Tuesday’s draft lottery.
Pierce worked as an assistant with Cleveland, Golden State and Memphis before his five years with Philadelphia. His role in the 76ers’ rebuilding process was especially important to the Hawks, who face a similar challenge after posting the worst record in the Eastern Conference this season.
Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk said Pierce’s “experiences in Philadelphia, keeping that positive vibe, that winning environment with what they went through” helped make him the right fit for the Hawks.
Four Hawks players — DeAndre’ Bembry, Mike Muscala, Kent Bazemore and Isaiah Taylor — sat together during the news conference.
Bazemore said other players around the league have sent him messages “saying we got a good one.”
“I’m excited,” Bazemore said. “… Bringing in a defensive-minded guy is important because that’s where championships are won. If we start there, I believe everything else will fall into place.”
Lloyd Pierce talked up his credentials and passion for defense, believing it will help lead his new Hawks team to success.
Bembry said Pierce’s long record as an assistant, especially with the 76ers, who advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals, earns him immediate credibility.
“You instantly have to respect what he’s done,” Bembry said. “He damn sure earned his first head-coaching job.”
One of Pierce’s former Philadelphia players, Robert Covington, also attended the news conference. He said he already was in Atlanta while visiting a family member and wanted to show his support.
“He’s helped me so much in my career. It’s only right that I be here as well,” Covington said.
Asked if he has any doubt Pierce is ready to become a head coach, Covington said, “Absolutely not. I’ve seen Coach develop and grow. … He definitely is a great coach.”
Schlenk said he was won over in his first of three interviews with Pierce. He said he told assistant general manager Jeff Peterson midway through that interview at a Philadelphia airport hotel that Pierce was their guy.
“I just wrote on a little piece of paper and slid it over to Jeff and said, ‘I told you, we’d know,'” Schlenk said.
Pierce joked Monday that he wished he had been passed that note.
“I’m just trying to figure out how I missed them sliding papers around,” Pierce said. “They were taking notes, but I didn’t really see that exchange. I was focused on my presentation more than anything.”
A Hawks group that also included majority owner Tony Ressler met with Pierce in Boston on Tuesday, followed by a third interview in Atlanta on Friday — hours before the team announced an agreement.
Pierce, 42, fills the position left vacant when the Hawks and former coach Mike Budenholzer mutually agreed to part ways as Budenholzer interviewed for other jobs, most recently with the Milwaukee Bucks.
Schenk again said Monday that he and Budenholzer remain on good terms.
“I talked with him a couple days ago,” Schlenk said. “No hard feelings at all.”