During the 2017-18 season, the Clippers were wrecked by injuries and often had to turn to the G League. Tyrone Wallace, Jamil Wilson, Sindarius Thornwell, and Jamil Wilson all spent time in Agua Caliente before (and after) making productive turns in the NBA.
That was the inaugural season for Agua Caliente, and the Clippers have continued to harness talent in their G League affiliate ever since. Jerome Robinson developed with Agua Caliente before he was part of the Marcus Morris Sr. trade. Terance Mann spent a lot of time there in his rookie season and has blossomed as a sophomore. Now, Amir Coffey is the latest Agua Caliente product to show out at the NBA level.
Coffey has been on a two-way contract the last two seasons. He only played 159 minutes with the big club in 2019-20, and almost a third of those came in the final seeding game (nearly 50!) when most of the Clippers rotation players were resting for the playoffs. But he got 16 games in the G League and showed flashes of the perimeter defense and shooting that have endeared him to the front office. Coffey has already played 128 minutes with the L.A. Clippers in 2020-21, none more consequential than the 32 he logged against the Heat in the team’s win Monday. Coffey had 15 points, and the Clippers were plus-8 during his minutes in a game they won by seven.
“He’s the X-factor tonight, Amir Coffey played great for us,” Reggie Jackson said postgame. “He’s trying to prove why he deserves to be here, that he’s a player in this league and the best part is he just stayed ready. He stayed ready despite his adversity, what he’s been battling. He just has been great and being with him ever since last year coming to his team, watching him work continually, the right mindframe that he keeps, and just proud.”
What made Coffey’s performance so remarkable was that the Clippers had originally sent him to the G League bubble. He played the first two games in Orlando for Agua Caliente, including one on Friday night, before the team called him back cross country to Los Angeles for Sunday’s contest against Cleveland. The Clippers didn’t end up needing Coffey that night, but when Patrick Beverley and Nicolas Batum hit the injury report Monday, Coffey was ready to go.
He’d gotten his reps down in Orlando, taking 14 threes in his last game in an effort that groomed him to be the sharpshooter he was against Miami, when he drained 5-of-6 from distance.
“Just looked like him playing with confidence, you know him playing with big-time confidence,” Mann said about his teammate. “He just came back from the G League. I was joking with him, he shot 14 threes last game in the G League, I was like, ‘oh so I see what you were preparing for, you were preparing for this game.’ So you know he’s just out there playing as hard as he can, you know, to player development shout out to them, giving us confidence, you know, telling us shoot the ball, shoot ball, shoot the ball. He came out and that’s what he did.”
As ecstatic as the Clippers were about Coffey’s performance, his biggest fans (other than broadcaster Brian Sieman, known coffee pun enthusiast) might have been down in Orlando, where he made plenty of friends in his short stint. Agua Caliente head coach Paul Hewitt said that Coffey threw off his schedule with how well he played.
“It cost me some sleep, I stayed up watching that game,” Hewitt said Tuesday. “I had a chance to work him out twice along with Natalie Nakase, my other assistant coach, and I was so impressed with his ability to shoot the basketball. He took 14 threes in one of the games here and I wasn’t upset. I was like, listen man, you’re a good shooter, put them up. When I heard he was going to get more playing time, I sent him a text just wishing him luck and just, you know, just do what you’re capable of doing.
“I think the player development staff back in Los Angeles has been really working with him. I think the experience down here, getting some shots up and feeling like, hey I’m allowed to take these shots, I think that may have played some benefit to him, paid some dividends for him. But just more than anything, again, I hate to sound like Mr. Rogers here but you can’t have a nicer kid than Amir Coffey and just so happy for his success.”
Jordan Ford, who was part of the Clippers training camp roster and spent some time with Coffey in December before reuniting in the bubble, didn’t stay up to watch his teammate — though he recited Coffey’s stats verbatim in his presser conference. But Ford did note that it was validating to see Coffey make the jump so seamlessly after just having played in the G League. It’s a pathway Ford and others aspire to.
“Definitely seeing him come down, play with us, and then have success in the NBA, it certainly gives us hope for sure,” Ford said Tuesday.
The Clippers were open in their desire to make player development a core part of their team-building philosophy this offseason, and they’re starting to see the fruits already. Mann and Coffey are just the beginning.