How 31-year-old assistant coach Sean Sweeney went from being a "coach on the floor" in his playing days to being the architect of the Milwaukee Bucks' blitzing defense.
When NBA fans were given a chance to see an inside look at Milwaukee Bucks training camp on NBA TV a few weeks ago, many were probably excited about getting to see head coach Jason Kidd work closely with Jabari Parker. Or maybe they wanted to see Kidd break down a pick and roll.
Instead, though, they were greeted with assistant coach Sean Sweeney taking the Bucks through the finer points of the team’s defensive scheme that shut down NBA offenses all of last season.
Sweeney’s coaching abilities quickly became evident in Milwaukee as he transformed the Bucks’ abysmal defensive unit in 2013-14 to one of the league’s toughest through a series of aggressive rotations and manic switching not commonly seen in the NBA.
While Bucks fans might have been surprised to see the 31-year-old assistant take charge at training camp, anyone who has ever worked with Sweeney would knowingly nod their head.
“He was a true, true point guard. The team’s leader,” says Steve Fritz, University of St. Thomas athletic director and Sweeney’s college coach. “It was like having a coach on the floor.”
Sweeney was the starting point guard all three of his years at St. Thomas and won All-Conference recognition in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference in his junior and senior seasons.
“I’m sure Sean knew from a long ways back that this is what he wanted to do with his life,” says Fritz. “I think he always had an idea that he wanted to be involved in coaching. That was the type of player he was on the floor.”
After graduating from St. Thomas in 2006, Sweeney caught the eye of University of Evansville head coach Marty Simmons and made an impression on another Milwaukee coaching legend when working at a summer camp.
“Coach (Rick) Majerus left a 30-minute message on my phone giving a recommendation for Sean,” says Simmons.
Sweeney then moved on to become the Director of Basketball Operations at the University of Evansville – not an on-court coaching job, but a position that gave him an opportunity to start doing some film work for the team.
“He’s so passionate about basketball and he has a great knowledge of the game,” says Simmons. “His appetite to learn was as good as anyone I’ve ever been around. A lot of times when I got into the office in the morning, he already had things clipped up from practice and ready for me to watch.”
Sweeney made an impact with his daily interaction with the coaching staff and the way in which he carried himself in their conversations.
“He’s everything that you want in an assistant coach and he is definitely not a ‘yes’ man,” says Simmons. “And on the flip side, if you decide on doing something different, he’s loyal and supports the decision that has been made.”
After two years at Evansville, Sweeney pursued a job that involved on-court instruction, landing at Academy of Art University, where he coached for one year before moving on to the University of Northern Iowa, where he became the Video Coordinator for the 2010-11 season.
Under head coach Ben Jacobson, Sweeney was tasked with putting together video of Northern Iowa’s opponents, games, and practices, using video clips of NBA players to help players with individual skill work.
“Sean was and is highly motivated, (and) extremely determined,” says Jacobson. “He’s going to speak his mind. He very quickly gained the respect of coaches and players because he was so direct and honest in his evaluations of players, our program, and the direct feedback he gave me when I asked how he thought I was doing as a coach.”
Jacobson’s teams have always been known for their tough defense. Watch Northern Iowa’s defense this season, and you might see a few things that look like what is done defensively in Milwaukee.
“His understanding, his feel for developing a defense and his ideas on things that may be effective defensively were a big part of what we did while he was here,” says Jacobson. “It was a big part of us putting our defense together.”
Jacobson says he knew Sweeney wouldn’t be on his staff at Northern Iowa for long.
“We talked a lot during the time he was here about what he wanted to do, where he wanted to be, and what he saw for his goals and his future in coaching,” says Jacobson. “He wanted to get to right where he’s at right now (in Milwaukee) and he knew the way for him to get there was going to be in a video type position at the NBA level.”
Sweeney became the Brooklyn Nets’ Assistant Video Coordinator in December 2011, where he eventually caught the eye of new head coach Jason Kidd and was promoted to assistant coach in January, 2014.
When Kidd brought Sweeney along to Milwaukee, he said, “We brought him out of the film room. Film is kind of interesting because you can only go two ways, coaching or management. He wants to coach. He’s going to be great.”
It’s clear that Sweeney has the respect and confidence of the team’s All-Star head coach, which helps explain why Kidd has given Sweeney, one of the youngest assistant coaches in the NBA, such a vital role in the Bucks organization, including serving as head coach of the Bucks’ Summer League roster each of the past two years.
“I’ve given Sweeney the reins on the defense and we talk every day,” said Kidd, in an interview with NBA TV. “He didn’t just help us become one of the best defenses in the league overnight. He puts in the time.”
While similar defensive reclamation projects have floundered early in the second year of a new scheme, fans should take solace in Sweeney’s control of the defense, and the creativity and passion he brings to the Bucks coaching staff.