It’s uncommon for a team in any professional sport to have to hunt for a new head coach after winning a championship in the past season. Then again, it’s not common for a head coach to be offered a prestigious head coaching position for a team in his home country’s top professional league either.
That’s exactly what happened this past summer when Coach Ariel Vanguardia made the decision to leave the Dragons with a heavy heart to coach the Phoenix Fuelmasters in the Philippines Basketball Association (PBA). And so, the defending champions of the ASEAN Basketball League were sent in search for a new head coach.
After 3 months under interim head coach Goh Cheng Huat, the Westports Malaysia Dragons finally got their general to lead them to their quest at defending the ABL title in Christopher Thomas.
Thomas coached his first game for the Dragons in the Merlion Cup when the Dragons took on Mighty Sports from the Philippines. It was far from a memorable start as the Dragons suffered a 105-78 loss. On the sidelines, Thomas was very open with his emotions. He would flash his patented wide smile when his team did something as planned and would throw his hands up in disbelief when a call didn’t match his judgement. Even after starting his Dragons’ coaching career with a loss, Thomas was still all smiles after the game in optimism.
“Right now, we’re a blank book,” Coach Thomas said in an interview after that game. “If we’re going to write a book, we are 200 blank pages. We are in no way even starting our story yet. We’re in the process of putting that story together. I really liked the way we competed. I liked the way we played with some effort and energy.”
Two months after starting to write into that blank book, Thomas and the Dragons are about to open into an exciting chapter as the ASEAN Basketball Season tips off in a few days time.
“This is a completely different team from last year. We are going to be relying heavily on the local Malaysian players this season since we are only going with 3 imports.” Coach Thomas says.
That statement alone will make the Dragons in this upcoming season entirely different. The Dragons relied heavily on minutes played by their imports who logged a league leading 67.4% of available minutes.
Coach Thomas wants to change that. While the Malaysian players already played a huge role in the Dragons’ run to the championship last season, Thomas certainly believes that they are capable of much more. It was a good sign for this new direction that the Dragons are taking when Kuek Tian Yuan exploded for 36 points in Thomas’ first game.
“I told him that he better get used to scoring 30 points a night.” Thomas said after the game.
Thomas isn’t only focused on utilizing his local players more, but also to continue the tradition of the Dragons culture of being a cohesive unit.
“I want to be an unselfish, disciplined, and defensive-minded team where playing the right way and respecting the game of basketball are valued. Every great team I have been a part of or scouted for has always had 3 traits built into the fabric of who they are: trust, ownership, and accountability,” Thomas says of the ideal team he wishes to build here. “I want to get to the point where we all trust each other to do our jobs on and off the floor with unmatched precision. I want to build a team where the players take ownership of what goes on. I like to take the approach of “leading from the middle”. I want to empower my players to take the lead and take control at certain points so they feel this season is truly theirs. And finally, I want to build a team where accountability is at the forefront of what we do.”
That is certainly a huge goal to aim for as a new head coach heading into his first season. However, Coach Thomas has brought high level experience along with him to ensure that even if they don’t emerge as his ideal team immediately, at the very least they will be headed in the right direction.
Coaching has taken Thomas all over the world. Whether it is scouting or being a part of the coaching staff, Thomas has been with NCAA Division 1 teams, NBA Teams (Chicago Bulls, Utah Jazz, Golden State Warriors), the Slovenian National Team, and NBL teams (Canada and China) team. He believes that each stop in his journey has given him great value into what he plans to build here with the Westports Malaysia Dragons.
“My coaching journey has been incredible and I’ve gained incredible experience at each stop. My time coaching in college at the Division 1 level showed me just how important recruiting is,” Coach Thomas talks about his past in basketball. “I have spent 5 years coaching in college and learned pretty quickly that recruiting is the lifeblood of any successful college team. This lesson of recruiting and being diligent in the pursuit of great players allowed me to bring in 3 extremely complete imports for our team.
“Marcus Melvin had more lucrative offers from other teams throughout the world, but he chose to play for me because I value him as a person and not just a basketball player.” Thomas says of his fiercely bearded World Import.
“Skylar Spencer is probably the youngest import in our league at only 22-years-old. He came to me because he knows I can help him grow and learn how to be a true professional athlete.” The head coach continues about his prized recruit who is primed to anchor the team’s interior defense.
“Freddie Goldstein came to play for me because I’ve helped in the development of high level NBA Point Guards throughout my career. I’ve been able to coach 2 NBA MVP’s in Stephen Curry and Derrick Rose, as well Goran Dragić who was a 3rd Team All-NBA Selection.” Says Thomas of his Thai-American ASEAN Heritage import.
“All of these guys knew I could help them advance in their careers, and because of my time recruiting in college, I knew how to highlight those things to them.”
Having worked with so many world class players, Thomas knows what it takes to be the best of the best and he believes he can help this team be the best of the best as well.
“Even more so than my college experiences, I rely even more heavily on my time in the NBA working for the Chicago Bulls, Golden State Warriors, and Utah Jazz,” Coach Thomas says. “My experiences that I gained in these three first class NBA organizations gives me a different perspective than most coaches. I know the value of preparation and the level of desire, discipline, and drive it takes to play at the highest level of basketball in the world.”
Above everything else, Thomas recognizes that basketball is more than just Xs and Os. While watching him on the sidelines, not only do you see him draw set plays during timeouts, but he takes the time to talk to almost every player he substitutes out of the game to discuss what they might need to do or adjust. Thomas knows how important it is to have motivational skills as a coach, having experiencing it in front of his very eyes from one of the best in the business.
“The Head Coach whom I learned the most from in my time in the NBA is easily Mark Jackson. Coach Jackson showed me just how important it is to truly believe and care about your team,” Thomas says of his mentor. “Coach Jackson was a master motivator who always knew the right thing to say to a locker room and how to get them to buy into the team vision. His ideas and visions for the Warriors turned around an entire franchise and made them what they are today! It was absolutely amazing to watch him put his mark on a team that went from a 23 win basketball team in his first season at the helm to a 51 win team in his last year there. He paved the way for a championship and he did it because he challenged those players in that locker room to think a different way.”
“So I take the lessons I learned from Coach Jackson and try to apply them every day to this group because I want them to know that belief in themselves and trusting in the mission is just as important as any play we run on offense, or defensive coverage we implement.”
“That’s what I’m trying to do here. To change the way our players think!”
When the Dragons take the floor on the 25th of November against the Singapore Slingers, they’ll be quite a different team. The change is not going to be limited to just the players on the court, but also the mindset of the main man calling the shots.
“My philosophy is very simple,” Thomas says of his style of play he envisions. “I want to play with pace and precision on both ends of the floor. I believe in playing fast and free on the offensive end and value ball movement, player movement, and spacing. I think basketball is the ultimate team game when played correctly and so I want to build an offensive culture where we give up good shots for great ones. I want to lead the league in assists this season!”
“Defensively, I believe in disrupting with discipline. We want to wreak havoc on opponent’s offenses, but do it within our defensive structure. We have spent a little over 70% of our training camp practices concentrating on the defensive end of the floor because championship level teams know how to get crucial stops.”
After a fairy tale ending to close out last season, the Westports Malaysia Dragons are looking to start a new story this time around. Make sure to keep up because Coach Thomas and his team are going to be filling up the pages in a hurry.