White, black and gray banners hang around the courts at a training facility in Los Angeles on a Sunday in late August 2017. Amir Coffey stares at spectators gathering behind the basket and on the sidelines.
Coffey knows these aren’t college coaches. They’re reps from all 30 NBA teams: scouts, general managers and coaches. They’re current and former NBA stars; some he grew up watching and idolizing.
Coffey takes a deep breath. He realizes what he’s here for — to show that he has the tools to play in the NBA.
Fast forward two years, and we see Coffey beginning to fully showcase the high-end talent that put him in that L.A. gym. After missing 15 games because of a shoulder injury last season, he’s healthy and leading Minnesota as one of the top scorers and playmakers in the Big Ten.
The 6-8 junior guard is the most important player for the Gophers (16-5, 6-4 Big Ten) as they go into their most important stretch of the season, starting Sunday against No. 17 Purdue (15-6, 8-2) in West Lafayette, Ind.
Coffey is averaging a career-high 18.9 points (third in the Big Ten), 3.7 rebounds and 3.1 assists in conference play.
The last 10 Big Ten games offer a plethora of opportunities for Minnesota to boost its NCAA tournament résumé. At the same time, Coffey can boost his pro stock, too.
“If he wants to be an NBA player, now it comes down to his skill level, where he can dribble, pass, shoot and make decisions,” coach Richard Pitino said. “I believe he’ll play in the NBA at some point. I love his mentality right now. He’s competing. He has that look of a guy who wants to take the next step as a basketball player.”
In stretches this season, Coffey carried the Gophers offense (32 points vs. Nebraska and 29 points vs Rutgers), similar to Purdue’s Carsen Edwards and Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ. Both of those players declared for the draft last spring but returned to school and have played even better.
Whether or not his son is projected to get drafted this year, Richard Coffey wants Amir to test the process after the season, because that was the plan before his season-ending shoulder surgery his sophomore year.
“I really wanted Amir to go through that process last year, so he could gain that experience and that knowledge,” Richard Coffey said. “I think that helps kids when they come back to play another year. Amir didn’t get a chance to do that because he was hurt. This year we definitely plan on doing that for nothing else but the experience.”
Coffey doesn’t see his role being a high-volume shooter, but he’s more aggressive now in trying to score at the beginning of games. As the point guard, he can call his number early.
“I just try to get going earlier in the first half,” Coffey said. “We run a couple plays where I come off of ball screens and I can create for myself or teammates. After I see one [shot] go down, it’s helpful and I just keep attacking.”
There’s been a big difference in how the Gophers use Coffey now that he has more ballhandling responsibilities.
His usage percentage (plays used by a player on the floor) has jumped considerably, from 17.5 in league games as a freshman (sixth on the team) to 28.6 as a junior (highest on the team). That’s more than former Gophers point guard Nate Mason’s 27.8 usage percentage when he was named to the All-Big Ten first team during the U’s NCAA tournament season in 2017.
The next step for Coffey is to improve his outside shooting. He is shooting 33 percent for his career from three-point range, but he’s at 29.9 this season.
“Anybody with his size, length and versatility is going to attract some attention from our level to evaluate to see if he fits,” an NBA Western Conference scout said. “He’s a 6-8 wing player, which is a pretty good size. If he’s not making threes, you have to be able to make open jump shots. You got to be able to draw out a defender.”
Coffey can be a sparkplug for the Gophers. His emotion comes out when he dunks or makes a clutch layup or jumper.
Off the court, Coffey is soft-spoken. He spends a lot of his time with his pit bull, Prince, and his girlfriend, who he watches play basketball at Concordia (St. Paul).
The former Hopkins star is also very close to his family. His mom and sisters (sister Nia plays in the WNBA and overseas) talk to him often, and his father gives him advice.
“He’s always keeping me in high spirits when I play good or bad,” Amir Coffey said. “Just telling me what I can work on after a game or how I can improve. He watches everything. It’s never negative.”
Coffey’s father remembers talking to his dejected son last month when he totaled only 31 points on 9-for-35 shooting in three games, which included road losses at Illinois and Michigan. After encouragement, Coffey responded with 41 points and 11 assists combined in wins over Iowa and Illinois.
“Amir’s one of those kids who honestly doesn’t care who scores the points,” Richard Coffey said. “But he realizes now from an offensive perspective, he’s more valuable to the team scoring — and they need him to score to win.”
On Sunday and the rest of the season, NBA eyes will be on Coffey more than they were two summers ago at the Nike Skills Academy in Los Angeles. He was wide-eyed then on that stage, but not anymore.
“I’m not worried about if they’re talking about me or not,” Coffey said. “That shouldn’t be something I’m worried about. If they do, they do. If they don’t, I’m going to just keep playing.”