In early February, Amir Coffey checked into the game for the Los Angeles Clippers against the Timberwolves on the same Target Center court where he won a high school state title for Hopkins four years ago.
It was Coffey’s first time playing in an NBA game back in his hometown. He saw familiar faces and heard cheers from those who have supported him from his high school days all the way to his time starring at the University of Minnesota.
“It was really cool coming back,” Coffey said in a phone interview. “I’m sure there were some Gophers fans there. Just playing in front of those people again and having the opportunity to play in front of family and friends, it was a pretty special moment.”
There’s no telling when the NBA season will continue this year, but Coffey’s journey is off to an exciting start with the Clippers, a team sitting second in the Western Conference standings, at 44-20.
Coffey, a 6-8 guard who led the Gophers to the NCAA tournament as a junior last year, went from undrafted to signing a two-way contract with the Clippers, which allows them to shuttle him back and forth from the G League.
“I know what my role is with the big team and what they’re looking for with me,” Coffey said. “I had been getting a lot of reps in a lot of practices. Playing when my name is called is what I’m here to do. Just trying to stay ready and whenever they need me just go out there and produce.”
Living at a house he rented in Los Angeles, Coffey’s waiting to hear what happens with the season postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
He was excited about the possibility of an expanded role in the organization. The Clippers had been talking about having him called up for the remainder of the regular season and being on the playoff roster.
Coffey is averaging nearly 16 points with Agua Caliente, the Clippers’ G League affiliate, which is based in nearby Ontario, Calif. In his last six games, he had highs of 30, 26, 28 and 26 points, while shooting 14-for-26 from three-point range.
As more of a defensive stopper and facilitator, Coffey also played in 13 NBA games, most notably when he scored a season-high 10 points Feb. 9 against the Cleveland Cavaliers in 25 minutes.
“I just bring energy and hustle, especially on the defensive side,” Coffey said. “If you look at our team, we have multiple scorers. We have Paul George. We have Kawhi Leonard. We have Lou [Williams] and Montrezl [Harrell]. So, when I go in, I try to facilitate, play hard and just lock in on the defensive end.”
Coffey’s father, Richard, said Clippers executive Jerry West told him that Amir was one of the most underrated players he had ever seen out of college.
“For going undrafted, which we knew was a strong possibility, he ended up in the right place,” Richard Coffey said. “He’s more focused on defense. He’s more focused on how he trains. He’s getting stronger.”
The transition from college to the pro ranks started roughly, though. Coffey was sidelined for months after he severely sprained his right ankle during a preseason game in October. He didn’t make his G League debut until Dec. 18, but he played in his first NBA game on New Year’s Eve in Sacramento.
“Just coming back and getting my stride and playing again was fun,” Coffey said. “The first time out there was pretty cool. It was exciting just to finally get out there. Offensively, I would say my three-point shooting percentages have gone up. I feel a lot stronger than when I first came in.”
Coffey’s work ethic and willingness to soak up knowledge made him bond well with Clippers players, especially George and Patrick Beverley. George gave Coffey a bunch of his signature sneakers. Beverley has mentored the rookie from Minnesota. He has taught Coffey defensive positioning when they have shot around together.
“I’ve done a lot of work and learning from the older guys,” Coffey said. “Just putting all that to use in the time I got was pretty [rewarding].”
The Clippers are invested in his future. He is developing into a player who could be in the NBA for years to come.