After staying home and betting on the Gophers, Amir Coffey thrives as sophomore

As a freshman, Coffey started 33 games last year and was named to the Big Ten All-Freshman team.

Sophomore guard Amir Coffey goes up for a basket during a game against Miami on Nov. 29 at Williams Arena. 

Image by Jack Rodgers, Daily File Photo

Sophomore guard Amir Coffey goes up for a basket during a game against Miami on Nov. 29 at Williams Arena. 

by Jack Warrick

Guard Amir Coffey made a decision to stay home when he committed to the Gophers.

For Coffey and his team, it could not have been much better.

Coffey joined a team that went through an eight-win season with multiple off-the-court incidents in the 2015-16 season. He earned Big Ten All-Freshman accolades in the 2016-17 season, as Minnesota had the biggest one-season turnaround in the country — from 8-23 to 24-10. The team earned the No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament before getting knocked out in the first round.

Coffey is now in his sophomore season, and the team has a different expectation than when he first arrived.

As the only underclassman starter, he is expected to be a crucial part and a developing leader on this year’s nationally ranked Gophers men’s basketball team.

“It’s normal. It’s like anything, right? The older you get, the more comfortable you are in your environment, and I think [Coffey’s] getting there,” head coach Richard Pitino said. “So I think his personality is really starting to show, which is good.”

The Gophers went 8-23 while Coffey was helping his Hopkins High School basketball team win the 2016 class 4A state championship. Off the court, Minnesota dealt with the suspension of three Gophers players following a sexually explicit video that surfaced on Twitter. Coffey committed nonetheless. He had offers from programs like Michigan State, Wisconsin and Arizona.

Coffey’s father, Richard Coffey, a Gophers basketball alumnus and former NBA player, said he had worries about the Minnesota program and his son playing for the team when its season was unravelling.

“I think any parent would be concerned when everything was happening off the court,” Richard Coffey said. “I had some concerns … you look closely to see what’s going on and what changes are being made and things like that because I think every parent wants to send their kid to the best possible situation that they can possibly end up in.”

After Coffey came into the fold last season, he started 33 games. He only missed one potential start due to injury. 

“The year that I committed, I obviously believed in the team, and that’s one of the reasons why I came here,” Coffey said. “I’m not too surprised about the success we are having now.”

Coffey and the Gophers started the 2017-18 season with seven wins in a row, achieving a No. 12 national ranking after pivotal wins at Providence and over No. 25 Alabama. Through the first 10 games, Coffey is averaging 13.4 points, 4.4 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game. The first loss of the season was to No. 10 Miami, a game that saw Coffey score a season-high 23 points in the 86-81 loss.

High school royalty

Coffey was the highest-ranked recruit to come to the Gophers since 2003, when Kris Humphries, also a former Hopkins player, came to the Gophers as the No. 17 ranked recruit in the nation. Both Humphries’ and Coffey’s head coach at Hopkins was Ken Novak Jr., who has instructed six Mr. Basketball awardees in his 36-year coaching career in Minnesota high schools.

Novak, who has known Coffey since he was in grade school, said Coffey ranks right up there with the best players Novak has coached — and he has coached the likes of Humphries and Royce White, both of whom were NBA draft picks. The way Coffey plays, Novak said, makes everybody on the court better. 

“[Coffey] has a great feel for the game,” Novak said. “He plays very simply, he makes great plays. He’s a 6-foot-7 kid that actually can pass the ball very very well.”

The simple yet fluent style Coffey employs is something his father wasn’t known for when he played for the Gophers in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Richard Coffey averaged about eight points per game and eight rebounds per game in his career with the Gophers. He was known as a physical, in-the-paint player. He finished his collegiate career averaging three personal fouls per game.

“I was physical, and I was nasty, and I was tough, which isn’t a bad thing when it comes to basketball,” Richard Coffey said. “But if I had his skill set, I probably would have played differently.”

Coffey’s two older sisters, Nia and Sydney, played basketball at Hopkins, too. Nia and Sydney won two state championships together, with Sydney Coffey winning one on her own. Both went Division I in basketball — Sydney Coffey to Marist and Nia Coffey to Northwestern. Nia Coffey was selected fifth overall in the 2017 WNBA Draft by the San Antonio Stars after four seasons on the All-Big Ten team, a first for Northwestern women’s basketball.

“They love telling me what to do,” Amir Coffey said of his sisters. “They’re on a pretty busy schedule themselves, but they try to watch my games as much as possible, and they always give me their input.”

“Tall and skinny”

When Coffey graduated from Hopkins, he weighed about 185 pounds. At 6 feet 8 inches, that’s not much weight to play with. Novak said he was always always tall and skinny growing up, but he needed to put on weight to become a higher-caliber player.

“He needed strength. I mean, when he was in high school, he was a light kid,” Novak said. “He’s going to get stronger as he gets older.”

After two offseasons working with Minnesota’s athletic trainers, Coffey is currently listed on the roster at 205 pounds — a 20-pound gain from his weight in high school.

“He could gain a little more weight, but I don’t want him to be 240 [pounds], not for his game and his style,” Richard said.

Novak watches the Gophers games regularly, and he still has coaching advice for his former player. He said Coffey’s shooting has to get better, though it has improved, and he needs to get more aggressive with the ball to create more.

Coffey and the Gophers will look to improve upon last year’s 24-10 season and make a lengthy run in the NCAA tournament. With the first few games out of the way, the team has an 8-2 record. 

“We are a hardworking team. We go at it every day in practice, and our guys love being in the gym, love practicing,” Coffey said. “I’m not surprised of our success early. But obviously, we have to keep working, keep getting better every day in practice and just keep going.”