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Thunder: Billy Donovan discusses the NBA shutdown, his coaching tree and more in NABC Championship Webinar Series

Billy Donovan might not be able to put his coaching philosophy to use on the court during the NBA hiatus, but this pause in the season has given him a chance to spread it.

The Thunder coach gave another coaching seminar on Friday, this time answering questions for over an hour as part of the NABC Championship Webinar Series

Here are some highlights from Donovan’s talk: 

March 11, the night the NBA shut down

As Donovan tells it, he wasn’t immediately suspicious when Thunder vice president of human and player performance  Donnie Strack gathered the game officials into a huddle before tipoff. 

“I thought it was a little bit strange,” Donovan said, “but then again I thought, OK, with everyone talking about this pandemic and the coronavirus and all that was going on, a lot of  it I thought was just him helping the officials: ‘Hey, if you need to keep the ball wiped down, if you need to wash your hands during a timeout, here things are available on the sidelines for you guys.’ I just thought he was talking to them because we had had some education on how to do hand-washing, sanitizing, that kind of stuff. Social distancing wasn’t in at that point in time.

“And then, right after that, while  he was talking to the officials, one of our assistant general managers ran out there, and they were huddled up, and then I knew something was going on.”

Eventually the officials called Donovan and Jazz coach Quin Snyder in to talk. According to Donovan, Snyder mentioned that Rudy Gobert had taken a COVID-19 test and they were waiting for the results.

“At that point,” Donovan said, “the officials said that we needed to postpone the game, both teams should go back to the locker room, just wait there and wait for further instruction. And then we  got word in our locker room that the game was canceled, we weren’t going to play, and what they did is they held everybody there.” 

Members of the Thunder had their temperatures taken before being sent home. 

Donovan’s coaching tree

Thunder coach Billy Donovan’s former assistant coaches include the likes of 2020 AP coach of the year Anthony Grant. The fact that many of the coaches who worked under Donovan at Florida have gone on to be head coaches elsewhere is no accident. 

“I probably thought more about that when I became a head coach,” Donovan said, “but as I look back, I think a lot of it had to do with coach (Rick) Pitino.”

Donovan began his coaching career as a graduate assistant under Pitino at Kentucky.  

“It was very interesting, when I went on the road and started recruiting college and I spoke to coaches around the country, of how little coaching assistant coaches in college did actually do," Donovan said. "The head coach did everything. And I’d say the one thing I really admired and respect about coach Pitino is there would be times where I’m 23 and 24 years old, and he’s saying, ‘You need to take this drill, and you’re working on this -- Hey, you’re teaching this today in practice.’ So, I was thrust into having to coach at a very  young age.” 

Donovan told the story of the time Pitino told a 25- or 26-year-old Donovan to appear on a radio show in his place because Pitino had to go on a recruiting trip.

“He knew that someday if I became a head coach," Donovan said, "I’m going to have to do a radio show, I’m going to have to coach and teach, I’m going to have to go through scouting reports. So, he thrust all the coaches -- not just me, but all the coaches -- into those kinds of situations.

“And I always felt a tremendous amount of responsibility because of the opportunity that was afforded to me -- one, to coach in college with him, but also the endorsement and support he game me to become a head coach -- that I felt like my job with my assistants was to help them become head coaches.” 

College or G League

Donovan has criticized the lack of continuity between the college game and the NBA before, citing differences in court dimensions and rules. He has contrasted the United States’ system with Europe’s standardized approach. But on Friday, he discussed  the issue from a different angle.

“I know there’s  been a lot of talk about some of the players that are going from high school now right to  the G League and what that might do to college basketball,” Donovan said. “... I think some players are looking at  it from a development standpoint that, ‘If I go into the G League, I’m playing  NBA rules, I can learn the NBA game, I’m going to grow  and mature quicker in that kind of environment.' And there’s some truth to that. But this idea that college coaches can’t develop players, I don’t  agree with that. Or, ‘The NBA is the only place you can develop players,’ I don’t agree with that. 

“What I do agree with, is the NBA game is different than the college game, and if a player makes a decision to (skip college), he’s basically learning the NBA game, he’s learning the spacing, he’s learning things he can and can’t do, and the way --  it’s four quarters, it’s 12 minutes, there’s a lot of possessions, it’s a 24-second shot clock, there’s no zoning rule, you can’t get a lot of help in certain situations -- it’s a different game. So, people can sit there and say, ‘OK, if you’re putting yourself in a position where you’re in the NBA game, you probably have a chance to develop at a really high level in that NBA game.’” 

What’s the solution for college basketball?

 “I do think the college game should adopt some of the things that the NBA does,” Donovan said.

Related Photos
Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan talks with Oklahoma City's Steven Adams (12) during an NBA basketball game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. San Antonio won 114-106. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman]

Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan talks with Oklahoma City's Steven Adams (12) during an NBA basketball game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. San Antonio won 114-106. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman]

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-0d061f42a3c544232ec7ff080e1eba3c.jpg" alt="Photo - Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan talks with Oklahoma City's Steven Adams (12) during an NBA basketball game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. San Antonio won 114-106. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman] " title="Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan talks with Oklahoma City's Steven Adams (12) during an NBA basketball game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. San Antonio won 114-106. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman] "><figcaption>Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan talks with Oklahoma City's Steven Adams (12) during an NBA basketball game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. San Antonio won 114-106. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman] </figcaption></figure>
Maddie Lee

Maddie Lee followed an NBA team from Seattle to Oklahoma City, she just took a 10-year detour in between. Lee joined the Oklahoman in October 2018 as a Thunder beat writer, fresh off a stint in Oxford, Miss., where she covered Ole Miss for the... Read more ›

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