Tramel: The G League chaos bred Mark Daigneault to be an NBA head coach
Mark Daigneault is one of those coaches who stands most of the game. But Daigneault took pause every time he coached down at the Comerica Center in Frisco, Texas.
As a promotional stunt, a car would hang by chains over the court during the Texas Legends games. Daigneault was pretty sure the vehicle was secure. But he was taking no chances.
“G League coach crushed by a Kia Altima,” Daigneault imagined the headlines. That’s no way to make news.
Daigneault made news in other ways a few days ago, being hired as the Thunder’s head coach and the latest coach to emerge from the NBA’s developmental league and be handed one of basketball’s most coveted jobs.
The league of Best Westerns in Sioux Falls and Grand Rapids and Erie, the league of transient rosters, the league of travel nightmares, the league of often tiny or no crowds, the league of anonymity, has become a breeding ground for NBA coaches.
“I just think the G League is a massive incubator for learning,” said Thunder general manager Sam Presti. “From rules that are experimented with there to different tactics that get experimented, defenses you see you may never have seen before, and the players are changing constantly.
“Mark has to adapt or the coach has to adapt to integrating that into an already kind of fully-formed team setting, and that's not easy to do.”
Daigneault coached the OKC Blue from 2014-19, before being elevated to Billy Donovan’s staff a year ago. He left behind the Best Westerns and the cold nights in empty gyms and the travel nightmares. Daigneault has ridden a Blue bus back to Oklahoma City from the Mexican border city Edinburg, Texas. He’s coached tons of games where the only media asking post-game questions was the team PR rep. He’s coached with seven players on his roster.
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Doesn’t sound anything like the NBA. Except maybe the G League is excellent preparation for a coach in the modern NBA.
“You’re just put into so many situations that are like puzzles, almost,” Daigneault said. “And it’s just so unique with the changing rosters and the travel and the schedule. It’s just an imperfect existence.
“So you kind of learn a way of thinking that’s very adaptive and pliable and like a no-excuse mentality, for the players and the coaches.”
An imperfect existence. Sounds like the new NBA, where nothing lasts forever, or even beyond one season. Case in point, Dennis Schröder, seemingly headed for the Lakers for Danny Green and a first-round draft pick. A kick in the shins to a new coach who would like to win. But a G League coach knows to roll with such punches.
Daigneault doesn’t want to assume he knows what the transition will be like. One year as a low-level NBA assistant does not give a guy a great perspective on head coaching in the NBA.
“I’m interested in learning that,” Daigneault said. “I don’t want to assume I know everything about how it’ll translate. My guess would be, the NBA schedule is fast. The turnaround times are quick. Being able to change with the circumstances of the season and change with the circumstances of who you’re playing, but also be able to build your own team incrementally over that time, that’s a balance.”
NBA coaches who spend all their time being pulled in a million directions end up chasing rabbits. Daigneault’s goal is to concentrate on building a foundation that’s sustainable and strong enough to withstand the constant changes.
Relationships seems to be the key. That’s the thing Presti raved about upon hiring Daigneault, his ability to maintain great rapport with anyone in the organization. Players. Staff members. Support personnel.
“That's a very, very transferable skillset, and it's not something that you necessarily can learn,” Presti said. “I think it's a natural gift that he's possessed since I've seen him work on the floor with players at Florida when he was 26 or 27 years old.”
Daigneault is just 35 now. He was 29 when hired to coach the Blue, working for Donovan at the University of Florida, but not even as a full-time assistant. Daigneault’s curious nature and natural affability caught Presti’s eye.
Daigneault at the time knew hardly anything about the enterprise known then as the D League.
“I was unfamiliar with everything,” Daigneault said.
Daigneault also was in what he considered a solid situation at Florida. On track to become a Donovan assistant. A serious girlfriend in Ashley Kerr, a former Gator gymnast who then was on the staff of UF’s excellent gymnastics program. If Daigneault fled to Oklahoma City, she wouldn’t be tagging along.
Daigneault is a little sheepish in admitting that he considered turning down Presti’s offer.
“It seems obvious in retrospect, and it was the best decision I ever made in my life, career wise,” Daigneault said. “But I had a lot of reason to be confident staying there.”
A visit to OKC and Thunder headquarters sealed the deal. Daigneault realized the opportunity was too good, and he jumped wholeheartedly into Thunder culture, in a year with Scotty Brooks, then with his former mentor Donovan.
Kerr eventually followed, too; they are married, and she’s on the staff at OU gymnastics.
Daigneault set about learning professional basketball, but he had a head start. The relationship building that came natural to him was a godsend in the G League.
Daigneault’s method is simple. Don’t treat anyone based on their status.
“I tend to be a purist and an idealist,” Daigneault said. “I don’t claim to be perfect in that. But if you treat a player or a staff member based on their status, it can really undermine your ability to build substantive relationships with everyone, including that person.
“When we had an NBA assignment player from the Thunder, if I treated that player differently or I coached that player differently, from a relational standpoint and a respect standpoint, I just think you lose so much credibility personally, with everyone. Including that player, because that player knows that hey, Mark might really be investing in me, but the only reason he’s doing that is because I’m an NBA player.”
Kameron Woods offers examples. Woods played two seasons with the Blue, coming out of Butler University. He then wanted to get into coaching and spent two years as Daigneault’s assistant.
At Butler, Woods played for Brad Stevens, who now is the Boston Celtics coach.
“Coach Stevens is one of the greatest people I’ve ever met,” Woods said. “I put Mark on that same level. He’s genuine, he’s honest.”
Woods is blunt about the cutthroat nature of professional basketball. In the G League, Woods said, “everybody’s trying to go somewhere else … players are always looking for reasons not to trust somebody. That’s just how the game is. Always looking for reasons why this guy or girl isn’t who they say they are.”
But Daigneault, Woods said, “doesn’t give you a reason to believe that. The things he was able to do for me personally, are things I couldn’t have imagined. Everything he told me he was going to do or wanted to do, he’s done that.”
Daigneault becomes the sixth NBA head coach who also served as a G League head coach. Utah’s Quin Snyder, Sacramento’s Luke Walton, Memphis’ Taylor Jenkins, Indiana’s Nate Bjorkgren and Toronto’s Nick Nurse. The latter spent six years as a G League head coach before leading the Raptors to the 2019 NBA championship and becoming the patron saint of G League coaches.
Chaos does hit the G League. Crazy travel, and crazy promotions from the handful of teams that try to market, and crazy roster changes.
But mostly it’s basketball, with guys trying to get somewhere else, and when a coach who wasn’t even trying to get there spends five years on the job, investing in people who might never be able to help his career, he stands out.
And Daigneault has been rewarded with a job in which he can stand up all game long, with no threat of a Kia landing on his head.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at oklahoman.com/berrytramel.