We look at which current NCAA head coaches project as the best NBA coaching options
There will certainly be a slew of articles and chatter about the best pro prospects in the upcoming NCAA tournament (this DeAndre Ayton kid may have a future, methinks). But rather than repeat all that, I thought it may be fun to take a different angle and consider the possible coaching prospects instead. Teams like Phoenix, Milwaukee, and Orlando may all be scouting coaches in the tournament just as much as they are players, so let’s help them out here.
Now, for an exercise like this, we have to ignore coaches who will almost certainly stay in college. Coach K, John Calipari, Bill Self, etc. These guys are making $5+ million a year in college and have no good reason to leave their cushy jobs. But in my mind, here are legitimate candidates to move on.
NBA-affiliated names who just missed the cut
Larry Krystowiak, Utah: a failed coach with the Milwaukee Bucks, the towering 6’10” coach has revamped his stock by leading Utah to an average of 22.5 wins over the last five seasons. The Utes missed the tournament this year, so the momentum for him to land another job may not be there right now.
Chris Collins, Northwestern: A Dukie who’s done an admirable job at another academic-minded school, the 43-year-old Collins has no NBA experience himself. However, his dad Doug Collins certainly does and may be able to help him with a transition if he lands that type of opportunity. Coming off a backslide 15-17 year, that may be hard to justify right now.
Avery Johnson, Alabama: Depending on how you view it, Avery Johnson’s coaching career is either best known for leading Dallas to a 67-15 record, or for allowing that same team to lose in the first round. He’s done a solid job at Alabama and will have his best opportunity for a deep run with freshman PG Collin Sexton at the helm this year.
Dan Marjele, Grand Canyon: After serving as an assistant on the Suns’ staff prior to his move to college, Marjele may very well land an interview with Phoenix this offseason. He’s won 20 games three years in a row, although the level of competition is certainly debatable.
Our top 5 (realistic candidates)
(5) Kelvin Sampson, Houston
The 62-year-old Sampson has a decorated college career. He’s won 20+ games at five different schools, including Blake Griffin’s Oklahoma teams, and a 26-6 record with Houston this year.
What makes Sampson a potential fit in the NBA is that he has a few years of experience in the pro game. Shady antics at Indiana University led him to get a 5-year penalty, during which he worked as an assistant on the Bucks and Rockets’ staffs.
Presumably, Sampson views himself as a college coach who only went to the NBA because of that penalty. That said, I imagine he’s more “gettable” than most. Houston is a rising sports program, but it’s still not one of the “big boys.” Likely, Sampson will want to springboard back to a major college team, but there’s an outside chance he could land as a fit for an NBA team like Milwaukee (where he coached) or Detroit (since he coached Blake Griffin before.)
(4) Sean Miller, Arizona
At this time last year, I’d list Sean Miller on the “too unlikely to leave” category. However, if the FBI has their way, he may not have a choice.
Sean Miller’s college credentials (as a coach) are hard to rival. He’s an excellent recruiter and stellar program builder. He’s won 77% of his games at Arizona (and 76% overall in his career.) He’s also coached with Team USA in the FIBA under 19 tournament, giving him even more experience with young stars.
In terms of his NBA transition, there may be some question marks. Miller’s done really well with a talent edge at Arizona, so time will tell if he can win on a more even playing field. He doesn’t have any pure NBA experience, making him more of a projection as well.
(3) Kevin Ollie, UConn
Speaking of how quickly fortunes can turn, consider Kevin Ollie. As a second-year coach, he led a # 7 seed UConn to the national title. Five years later, he’s out of a job.
We still need to figure out the reasons for that dismissal, which may be parsed out in court. UConn claims the firing is “with cause,” indicating there may have been violations involved. Alternatively, they may be looking for a way out of his contract after he’s slumped to 16-17 and 14-18 over the last two years. One can argue that the title may have been a little flukey as well, as he inherited most of those players.
Kevin Ollie’s college prowess may be debatable, but he projects well to the NBA because of his wealth of experience there. He played for 10+ years in the league and earned raves as a teammate and mentor.
(2) Tony Bennett, Virginia
In terms of pure coaching ability, Tony Bennett may be the best college coach in the country. He’s routinely taken moderate talent and shaped them into great teams.
Over the last few seasons, his Virginia teams have ranked as the # 4 defense in 2014 (out of 350 teams), # 2 defense in 2015, #7 defense in 2016, and # 2 defense in 2017, and # 1 defense this year in 2018. And again, that’s without elite pro-caliber talent. In fact, his Cavs weren’t even ranked in the preseason top 25 this year; flash forward to today, and they’re 31-2 and a #1 seed.
With Bennett, the only question may be his ability to translate his success to the NBA. His pack-line defense may not work against elite shooting, and his offense can sometimes bog down. That said, he’s an extremely bright and humble coach who should be able to adjust his game in the same way Brad Stevens has with Boston.
(1) Jay Wright, Villanova
Like Tony Bennett, Jay Wright is mopping up the college basketball landscape right now. His Villanova team is a # 1 seed with a 30-4 record, the 4th straight year that he’s finished with 30 wins.
Although Wright doesn’t have NBA experience, his style of play appears well suited for the modern game. He’s been ahead of the curve in terms of having smaller lineups that can still hold their own on the glass in an era of threes and long rebounds.
The big question with Wright is whether or not he should be in the “pipe dream” category or not. He’s chasing his second national title this season and may be the betting favorite right now. He’s also dominating in a weakened Big East league. If he stays at Villanova, he should be set up for success for decades to come.
All that said, I’m listing Wright as a potential NBA coach because he may be more available than others. According to public record, he’s only making about $3 million in salary at Villanova, which an NBA could theoretically double. He also doesn’t draw in elite-elite recruits in the same way over top programs do. If a high-profile team like the local New York Knicks comes barreling in with a monster offer, it may be hard for him to say no. Barring that, he’s likely to stay right where he is.