OKLAHOMA CITY — Much of the credit for Mark Daigneault's quick ascent to NBA head coach goes to the man he is replacing.
The Oklahoma City Thunder promoted Daigneault to head coach on Wednesday, handing the team to the 35-year-old former coach of its G League team. He replaces Billy Donovan, who now is coaching the Chicago Bulls.
“The thing Billy did for me here with the Thunder is opened the door to the Thunder to our Blue staff and gave us unprecedented access to the Thunder team, and certainly, those experiences put me in this position to be able to take this position on," Daigneault said.
Daigneault coached the Thunder’s G League team for five years. He had a .572 winning percentage, won three division titles and made four playoff appearances. He spent last season as a Thunder assistant.
“He had, I felt, like the rare traits of someone that had high potential,” Thunder general manager Sam Presti said. “He’s a curious learner, a diligent worker, a creative thinker and has the utmost integrity and selflessness, which is critical to being in a leadership position as an NBA head coach.”
Presti sees Daigneault’s youth as a strength.
“The amount of head coaching experience and diverse experiences through his tenure with the Blue is rare for someone his age,” Presti said. “He has also shown the ability to empower both the players and staff he works with, and we are confident that he will help us continue to modernize our approach as an organization in a constantly evolving industry.”
Daigneault has big shoes to fill. Donovan took the Thunder to the playoffs all five years he spent in Oklahoma City. He was a finalist for NBA Coach of the Year this past season after his squad outperformed expectations and pushed the Houston Rockets to seven games in the first round of the playoffs.
Daigneault was connected to Donovan through all of it.
“He exposed me to a great deal of great assistant coaches and staff members, many of which I’ve worked with here,” Daigneault said. “So that’s the thing that is just so humbling and so inspiring. I just have so many people like him in my life that have this that type of impact on me.”
Daigneault enters an unclear situation. All-Star point guard Chris Paul could be traded before the upcoming season, and the team has stockpiled draft picks. Uncertainty about the team’s future was part of the reason Donovan left.
“This is the modern NBA,” Daigneault said. “I don’t think anybody in the NBA knows what their roster will look like at a given time. There are times where the noise is a little louder, but I really can’t get concerned about that.”
Daigneault has some promising young building blocks to work with.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander emerged in his second season. He led the team with 19.0 points per game and added 5.9 rebounds and 3.3 assists per contest.
Guard Lu Dort emerged as a starter his rookie year. He made his mark while guarding Houston’s James Harden in the playoffs and his offence improved late in the season. Darius Bazley had great moments as a rookie, especially in the bubble. He averaged 5.6 points per game.
With those young players and a slew of draft picks coming, Daigneault's player development skills should come in handy.
“I think Mark does a great job balancing accountability, but also meeting people where they are, to use his words, and understanding their motivation,” Presti said. “That comes down to the ability to learn quickly and apply quickly and take some chances. I think that is one of the things he did well with the Blue.”
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Cliff Brunt, The Associated Press