NEW YORK — In the fall of 2009, Sam Presti, the general manager of the Oklahoma City Thunder, descended upon the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University to get a closer look at future NBA center Larry Sanders. Once there, though, it was a different big man, one who never suited up for VCU, who wound up catching his eye.
Dave Bliss spent four years manning the paint for the University of Georgia basketball team, finishing his career with averages of 5.8 points and 4.4 rebounds per game. He graduated in 2008 and, aware that his playing days were over, became a volunteer assistant for Georgia head coach Dennis Felton. The next year he followed Bulldogs assistant coach Mike Jones to VCU, where he served as a graduate assistant.
"I remembered Dave was a really cerebral player," then-VCU head coach Shaka Smart told Bleacher Report. "Also, you don't get a lot of coaching candidates that are that size."
Standing at 6'10" and a lean 255 pounds, Bliss was able to provide Smart a skill set most teams—at both the college and pro levels—don't have: a big man coach who could both teach and be active on the practice floor. That day, Presti (who declined comment through the Thunder) watched Bliss stand in the paint and smack VCU guards with padded paddles. He saw him work with frontcourt players on post moves and demonstrate proper weak-side-defense technique.
About five months later, after VCU's season had ended, Smart received a phone call from Presti. He wanted to know more about the giant assistant he had seen that day at VCU.
"That's the only time in my career an NBA guy has called me about a grad assistant," Smart said.
Soon after, Bliss was moving to Oklahoma City to take a job as a video coordinator for the Thunder. He's now part of the New York Knicks coaching staff, and in his two years with the team, under three different head coaches, he's morphed into an integral part of a player development program that's become perhaps the lone bright spot for the franchise. In New York, he's helped Kristaps Porzingis, Willy Hernangomez, Lance Thomas and others grow and steal minutes from veterans.
That's no accident or coincidence. Bliss is part of a new breed of NBA assistant coaches that have fueled the boom of young talent in the league. With teams spending increasingly less time on the practice floor and rest becoming a valued commodity, front offices have started searching for alternate ways to bring along their youngest players. One possible counter, teams have found, is to fill their coaching and video departments with young and spry former players like Bliss, assistants who boast both brains and brawn, who can help both off the court and on.
"Being big, guys like that can bang in practice with your bigs, especially with teams like ours whose main guys don't practice a lot," an assistant general manager of a veteran-laden team told Bleacher Report. "Those assistants, they can step in and help your young guys learn."
The roots of this trend, like so much else in the NBA, can be traced back to Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs. According to interviews with multiple front office members and assistant coaches across the league, the Spurs, who were at the forefront of the NBA's rest revolution, were the first team to stuff their video department with recent graduates who were comfortable getting on the floor. But as the team's tree has spread across the league, so too has this approach.
Mike Budenholzer, a former Spurs assistant coach, brought it with him to the Atlanta Hawks. Kenny Atkinson, a former Hawks assistant, brought it with him to the Brooklyn Nets, a team ran by a Spurs former assistant GM, Sean Marks. Presti spent seven years in the Spurs front office, where he witnessed the power of agile assistant coaches firsthand. Over the years, myriad other non-Spurs-connected teams have joined the fray, too.
Nowadays, coaches in the mold of Bliss, who was made unavailable for comment by the Knicks, are viewed as a valued commodity.
"When I played I was able to morph and guard different positions," Dave McClure, the Indiana Pacers' assistant coach for player development, told Bleacher Report. "Usually we're trying to develop a players' offensive skill, so me being about 6'6" and able to guard a little bit on the floor, it makes it somewhat lifelike."
McClure, 30, spent two years with the Spurs before being hired away by the Pacers this summer. He said he was technically part of the video department, but that his job was to assist with anything and everything: scouting reports, stats, video work, but also on-court workouts.
Like Bliss, along with the Cavaliers' Dan Geriot, the Nets' Bret Brielmaier, the Hawks' Charles Lee and myriad other sub-40-year-old NBA assistants, McClure was far from a collegiate star (2.2 points per game in four seasons at Duke). But because his body hasn't endured years of beatings, he's more of an on-court presence than some of his more famous peers.
"Last year, when I really wasn't playing, I was just playing a lot of three-on-three, four-on-four with Charles Lee and some of our assistants," said Hawks guard Tim Hardaway Jr., who's averaging career highs in nearly every statistical category this season. "That's how we get better. You get the run in, but also they play you certain ways that force you to improve your weaknesses and learn how to read difference coverages."
Bliss, who was brought to New York by Derek Fisher and re-hired this summer by Jeff Hornacek, spends nearly three hours before every Knicks game on the court doing just this. Alongside Knicks assistant coach Josh Longstaff and assistant video coordinator Steve Senior, he'll patrol the paint and bark out defensive calls as Ron Baker and Marshall Plumlee work on pick-and-rolls. Mindaugas Kuzminskas will often spot up on the wing, turning the game into three-on-three, with Longstaff telling the three players that they're only permitted to shoot three-pointers and layups.
After that, his gray T-shirt spotted with sweat, Bliss takes Willy Hernangomez through a plethora of post moves, deploying his body as a teaching tool and pushing the Knicks rookie in various directions. Then it's Kristaps Porzingis' turn.
"Going against a guy like Dave every day has been huge for me and my improvement," Porzingis told Bleacher Report. "He's big and physical with me—and that's been the toughest thing for me to deal with since coming into the league, so we work on that every day—but he's also always talking to me, giving me advice."
Sometimes the battles between the two turn violent. Porzingis has been poked in the eye, hit in the ribs, shoved in the chest. Once, Porzingis said, he nailed Bliss in the face with an elbow.
"Sometimes I get mad at him and we fight," Porzingis said. "But it's all good. He's just trying to make me better. He's exactly the kind of coach you want around."
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.