CBB Coaches Who Could Make the NBA Jump
John Beilein's recent resignation after less than a full season as head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers underscores just how difficult it is for even the most well-respected college basketball coaches to make the jump to the NBA.
Beilein, whose 12 seasons at Michigan included two trips to the Division I men's national championship game and two Big Ten tournament titles, had rebuffed interest from NBA teams for years before taking the Cavs job last spring. He struggled to connect with the players and quickly lost the locker room, leading to a disappointing early departure.
The track record of college coaches finding success in the NBA is mixed.
Butler's Brad Stevens (Boston Celtics) and Florida's Billy Donovan (Oklahoma City Thunder) have acquitted themselves quite well since making the jump in recent years. Meanwhile, former Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg was fired in December 2018 after three-plus underwhelming seasons with the Chicago Bulls, returning to the college ranks in 2019 as the head coach at Nebraska.
Hiring a college coach is a risky strategy for NBA teams, but there's no reason to believe they will stop trying to lure big names away from the amateur ranks. We'll highlight a few options here.
Tony Bennett, Virginia
Bennett won a national championship last season with UVA, and at 50 years old, he is relatively young for a coach with as much experience as he has.
He's known as a defensive mastermind, though his Virginia teams have at times excelled offensively as well. He also places a heavy emphasis on player development, and many of his players have excelled in the NBA, be it as stars (Klay Thompson, who he coached at Washington State) or role players (Malcolm Brogdon, Aron Baynes, Joe Harris).
Bennett is renowned for his lack of ego, which has helped him connect with players and would serve him well in the NBA. He played in the NBA for three seasons in the early '90s, which would give him at least some credibility as a coach at that level.
Bill Self, Kansas
Self has vehemently denied recent speculation from ESPN college basketball analyst Seth Greenberg that he could replace Gregg Popovich whenever the legendary San Antonio Spurs coach decides to retire. He has a decades-long relationship with Spurs president R.C. Buford but insists there's no truth to that speculation.
Still, whether in San Antonio or elsewhere, this could be the right time for Self to test the NBA waters, as Kansas is under investigation by the NCAA for recruiting violations that may have taken place on his watch.
His basketball credentials are unassailable, with eight Big 12 tournament championships, three Final Four appearances and the 2008 national championship during his time at Kansas. He has plenty of experience coaching big-name recruits, which would prepare him well for the star-driven NBA, and he's renowned as both an offensive and defensive tactician.
For now, Self maintains he has no interest in leaving Kansas. But that doesn't mean teams will stop calling, and depending on how the NCAA's investigation turns out, this could be the perfect time for him to go.
Juwan Howard, Michigan
Howard was a high-profile hire for Michigan last spring, being one of the greatest players in school history and a member of the legendary Fab Five team. His first season with the Wolverines has been successful—they're ranked No. 19 in the country and will once again be playing in the NCAA tournament. It would be hard for Howard to walk away from that so quickly after taking the job.
But he has no shortage of NBA experience. After retiring from a 19-year playing career in 2013, he spent six seasons as an assistant coach with the Miami Heat under Erik Spoelstra, one of the most respected coaches in the league.
He's been linked to NBA head coaching jobs as recently as a year ago—he interviewed with the Los Angeles Lakers last spring and reportedly impressed them in the process, according to Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times, before they ultimately hired Frank Vogel. He has said in recent months the Michigan job was the only college job he would have seen as worth taking, per Marcus Fuller of the Star Tribune.
With his name recognition and extensive playing and coaching experience, Howard would have instant credibility as an NBA coach. He's probably going to see the Michigan job through for at least the next several years, but it would be a shock if he isn't tempted by the NBA again at some point.
Kelvin Sampson, Houston
Following his resignation from Indiana in 2008 because of NCAA violations, Sampson spent six years as an assistant coach in the NBA: three under Scott Skiles with the Milwaukee Bucks and three under Kevin McHale with the Houston Rockets.
He left the Rockets in 2014 to take over as head coach at the University of Houston, where he has overseen the school's most successful run in three decades.
Sampson can coach and was well-liked and respected as an assistant in the NBA. It's not difficult to imagine him getting a look for a head coaching opening in the league somewhere down the road.
Jay Wright, Villanova
Aside from the total pipe-dream options (Mike Krzyzewski, John Calipari and Tom Izzo), Wright is the biggest name in the college ranks to be linked to just about every NBA job that comes open.
His track record in nearly two decades at Villanova speaks for itself, with three Final Fours and two national championships (2016, 2018). He's consistently shot down speculation that he's looking to leave for the NBA, but that hasn't stopped his name from coming up whenever it's coaching carousel season.
The most high-profile NBA player Wright coached at Villanova was Toronto Raptors All-Star guard Kyle Lowry, but his program has consistently turned out quality rotation players: Dante Cunningham, Josh Hart, Donte DiVincenzo, Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges, to name a few. This speaks to his ability to develop young talent, as crucial a skill as any for an NBA head coach. He'd come with built-in credibility wherever he goes.
Wright likely wouldn't leave Villanova for just any NBA job, and if it came down to it, the school would almost certainly pay whatever was needed to keep him. But with Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown's job security in question in the midst of an up-and-down season, the opportunity to coach superstars Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid in his own backyard might prove too good for Wright to pass up.