6 Men's College Basketball Coaches Who Could Make the NBA Jump
There is a fun tradition among sports fans to joke about whether or not the best team in college football could beat the worst team in the NFL, or if the worst team in the NBA could defeat the best team in college basketball. So it's only natural to think that some of those college coaches could coach in the pros as well.
Brad Stevens left Butler for the Boston Celtics in 2013. One season later, they were back in the playoffs and haven't missed them since. Billy Donovan left Florida to take over on the bench in Oklahoma City and led the Thunder to the Western Conference Finals in his first season. He managed to get the team back to the playoffs for four straight seasons.
However, it's been a difficult jump for many coaches to go from college ball to the NBA. Fred Hoiberg only lasted three seasons with the Chicago Bulls, Leonard Hamilton had a disastrous one-year stint as the head coach of the Washington Wizards in 2000-01 and Rick Pitino has had two stints in the NBA, one with the Celtics from 1997 to 2001 and one with his hometown New York Knicks from 1987 to 1989.
But that doesn't mean pro teams won't stop looking to the NCAA for new talent. In fact, they should look to the NCAA. Here are five coaches from elite programs and one from a lesser-known mid-major who could be capable of making the jump and why.
Bill Self, Kansas
What the longtime Jayhawks head coach does well is adapt the game to his personnel. Sure, it helps that some of the best talent in basketball comes through the Phog, but the same can be said for other teams, and Roy Williams hasn't adjusted his system in North Carolina in ages. Self led Kansas to 12 straight Big 12 championships, and not all of those teams were loaded with stars and NBA talent.
Self typically runs a high-low motion offense, which is a simple but effective offense that can work with a variety of personnel, which is helpful when a coach is forced to deal with one-and-dones annually. But he wins because of defense and rebounding, the fundamentals of which can work at the next level.
However, there is more to being an NBA coach than just Xs and Os. What Self does well is connect with players, media and fans. He brings charm and charisma. He can work a room. There is an ego, but not a huge one. It's just enough of what's needed to win in high-level sports, and it isn't too much of one that he can't play nice with the media, which is essential for any professional head coach. The Kansas media contingent isn't huge, but three daily newspapers travel with the team, and the Jayhawks have the benefit of being in the national media spotlight as a perennial contender.
Self clearly knows what it takes to play in the NBA because he has helped produce so many NBA players. His name has been on the radar for a few years, and as long as he's still bringing back championships to Allen Fieldhouse, his name won't disappear from it.
Dana Altman, Oregon
The Oregon Ducks are not exactly known for being a basketball powerhouse. Historically, Oregon has always been considered a football school (though that status is currently up for debate). But Altman has transformed the program into one of the best in the Pac-12. The Ducks are likely headed toward their sixth straight NCAA tournament appearance, a school record.
Altman has a perfect demeanor for the Pacific Northwest. He's calm and collected, even in crunch time. Coaching at Oregon also means getting the approval of Nike founder Phil Knight, the school's most famous alumni and prominent donor. If Altman can handle Knight sitting courtside for nearly every Ducks game, he can probably handle the demands of a billionaire NBA governor.
Altman may not have the development track record of Self or the pedigree of Duke, but he has developed a few NBA players. Maybe if Terry Stotts ends up on the hot seat again, there could be a natural connection for Altman to go from Eugene to Portland to coach the Trail Blazers.
Mark Few, Gonzaga
Gonzaga has had only two men's basketball coaches since 1997: Dan Monson and Mark Few.
A decade after helping put Gonzaga in the national spotlight, Monson ended up at Long Beach State. He's enjoyed some career longevity in Southern California, but he hasn't exactly been able to turn the 49ers into the Zags, only getting Long Beach to the NCAA tournament once in 2012.
Meanwhile, Few inherited a program on the upswing and made sure the Bulldogs continued that upward trajectory. Under Few, Gonzaga has made 20 straight trips to the NCAA tournament. That kind of consistent success and talent development has earned him offers for bigger programs at USC and UCLA, so it would make sense that he would get some attention from NBA teams as well.
Few prioritizes his family and still regularly attends his kids' youth sports games. He wouldn't have to worry about attending numerous donor events or going on recruiting trips, so he might have more time to spend with his family during the offseason.
The problem is that Few does not seem to have any desire to be anywhere other than Spokane. He has a 30-acre property he likes to run before games, he brings his dog to practice and he enjoys the community feel of a small town program like Gonzaga. Could the NBA lure him west with an expansion team in Seattle?
Few may not want to leave, but that won't stop the speculation as the Zags continue to enjoy success.
Mike Krzyzewski, Duke
Any coach with a track record like Krzyzewski will get some NBA interest. He's one of the most successful coaches in the history of the game, and he's spoken about why he's turned down NBA jobs to remain at Duke in the past. But not every college coach can work with veteran NBA players and elite talent.
But we already know Coach K is capable of coaching some of basketball's best talent from his work with USA Basketball. Krzyzewski was the head coach of Team USA from 2005 to 2016, leading the men's team to three straight Olympic gold medals and back-to-back FIBA World Cup gold medals. He's the only coach to ever lead teams to Olympic, FIBA World Cup and NCAA championships.
Krzyzewski coached Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, the latter of whom has such high respect for the coach that he has hinted at wanting his son Bronny to play for him at Duke.
If he wanted to make the jump, there is already some evidence that he could, but, like with Few, it's a question of desire at this point. It's a much less demanding lifestyle in the NBA, where recruiting is unnecessary and there are no pressures on the head coach to bring in money from wealthy donors. But the money in the NBA comes from winning, so while the reward can be great, the risk is great as well.
Krzyzewski seems content with his situation in Durham.
Jay Wright, Villanova
There was speculation that Wright and his collection of immaculately tailored suits would leave the Philadelphia suburbs for a bigger job in the area with the 76ers last summer after Brett Brown received his walking papers. Ultimately, the Sixers went with Doc Rivers and Wright stayed at Villanova to try to help the Wildcats capture their third NCAA title since 2016.
What Wright also does well is develop players and get them ready for NBA action. Some of this can be attributed to his small-ball system that features four players shooting threes. The NBA is amid a three-point revolution, so it's a style of play that can translate.
While NBA teams may not be using four-guard lineups like the Wildcats, some teams, like the Houston Rockets, have had success with small lineups. Last February, the Rockets used a lineup of players under 6'6” in a win over the Dallas Mavericks. It was the smallest lineup in an NBA game since Jan. 31, 1963.
Wright likes to run a sort of free-wheeling offense that allows players to make plays. It's not unlike what Steve Kerr runs in the Bay Area with the Golden State Warriors, which makes sense considering the two worked together with USA Basketball under head coach Gregg Popovich.
If Wright decides to leave Villanova for the NBA, he'll have a couple of quality mentors in Kerr and Popovich.
Russ Turner, UC Irvine
When you think of college basketball, the UC Irvine Anteaters are probably not the first team that comes to mind. They play in Orange County, California, just a few miles east of Newport Beach. The weather is great and there is an In-N-Out Burger just across the street from campus. But it's a commuter school with a heavy emphasis on academics over athletics. They have a strange rallying cry, "Zot," which came from a comic strip.
A member of the Big West Conference, it is, in every sense of the phrase, a mid-major.
But Turner busted some brackets two years ago when the Anteaters upset Kansas State in the first round of the 2019 NCAA tournament. Under Turner's guidance, the 'Eaters have won five Big West titles and two conference tournaments.
Turner took a much different route to head coaching than most, letting his wife and her job as a physician guide the way. After spending six years as an assistant at Wake Forest—a few of them coaching Tim Duncan—his wife, Elizabeth, got into a medical residency program at UC San Francisco hospital. Turner went to California with no job, but eventually he found one working as an administrative assistant for coach Mike Montgomery at Stanford, and then followed Montgomery to the Golden State Warriors and spent six seasons in player development and as an assistant coach.
UC Irvine enticed Turner to come aboard by offering Elizabeth a job at the hospital in 2010, and the duo has yet to look back. As far as looking ahead, he has been in the mix for high-major jobs but remained in Irvine.
Turner has been known to be somewhat emotional on the sidelines and in postgame media sessions. In 2019, he taunted Oregon's Louis King by calling him "Queen" and later apologized. He's also been combative with reporters in postgame interviews.
A high-major job requires a certain degree of media savviness, but it's even more important in an NBA job.
Turner knows how to develop and knows how to coach, and he already has NBA experience. Don't be surprised if you hear his name as a dark-horse candidate someday.