Picture this: a former student manager of a grumpy (but legendary) college basketball coach rises through the ranks to ultimately become the head coach of an up-and-coming NBA team.
Sounds like a Disney movie, right? Well folks, break out the popcorn because Mark Daigneault was named head coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder earlier today. Daigneault, 35, becomes the second-youngest coach in the NBA behind Minnesota’s Ryan Saunders.
And where did this young prodigy get his start? That would be Jim Calhoun’s UConn men’s basketball team from 2004-2007 as the...student manager.
During that time, the Huskies picked up three Big East titles and one tidy little National Championship. This means as a fresh-faced student manager, Daigneault was working with future NBA pros such as **inhales** Ben Gordon, Emeka Okafor, Charlie Villanueva, Rudy Gay, and Hilton Armstrong.
Calhoun’s influence on Daigneault was strong and it was he and associate head coach George Blaney that urged Daigneault to apply to a coaching staff job at Holy Cross, where his coaching journey would soon begin. Here’s what Mark had to say about the Hall of Fame coach in an article from 2019:
“The big thing I took from Coach Calhoun was how he could make it very clear to his players what his expectation is. He doesn’t get lost in details. He’s about an identity, a way of playing. His teams had a specific style of basketball and they were going to play like that.”
Daigneault’s rapid rise through the NBA started in 2014, when Thunder GM Sam Presti pried him away from the University of Florida. Presti’s organization places a strong emphasis on scouting, video, and analytics, all of which have been known in coaching circles as Daigneault’s calling card. In the last five years, he coached OKC’s G-League team, the Blue, to a .572 winning percentage and three division titles. Last year, he was elevated to an assistant role on the Thunder’s coaching staff under then-head coach Billy Donovan.
Daigneault takes over one of the more promising NBA rosters in the league and has seen first-hand how the team has changed in recent seasons, especially since the blockbuster trade that sent Russell Westbrook to the Houston Rockets in the summer of 2019.
This past season, the Thunder snuck into the playoffs thanks to a scrappy team led by Chris Paul. They’ve got a cornerstone piece in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander plus 15, yes 15, first-round draft picks in the next six years. In other words, it’s a new, young coaches dream: a blank slate with the ability (and GM blessing) to shape the team any way you want.
Here’s hoping the Thunder now sign Rudy Gay and make it one big, happy reunion.