Austin Spurs: Could the past predict the future coach with Nielsen gone?

San Antonio Spurs
Austin Spurs' Matt Nielsen

The Austin Spurs are looking for a new head coach… again.

Usually, when teams experience staff turnover at the top of the staff, it’s negative. Poor performance, lack of progress, locker room issues, etc, are common reasons. With the Austin Spurs, the last two changes have been positive.

At the NBA level, the Spurs have been the model of consistency. Look no further than Head Coach Gregg Popovich, who is preparing to enter his 26th season. Since 2005, the Austin Toros/Spurs have had seven head coaches and are now preparing for their eighth.

Matt Nielsen Promoted

On Wednesday, the San Antonio Spurs announced the addition of Matt Nielsen to the NBA bench as an assistant. The promotion prevents him from returning for a second season as the head coach of the Austin affiliate. Nielsen was promoted last fall as the G League team’s leader after coach Blake Ahearn was hired by the Memphis Grizzlies to sit at the end of their NBA bench.

In 15 regular season games in the G League Bubble this past February, Nielsen’s squad finished 10-5. Reaching the playoffs, they lost in their matchup to the Delaware Blue Coats. The team had started the season 6-1 behind stellar play young players Luka Samanic and Tre Jones before the pair was recalled to San Antonio.

The development of Samanic was the priority for the team last year entering the big-man’s second season since he was drafted 19th overall in 2019. A power forward in his playing days, Nielsen’s seemed like a targeted promotion, allowing him to feature Samanic more in the offense. The notion is similar to how Ahearn’s tenure developed guards Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV, and Keldon Johnson. In the “Gubble”, Samanic increased his points average by six points per game (21) and three rebounds (11). He showed a much more aggressive version of himself as he continued (and continues) to bulk up.

With Samanic expected to spend the full season with San Antonio this season, his familiarity with Nielsen on and off the court as a power forward and an international player could explain the coach’s promotion. The success of Australia’s national team in the Olympics where Nielsen served as the assistant head coach probably didn’t hurt either. The Boomers finished 5-1 overall, securing their first medal in basketball with a victory over Slovenia in the bronze medal game.

Who Will Coach the Austin Spurs Next?

As the Spurs now enter their head coaching search for Austin, a couple of names from our list of candidates last year may come up. Chase Buford was an outlier last season, but he’s now coaching in Australia. His familial ties could bring him back into the Spurs family. Texas did move on from Shaka Smart, though he’s less likely to leave his job as head coach of Marquette.

Along with Buford, William Donovan III is an interesting name to watch. He is now with the Chicago Bulls in the film room, and he has been a guest assistant coach with the Spurs for the Summer League in the past. If Ahearn helped develop guards from the head coaching position, and Nielsen helped Samanic in his one season, could the next head coach in Austin be a former 3-point specialist?


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