By Jonas Clark
With the hiring of Billy Donovan by the Chicago Bulls, that’s one less head coaching role in the NBA that still needs to be filled. The Rockets, Thunder, Pacers, 76ers and Pelicans all have vacancies, as do the Spurs. Well, Austin, not San Antonio.
For all the rumors of whether San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich going to Brooklyn had any shot, and all of the interview requests for Becky Hammon and Will Hardy, lost in the shuffle was the hiring away of Austin Spurs head coach, Blake Ahearn, by the Memphis Grizzlies back in June. Well, it wasn’t entirely lost in the shuffle – You can check out my story on the announcement here.
As I wrote at the time, while we all wish him the best in pursuing his goals, his absence takes a major gear out of the machine that has been the Austin to San Antonio development process the last three seasons.
We won’t know how the players would’ve turned out had they gone directly to San Antonio, but after seeing how the nine “Austin Alums” competed with some true contenders in the NBA Bubble, it would be hard to believe that the Austin step in the process didn’t have an impact, and Ahearn is a big part of that, which could be accentuated by Memphis’ hiring of him to help develop their young roster.
As we wait for the resumption of G-League operations to prepare for the 2020-2021 season (whenever that is), the empty seat on the bench will have to be filled sooner or later. At this moment, the organization hasn’t responded to my request for what they’re looking for in the right candidate to fill the role, so I’ve taken it upon myself to put together a list of individuals that I think could be likely hires.
While there are lots of coaches with experience yet available to fill the role, I don’t consider names like Mike D’Antoni, Mark Jackson or even Becky Hammon to be in consideration, given that they are too likely to be hired for a head coaching role at the main level of the NBA. With that out of the way, let’s get to it.
Note: Given that Coach Ahearn only had two years of head coaching experience at the high school level before his tenure as head coach in Austin, I’ve placed connection to the Spurs’ system/coaching tree above actual coaching experience in consideration for the role. Ahearn previously had a cup of coffee in both Austin and San Antonio during the 2008-2009 season.
William Donovan III
Yes, his name is Billy Donovan, but William is Billy’s son, and if you didn’t know, he already has a deep Spurs connection. In 2017, William joined the Austin Spurs as Director of Operations and Assistant Coach following two seasons as head coach of his high school alma mater, Saint Francis Catholic Academy in Florida, telling the Gainseville Sun at the time, “[It’s] really tough to leave a team and school behind that has done so much for me, but exciting to get a chance to join a first-class organization.” William held that role through the 2018-2019 season, then served as a guest coach to Becky Hammon during the 2019 summer in Las Vegas, so he’s familiar with some of the players that could be back with Austin this season, and of course, Luka Samanic. Donovan III is currently an assistant video coordinator with the Phoenix Suns, and could be looking for another shot on a bench.
Following in his father’s steps to become a basketball coach, William could do much worse than joining one of the most successful organizations in NBA history in his first professional head coaching role.
I can already see the eye rolls at the mention of Smart, understanding that regionally he’s come short of expectations at the University of Texas. Hired in 2015 following an impressive run at Virginia Commonwealth University, Smart replaced the iconic Rick Barnes. I’m going to loosen up on the Spurs connection in place of Shaka’s player development here. While talent hasn’t translated to wins in his tenure with Texas, he has prepared top prospects well for the next step, with two players drafted with lottery picks each of the last two years (Mohamed Bamba and Jaxson Hayes), as well as extending the school’s three-year streak of having players drafted in the first round (Bamba, Hayes and Jarrett Allen). The focus of the G-League is development, with winning as almost a bonus byproduct.
Chris Del Conte, the athletic director at Texas, recommitted to Shaka this last spring after the college basketball season was cancelled, telling the Austin American-Statesman,”Shaka’s our coach – Nothing’s changed. We won five of the last six down the stretch, finished third in the conference. We have a good team coming back. Nothing’s changed on my end.”
But has anything changed on Shaka’s end? It’s no secret that he’s been on the hot seat for the last couple of seasons. If the Spurs were interested in him, would Shaka be interested in taking his talents to Cedar Park? Texas has turned out some successful big-men under his watch, and that’s just the position of need for the Spurs.
If succession is the model, Petar Bozic is the solution. A native of Serbia, Bozic joined the Austin Spurs in 2017 as a part of Ahearn’s staff. Bozic brought a wealth of experience with him, both from a player standpoint and as a coach, having risen to the rank of head coach briefly with his former club, Partizan Belgrade of the EuroLeague. In a 2019 interview with Eurohoops, Bozic said he hopes to be a head coach again, using his time with the Spurs organization to assist in that goal.
“As a player and assistant coach, I learned a lot about basketball. But as a head coach with Partizan, I learned that being a head coach is what I want to be. It’s what I want to do with my life. And then I came to the Spurs, an amazing organization where I think I am in the best place and environment for the improvement that I need and want. I’m not thinking about when I’m going to be a head coach again; I’m just working on developing and improving.”
He knows the organization and has spent time as an assistant coaching Luka Samanic, the next Spur in the funnel on his way to San Antonio. If he’s tapped for the role, that continuity could serve the organization well, especially for Luka’s development.
Outlier – Chase Buford
Another recognizable last name like Donovan, Chase Buford would be an interesting hire, if for no other reason than to bring him into the family business. The odds of that happening would be pretty slim. Chase enjoyed a very successful season with the Wisconsin Herd of the Bucks organization this season. He coached up the G-League’s MVP, Frank Mason III, who was waived after two seasons with the Sacramento Kings.
In his first season coaching the team, Buford had the Herd sitting with the top record in the G-League at 33-10, flipping the script on a 12-38 record for the team in 2018-2019. The Bucks appear to be establishing themselves as the Spurs of the North with former Popovich assistant, Mike Budenholzer, coaching a team that makes defense a focal point, as highlighted by their three NBA All-Defense team selections. It would appear that like San Antonio with Austin, the Bucks look to lean on the Herd for developing players for their system, starting with the G-League. Should Buford be interested in leaving Wisconsin, I imagine the Spurs would be on the short list to pick him up.
Coaching in the G-League may not be the sexiest thing for a coach looking for an opportunity, but it would appear to be a rather low risk – high reward opportunity to climb the ranks. Just look at this year’s NBA Coach of the Year, Toronto’s Nick Nurse. Prior to joining Dwane Casey’s staff in Toronto in 2015, Nurse coached TWO G-League (then D-League) teams to a title – Iowa Energy (now Wolves) in 2010-2011, and Rio Grande Valley in 2013. While we approach four months since Ahearn made the NBA leap himself almost, the wait continues to see how the organization replaces him to keep the operation running smooth. And oh yeah – Now Austin needs a new General Manager too. The clock’s ticking.
Atlanta is hiring San Antonio’s Landry Fields as an assistant GM, sources tell ESPN. Fields was GM of the Spurs’ G-League affiliate in Austin. Fields, 32, played five years in the NBA.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) September 23, 2020
The G-League is growing, so maybe I’m thinking too small with my shortlist. Who do you think should replace Coach Ahearn? Do you agree with any of my selections, or have someone else in mind? Can the Austin Spurs possibly pull someone with NBA head coaching experience? Let me know in the comments below, or on Twitter @JarkClonas and through @ProjectSpurs.