Former NBA players finding coaching footing in NBA D-League

Opportunity to pursue new career path appeals to NBA stars, journeymen alike

Scott Howard-Cooper

They met up again at a restaurant in Chicago during a mixer as part of the annual NBA Development League coach’s meetings in October, two former NBA veterans and acquaintances on the court in a previous life now connected in a strange and unexpected way.

“What’s up, head coach?” Darrick Martin said to Jerry Stackhouse.

“What’s up, D-Martin, head coach?” Jerry Stackhouse said to Darrick Martin.

And then they laughed.

“Yeah, man,” Martin told him. “We’re head coaches. Can you believe that?”

Not that they reached that level of the profession — both had bench experience, especially Martin as an assistant coach with the Timberwolves and at St. John’s University. That they got there at the same time, though, after lengthy playing careers, after not aiming for the D-League and with an unlikely timing twist as the biggest Can You Believe That?

“Guys that have been in the D-League are having a greater opportunity for people in the NBA to see them, get to know them and respect them. It’s the opportunity to gain respect.”

Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder, who coached in the D-League for three seasons

There are four former NBA players as rookie coaches in the minors this season: Stackhouse with the Raptors905 (the Raptors affiliate), Martin the Reno Bighorns (Sacramento Kings), Rex Walters the Grand Rapid Drive (Detroit Pistons) and Coby Karl the Los Angeles D-Fenders (Los Angeles Lakers).

The Showcase begins Wednesday as the largest annual regular-season event for the D-League, with all 22 teams playing 22 games over five days in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga. The stands will be dotted with NBA executives and scouts from around the world.

The Raptors905 are the host franchise.

Martin’s visit with the Bighorns will be his first time in town as coach after closing his playing career with three seasons as a Raptors guard.

All four have come to the D-League to advance their careers, the same as prospects on the court. That does not automatically mean plotting a next step to the NBA — Walters just spent eight seasons at the University of San Francisco and had two others at Florida Atlantic.

But each is aware that the proving ground players choose to get noticed can be as beneficial for coaches, especially as more NBA teams build a direct affiliation with a team in the minors and the coaches in the minors spend time around the parent club in training camp and summer league.

“Loyalty is such a huge part of the business,” said Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder, whose resumè includes three seasons with the Austin Toros. “As you get to know someone you’re much more comfortable seeing them, and they know the organization. They see them work. You don’t really know someone that well until you work with them. Guys that have been in the D-League are having a greater opportunity for people in the NBA to see them, get to know them and respect them. It’s the opportunity to gain respect.”

Never is that more obvious than the 2016-17 of four NBA coaches with D-League roots: the Kings’ Dave Joerger and Snyder as past coaches in the minors and Luke Walton (Lakers) and Earl Watson (Phoenix Suns) as former assistants. In the loudest statements of all to others who hope to follow a similar path, Watson is just barely removed from his time with the Austin Spurs in 2014-15 while Walton was with the D-Fenders in 2013-14.

This season Watson (Suns) and Walton (Lakers) are in their first season as a full-time coach, a feat the D-League markets.

“I think that it’s becoming more common,” Martin said. “I really believe it is and I think people see the D-League for what it’s worth. It’s not just about players. I think from a coaching standpoint you can really get down here and gain some invaluable experience and see what you need to get better at in the process of learning how to be a coach. To me, it’s a great opportunity. It’s a great opportunity as an assistant or head coach.”

“Honestly, I hadn’t really thought about it too much,” said Stackhouse, a two-time All-Star with the Pistons who was a Raptors assistant last season. “(Toronto assistant) Nick Nurse, who coached in the D-League for a long time, was the first one to tell me about it. ‘Stack, man, it’s a great opportunity. You get so many opportunities to make mistakes and try different things and see whether you like it or whether you don’t, see what works, see what doesn’t work.’ He was the first one.

“And then after last year, Jesse Murmuys, he called me out of the blue. Once he decided he was going (from the Raptors905) to the Lakers, he was like, ‘Stack, you should take this. I feel like’ – and these are his exact words ‘I’m 10 times a better coach than before I took the job.’ Once those guys were in my ear about it, I was like, ‘OK, maybe this is a good opportunity.’ ”

By the start of 2016-17, the NBA had hired 73 former D-League coaches or assistants. Some (Pelicans general manager Dell Demps) went from the bench to the front office. Others (Sioux Falls SkyForce coach Dan Craig to Miami Heat assistant) earned their own kind of promotion to the parent club. Still more (Nick Van Exel from Texas Legends coach to Memphis Grizzlies assistant) were hired by other franchises. But all had accomplished the same goal players hoped for in going to the D-League.

And, the list of former NBA players on a D-League bench has grown to 15 this season: Karl, Martin, Stackhouse and Walters as coaches and assistants Derrick Alston (Westchester), Joseph Blair (Rio Grande Valley), Anthony Carter (Sioux Falls), Corsley Edwards (Greensboro), Melvin Ely (Canton), Dion Glover (Grand Rapids), Anthony Goldwire (Erie), Ryan Gomes (Long Island), A.J. Guyton (Windy City), Zendon Hamilton (Texas) and Kasib Powell (Sioux Falls).

“I wanted to do this to learn as much as I could about this game,” said Walters, who played seven seasons with the Nets, 76ers and Heat. “I’ve been a head coach for 10 seasons – two at FAU, eight at USF – and I was obviously excited about the opportunity when Stan offered me the job. You’re coaching so many more possessions. I wanted to learn as much as I could from [Pistons coach] Stan [Van Gundy], even though I’m not under him directly. I just thought I was going to become so much better as a coach with all the situations. I wanted to try to get more into the process of being the best coach I can as opposed to thinking about the next job.”

Walters will be in Mississauga this week, along with the other NBA players now part of D-League staffs, coaches all as Showcase opens.

Coaches all, whether they can believe it or not.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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