Guiding Dreams In The D-League

By: Lorne Chan

Player and coach reunited in Las Vegas when Jonathon Simmons ran up to Ken McDonald and gave him a giant hug.

Simmons spent two seasons playing for McDonald with the Austin Spurs, and just before Summer League earlier this month, Simmons found out he was getting an NBA contract in San Antonio. Simmons told his coach about getting the call and telling his mother that he was an NBA player.

“Coach,” he said, “she cried all night.”

For McDonald, it was another reminder of why he loves being a D-League coach. McDonald’s there for the long practices and the constant drills as players develop into NBA material. And he’s there for the life-changing moments.

 “There isn’t a better feeling than telling a player that they made it,” McDonald said.

McDonald has had a slew of success stories to his name in Austin, and he will have more to come. On Monday, McDonald signed a contract extension to remain as the Austin Spurs’ coach for what will be his third season in 2015-16.

Under McDonald last season, the Austin Spurs had three players receive NBA call-ups. Bryce Cotton signed with the Utah Jazz, JaMychal Green had a stint in San Antonio before signing with Memphis and Jarell Eddie had a call-up with Atlanta.

There’s also the recent signing of Simmons and the improvement of Kyle Anderson, who split time between Austin and San Antonio and was named Summer League Tournament MVP last week.

The leap to the NBA extends to the coaching staff as well. Two of McDonald’s assistants last season, Earl Watson and Jason Fraser, are now on the Phoenix Suns staff.

“There are a lot of factors to juggle in a D-League season, and Ken handles the process well,” Austin Spurs General Manager Brian Pauga said. “He has to manage a lot of turnover in the roster, players coming in and out, and the psychology of players who are anxious to get to that next level. Ken is helping to lead their development and they trust him.”

McDonald began working with Simmons after seeing him at an open tryout for the Austin Spurs in September 2013. Simmons spent two seasons in the D-League, improving from 9.8 points and 1.4 assists in 2013-14 to 15.2 points and 3.7 assists in 2014-15. Simmons’ 3-point shooting percentage also jumped from 28.4 percent (25 of 88) to 39.8 perent (51 of 128) from one season to the next.

Simmons admitted he could get frustrated at times watching other players get called up, but McDonald was always there to encourage him and implore him to “stay the course.”

“Coach always believed in me,” Simmons said. “Even if we butted heads, I knew the whole time that he was always making me better. There’s a lot he has had to deal with when all of us are trying to make it to the NBA, but he controlled our egos and got us to come together.”

McDonald, 45, has spent more than 20 years developing basketball talent. His coaching career began in 1994 at Clemson University as an assistant to head coach Rick Barnes. McDonald also spent time as an assistant at Western Kentucky and Georgia before reuniting with Barnes at Texas from 2004 to 2008.

One of his players with the Longhorns was one of the newest Spurs, LaMarcus Aldridge.

“LaMarcus was such at diligent worker,” McDonald said. “He would always put in the effort to make any small tweak that could make him a better player. I’m really excited to be around him again.”

McDonald became a head coach for the first time at Western Kentucky in 2008. One of his first projects was Orlando Mendez-Valdez, a 6-foot-1 guard who grew up in a housing project on the West Side of San Antonio.

Mendez-Valdez considered transferring when McDonald was named head coach. When he told McDonald his intentions, he received a straightforward response of “we’re really going to miss your five points a game.”

“He triggered something in me,” Mendez-Valdez said. “I’ve always been the underdog and he knew what would get me fired up. We sat down and talked, and he was such a genuine guy.”

Mendez-Valdez went on to receive Honorable Mention All-American honors that season as Western Kentucky won the Sun Belt Conference and reached the second round of the NCAA tournament. Mendez-Valdez is currently playing professional basketball in Mexico.

“I owe so much to Coach,” Mendez-Valdez said. “He gave me confidence to produce at the highest level I could and really helped us understand the mental side of the game. Basketball can be a grind, and you need someone like him to get through it.”

McDonald’s moved to the Austin Spurs as an assistant in 2012, giving him the chance to focus solely on getting players to the NBA and work with the Spurs’ coaching staff. After a season, he was named Austin Spurs head coach in 2013-14.

In 2014-15, McDonald led Austin to a Southwest Division title with a 32-18 (.640) regular record and a conference finals appearance in the D-League playoffs. Earlier this month, McDonald was on the bench next to coach Becky Hammon as the Spurs won the 2015 Summer League Championship.

McDonald has seen the growth of the D-League up close, as more and more players receive NBA call-ups. In 2014-15, a record 47 D-League players received call-ups.

For McDonald, those are the moments etched in his memory. The faces on his players when they find out they’ve made it to the NBA.

“I see them put in the work and improve right in front of my eyes,” he said.  “And when they go to the NBA, I’ll joke with them and say, ‘I hope I never see you again.’”