Daigneault Brings Unique Experience to Oklahoma City Blue

Perhaps more than any other NBA team, Thunder has always tried to optimize the positive impact its Development League team has on the organization.

From hiring Darko Rajakovic as the D-League’s first head coach born outside of North America to moving the team to Oklahoma City in order to be in even closer proximity, the Thunder has turned its D-League team into an asset on all fronts. By making the most D-League assignments of any team since 2008 (63) and setting a league record for most assignments in a season in 2012-13, the Thunder has utilized it’s D-League operation as much if not more than any other NBA franchise.

With the transition to becoming the Oklahoma City Blue, the Thunder’s D-League team also hired a new head coach in Mark Daigneault to replace Rajakovic, who is now an assistant coach with the Thunder. Daigneault brings a unique set of experience to the job. He was previous an assistant coach under Billy Donavan at the University of Florida, where the team made four consecutive Elite Eight appearances during Daigneault’s time there. Prior to that, Daigneault was an assistant at Holy Cross and worked under Jim Calhoun for four years while attending the University of Connecticut.

On Wednesday, Daigneault sat down with thunder.nba.com for a Q&A about his new role with the Oklahoma City Blue.  

Q: You have a wealth of experiences working with Billy Donovan at Florida and Jim Calhoun at UConn. How did your path lead you here?

A: You’re only as good as your experiences and the people that you’re around. This is a perfect example of that. I probably wouldn’t have had the opportunity, first of all, but then to also have the confidence that I could take advantage of the opportunity.

I wouldn’t have had that had I not worked with the people that I’ve gotten to work with. Not only those guys (Donovan and Calhoun), but it’s the assistant coaches I have been exposed to, the players I’ve gotten the chance to get to know and work with. You’re only as good as those people and the experiences you get to see in front of you every day. I’m certainly a byproduct of that.

Q: What is your biggest takeaway from his experience at Florida?

A: It’s the culture that exists in that program, the culture that Coach Donovan has been able to create there and how culture can then impact the results of games that you won. He’s a very process-driven coach and he’s a culture-driven coach when it comes to running the program. When you have that foundation established, you can build on that with winning, great players and championships.

That was probably the biggest takeaway: the day-in and day-out culture, the kind of guys that we attracted, the kind of guys that were in our program every day, how hard they worked, their attitude, the standard that there was in practice in every day and the standard they felt they needed to play up to every night when they put the uniform on. It was a special thing. By the time I got there, it had already been rolling for a long time. To walk in and see that was pretty transformational for me.

Q: Are those qualities what made this Oklahoma City Blue opportunity attractive to you?

A: The opportunity here, the reason it is attractive is because, first of all it’s a head coaching opportunity and there are a lot of really, really good coaches out there who coach for a long time and never get the opportunity to have their own program or coach their own team. That’s one that I don’t take lightly.

The other thing is the NBA. NBA coaches are so specialized so their competency and their ability to communicate the game and the way they view the game was always something I admired. To come into that environment and be around some of those coaches and be around that game, I felt that would be an unbelievable growth opportunity.

Plus, it’s here. It’s the admiration I have for the organization. When I looked at the opportunity, I get to be a head coach, it’s in the NBA, the greatest league in the world and it’s in the organization that I’ve had the most exposure to and have the most respect for. As a result, it became a very clear decision, with much respect to Florida because that was an unbelievable experience for me.

Q: What is your philosophy on player development?

A: With philosophy, the first responsibility you have as a coach is to be aware of your context and be aware of your environment. The program that they’ve put together here wouldn’t be as effective if it wasn’t in Oklahoma City. There’s a great awareness of the environment that they have, and that’s partially why they do some of the things that they do here and why they have the vision that they have.

The second thing, in terms of development, is that I’ve always felt strongly that development is a very holistic thing. It’s not just about a player improving their skill level. It’s not just about a player improving their ability to impact the team or the ability to keep their body healthy or improve their body or improve their athleticism. It’s all those things put together, plus more. It’s a spiritual element. It’s a mental element- their ability to think like a professional every day. It’s an emotional element.

That would be just my philosophy on development – none of those things in isolation are development, it’s how they work in synergy. As a coach, if you neglect one of those areas, you’re going to be missing a part of that players’ development. Some players need parts of those more than others. I think that’s part of our job as a staff, to identify that.

Q: How might the proximity of the Oklahoma City Blue to the Oklahoma City Thunder impact your job?

A: One of the things I knew coming into the job is that our staff is going to have to be incredibly adaptive. Not only because the Blue is in Oklahoma City, but because that’s the nature of the D-League. It’s a constantly evolving league. Your roster could potentially change multiple times throughout the course of the season. You have to be ready to adapt to whatever comes at you, and that’s really coaching, not just in the D-League. It’s probably emphasized a little more because of the nature of the league right now.

Q: What have your experiences with the Thunder coaching staff been like so far?

A: Those guys so far have been so generous with their time and their energy, not only with me but with our whole staff. We’re all new to the environment here. They’ve gone out of their way to make this a worthwhile experience while we’ve kind of gotten our feet wet here. (Thunder Head) Coach (Scott) Brooks has gone out of his way with me individually to offer his help and support. He’s been tremendous from Day One.

The thing about the entire organization, I wouldn’t just isolate the coaching staff, the environment is extremely integrated. All of the different departments have a hand in the finished product on the floor. They are all hand-in-hand with each other. I wouldn’t isolate this just to the coaching staff. Everybody here, every department, every person has been unbelievably welcoming.

Q: Is there a vision for the style of play that the Oklahoma City Blue might play this season?

A: A collaboration with the Thunder is important. Obviously we’re the extension of the Thunder in a lot of ways. That goes back to philosophy and understanding the environment you’re in. I need to understand the environment in the Thunder practices. Am I doing right by our players? If they pulled up any one of our players, those guys shouldn’t walk into Thunder practice and be lost. They should be able to hit it right in stride. That’s my initial vision.

In terms of style of play, most coaches want a connected basketball team on the floor on both ends. If I could describe it in one word, it would be connected. I would want five guys playing offense together in a connected way and five guys playing defense together in a connected way. The nuts and bolts of that get determined by the Thunder’s style in collaboration with the personnel that we have. We don’t have Kevin Durant. We’re not going to have the exact same style as the Thunder. You kind of have to know your team first. Otherwise, if you’re setting your philosophy before you have your team set, then you’re going to be doing some square-peg, round-hole stuff.

Q: What are your impressions of Oklahoma City itself as a community so far?

A: The passion that the city has for the team hits you in the face the minute you get off the plane and even on the plane, the amount of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant shirts you see on your flight here. The Oklahoma standard has been upheld. I needed toothpaste my first week here. I went to a 7-11 over here. I asked if they had any toothpaste. I asked the cashier but there were three-or-four people in line. Everybody in the store was giving me directions to go get toothpaste. I was like wow, they actually take this stuff seriously.

It makes it easier when you’re going to a community that has the reputation that this one has. It also makes it easier when the team that you’re working for is held in the regard that this team is held in. That would be my impression of it.