We’re all working toward retirement; the days where we don’t have to worry about setting an alarm clock, taking orders from anyone or having any kind of financial concerns.
UCLA assistant coach David Grace earned his retirement by defending our country for 20 years in the Air Force. He didn’t have to work another day in his life if he didn’t want to, but Grace wasn’t ready to stop making a difference in other people’s lives. Only, after dedicating two decades to the military, he could afford to do so in a different way: through the game of basketball.
Grace got his first coaching job coaching a group of five-year-olds, including one of his children, at the local YMCA. Later while still in the US Air Force, he started coaching high school as an assistant and also coached AAU club basketball. He had great success there, leading the Arizona Magic program that he founded to a top eight finish at the Reebok Big Time Classic that included 337 of the top AAU teams from across the country. After retiring from the US Air Force, he became a high school teacher and head coach and won a 5A state championship at South Mountain High School in Arizona during just his second year at the school.
When Grace was in high school, there weren’t any Division I schools knocking on his door to come play for them due to his movement from state to state from his step father being in the military. But, thanks to the success he had coaching in the high school and AAU ranks, his college recruitment came a little bit later in life.
Grace got his first college gig at Sacramento State. He also spent some time at the University of San Francisco before landing at Oregon State, where he really started to make a name for himself at the Division I level. From 2009-2013 the Beavers won 78 games and consistently signed top-tier talent including the likes of Roberto Nelson, Joe Burton, Jared Cunningham (24th pick in the NBA Draft) and Eric Moreland.
He became one of the best recruiters in the Pac-12, so when Steve Alford landed the UCLA head coaching job this offseason, going after Grace to be one of his top assistants was an easy choice to make.
The Bruins have eclipsed the 20-win plateau and are ranked 23rd nationally. They have a strong recruiting class coming in with McDonald’s All Americans Kevon Looney and Thomas Welsh headlining it along with Australian swingman Joan Bolden and GG Goloman. Grace has the ability and resources to go after any player he wants now, domestic or international as this upcoming recruiting class reflects, but even as the caliber of player he coaches improves, the relationships remain the same.
“What I want to do is, I want them to know that they have me for life,” Grace said to Basketball Insiders. “I want a young man to trust me and let them know how much I care about them, and more than just on the court. And once a young man has that trust, he will go through a brick wall to try to reach his goal. Those are the most important things for me, is to make sure that young man knows that I’m not just using him to win basketball games; he’s got me for life. And all the kids up at Oregon State still text and call me. There’s kids that I recruited that didn’t come to Oregon State, or haven’t come to UCLA, and they still keep in contact because they know they have for me life.
“They’ve all touched my life and played a big part in my life. My high school teams, my AAU teams, and now my college teams, I can’t just point out one kid, they’ve all in their way touched me. From the bench players on my high school and AAU teams to the players who are now in the NBA, I love them all.”
There have been a handful of mentors in Grace’s coaching career who have played instrumental roles in his development. Among the most notable was Hall of Famer Lute Olson and he has also enjoyed how Marquette head coach Buzz Williams did not play the Division I level but has had great success with his hard work and passion for the game.
The biggest influence of all, though, was his father. To this day, they remain best friends and his dad is able to provide advice from the unique perspective of someone who has over 30 years of basketball officiating under his belt.
And although they’ve only been working together for a couple of month, Alford is quickly working his way up on the list of most influential people in grace’s life.
“Coach Alford’s style of coaching is a free-flowing offense, a fun style, kids like playing in it, we get up and down the court, we score the basketball, and we defend, we change defenses, stuff like that,” Grace said. “If I become the head coach, that’s what we’re going to have, we’re going to have fun out there on the court, it’s going to be exciting, we’re going to play tough defense, switching defenses and we’re going to play a free-flowing offense that we have done here at UCLA. I mean we can score points, and score them quickly, and kids like playing in the system.
“To be around [Coach Alford] has just been a joy. I learn every day from him. He has perfected the processes of winning. Everywhere he’s been, he’s won, as a player and as a coach. The culture is there. He’s building great relationships with the AAU programs all over Los Angeles. I’m helping him with that and so is the rest of the staff. It’s just a beautiful culture; he wants the best for the guys. Like if one of our players walks into our office, we stop everything and we cater to that young man. Our players love playing for him. We’re just about the same age; we have a lot of the same values. That’s what’s been so great, such a joy to be around. The culture he’s building would be the culture that I would build when I become a head coach.”
Grace’s chance to become a head coach could come as soon as this offseason.
There’s so much that goes into making the transition from being an assistant to a head coach beyond the X’s and O’s on the court and recruiting premier talent, which are Grace’s primary concerns now as an assistant at UCLA.
Head coaches are the faces of their programs and the increased responsibilities include fundraising, media obligations and budget management. For a potential first-year head coach, though, Grace has the experience and background to give any athletic director great confidence in his ability to take those tasks on with relative ease.
“I’ve got 20 years of [supervising] experience in the US Air Force,” Grace said. “I think I probably have supervised more than most head coaches in Division I. I’ve been working every day supervising minds of other people, and that experience alone will give me an advantage in being a head coach. I was responsible for over $2.2 million of jet fuel, I was a fuel accountant. I supervised troops during a war in adverse conditions. So being responsible for that much as a young person, and being really successful, and then all the supervising skills and leadership skills I learned at the Air Force sets me apart .
“So running a basketball program at the Division I level, I think I have an advantage over most because I’ve successfully coached at the AAU, high school, Division I college low major, mid major and now at the high elite level. Add in my tremendous experiences of supervising, leading troops and managing multi-million dollar resources during my time in Air Force and finally being a former high school teacher where academics are a high priority makes me more than ready.”
Grace is now 11 years removed from his time as a Sergeant in the Air Force, but the values and disciplines he learned will remain an everyday part of who he is as a coach and person.
“It has a lot to do with it,” Grace said. “You know, being in the Air Force, you learn so many things. I had great values from my parents before I joined. The integrity, the hard work and the service before self, like they say in the Air Force. My last four years in the Air Force I was a Human Relations Specialist. I was able to attend the Defense Equal Opportunity and Management Institute School. One of the best human relations schools in the world. Learning how to deal with people, and the differences of people all the human relations techniques I have learned sure has helped me in my coaching profession and working with administrators. The Air Force is the best in the world at what they do. Their processes have been perfected. The culture, the sense of family, leadership and followership and all of that has helped me along the way.”
We’ve already seen a couple of head coaches get fired in college basketball this season and there will undoubtedly be more openings that surface as the year comes to a close. With credentials that no one can match, Grace should be at the top of the list for every school in need of a head coach. He has all the makings of a future star in the coaching ranks; the only thing that’s uncertain is which program will reap the benefits from giving him the opportunity.
NBA Daily: Junior Robinson: “Size Doesn’t Matter”
Junior Robinson talked to Basketball Insiders about the Pro Basketball Combine, his athletic family tree and that killer on-court fearlessness.
At just 5-foot-5, Junior Robinson is easily one of the shortest players to go through the draft process in some time. But after four successful seasons at Mount Saint Mary’s, Robinson refuses to let his height define him as he reaches for the next level in his ever-evolving basketball journey.
In May, Robinson was invited to the Pro Basketball Combine, an opportunity for the collegiate star to prove himself on a big stage ahead of the NBA Draft. But even with a solid showing in both the testing and scrimmage stages of the audition, Robinson is expected to go undrafted this month. Still, there remain plenty of avenues — starting with summer leagues and two-way contracts — for Robinson to head down.
For now, however, he’s happy for the chance to compete and prove himself one more time.
“It was fun, I’ve had a great time so far, I’m here to have fun as well as try to make a name for myself — as the rest of these guys are,” Robinson told Basketball Insiders. “I think I played well, I didn’t make a lot of shots, as many as I wanted to, but, at the end of the day, I think I did well.”
Robinson, who led the Mountaineers to 18 wins in 2017-18, has undergone the type of transformation front offices specifically scout for. After averaging 8.2 points and 3.3 assists as a freshman, Robinson grew into his game, role and responsibilities. He would finish his collegiate career pulling down 22 points and 4.8 assists per game instead, a scoring tally that was good for 16th-best in all of Division-I. For somebody that often faced defenders more than a foot taller than him, shooting 44.6 percent from the field — and a workable 38.8 from three-point land — this year is a testament to Robinson’s willingness to adapt and survive.
“I had to find different ways to do different things, I’m not jumping over guys like 6-foot-9 — so I had to find a way to score around, over, or, you know what I’m sayin’,” Robinson said. “I had to do a lot of things to just improve my game inside, outside, ball handling, everything had to improve in order for me to be where I am today.”
Today, although accomplished, the odds are still stacked against Robinson. To date, only Earl Boykins and Muggsy Bogues have reached the NBA at 5-foot-5 or smaller. Bogues averaged 7.7 points and 7.6 assists over 14 NBA seasons, while Boykins himself enjoyed 13 — but those are two of the greatest exceptions, not the rule. Currently, the league’s shortest players are Kay Felder, who only played two games in 2017-18, and Isaiah Thomas, both standing at 5-foot-9. Of course, Thomas, a more recent success story, was the No. 60 overall pick in 2011 and has parlayed that opportunity into two All-Star appearances and a top-five MVP finish last season.
But when he was asked what exactly he’s looking to prove these days, Robinson’s answer was compelling.
“That size doesn’t matter. I mean, as long as you have heart and you’re willing to compete and give it your all every day — what’s height got to do with it?” Robinson told Basketball Insiders. “All my life, I’ve been told I’m too small, I’m too short or that I’m not gonna be able to play with bigger guys. At some point, that phrase and all those have to go away, you just have to be a basketball player.
“And that’s what I try to prove — that I’m just a basketball player like the rest of these guys.”
Over his four seasons in Maryland, Robinson collected a handful of impressive individual outings — but perhaps none more so than the show he put on against Loyola back in early December. During a slim five-point victory, Robinson logged 39 points, four rebounds, four assists and three steals on 4-for-7 from long-range. No matter your size, that’s an achievement worth acknowledging — and Robinson made a habit of putting in big performances like that all season. When Robinson scored above his season average (22), the Mountaineers were 11-4, a mark that accounted for 61 percent of the university’s wins last year.
Where Robinson went, so did Mount St. Mary’s.
Watching Robinson, even from afar, is a treat. There’s certainly something to be said for the league’s hulking, mammoth rim-rattlers, but Robinson’s craftiness and clever play can be just as enthralling. Utilizing pump-fakes, feints, floaters and his reckless abandon, Robinson frequently excelled at creating scoring chances out of very little. Any NBA franchise that gives Robinson an extended look this summer will find a hard-working, determined scorer — traits he credits to his uber-athletic family tree.
“My parents are pretty athletic,” Robinson said. “My mom played at Elon and went overseas and played in Germany. My dad was really athletic, he could do any type of dunk at like 5-foot-4. It’s in my genes as well, it’s also a competitive thing — I wanna be the best I can be. I wanna be just as good as these guys or be on that pedestal. For me to be able to come in here and play with them, it’s great for me.”
For now, nobody is quite sure what the future holds for Robinson, but he’ll likely get his shot to go headlong at looming seven-footers soon enough. His fearlessness has been a staple for Robinson since he arrived at Mount St. Mary’s in 2014 — get knocked down, get right back up. As he tells it now, Robinson knew he had to be unshakable to make the next level, slowly honing those killer instincts and shifty offensive moves. What we’re left with now, effectively, is a very talented 22-year-old scorer that spent last season as a legitimate Division-I force to be reckoned with.
But to him, Robinson’s unparalleled fearlessness is all just another day at the office.
“I think was I was nine, I went up and a kid knocked me over and I realized: It’s not going to kill me, so why not?”
And the rest is history.
NBA Daily: Egor Koulechov: Three Schools, Five Years, One NBA Dream
At the Pro Basketball Combine, Egor Koulechov talked about his overseas journey, his extensive collegiate history and what it was like leaving home to chase a dream.
“Do you want the beginning, or do you want the condensed version from when I got to the states?”
When Egor Koulechov was asked to describe his worldwide basketball journey at May’s Pro Basketball Combine, he laughed before responding. After all, it’s a story he’s told a hundred times before — so what’s one more? In pursuit of reaching the summit of his NBA dream, Koulechov grew up grinding overseas before attending three stateside colleges in five years.
While he’s facing an uphill battle from here, Koulechov refuses to give up on it just yet.
As Koulechov, 23, recounts it now — albeit in an abridged, rapid-fire version — he lived in Volgograd, Russia until the age of six, then his family moved to a Neve Ur, a kibbutz in northern Israel. At 14, Koulechov relocated from home and played for two separate academy clubs, Maccabi Rishon LeZion and Wingate, as he progressively fell further and further in love with the game. Subsequently, Koulechov told his parents he wanted to play basketball in the United States, so he packed up and stayed with a host family alone for the following two years.
“I remember when I was sitting on that plane when I left my parents, that’s when it kind of hit me,” Koulechov told Basketball Insiders. “I’m not going to see my parents every day anymore, I’m not going to be home, I’m going to have to take care of myself. . .
“It’s just been an incredible journey, to be honest, I’ve met so many people, but it’s such a big adjustment, I remember, at 16, I struggled with it for a little bit.”
From there, Koulechov enrolled at Arizona State, where he averaged just 3.7 points and 2.8 rebounds in 14 minutes per game as a freshman. Smartly, the Israeli-Russian transferred to Rice University, sat out a season in accordance with NCAA rules and then took a massive step forward. In his second season at Rice, Koulechov pulled down 18.2 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.1 assists on 47.4 percent from three-point range. All of sudden, he was back on the map.
“Then, last year at Rice, I had a decision to make, whether I wanted to go pro or would I want to do a grad year,” Koulechov said. “I was kind of in between and decided to give this thing one last go-around to stay in the States and give myself the best shot of making my dreams come true — that’s why I went to Florida for one year.”
This past spring, Koulechov wrapped up a graduate transfer season at the University of Florida, where the 6-foot-5 guard tallied 13.8 points and 6.4 rebounds over 30.6 minutes per game. He started in all 34 games for the tournament-bound Gators, using his innate playmaking abilities and solid shooting marks to take advantage of smaller defenders. During Florida’s first-round victory over St. Bonaventure, Koulechov took in a team-high 20 points along with six rebounds — all season long, he was the team’s most consistent contributor. Although it wasn’t enough to get Koulechov to the NBA Draft Combine, he was more than happy to compete in the Pro Basketball Combine instead.
“It was awesome, honestly, I haven’t done workouts like that in front of teams, I haven’t had any NBA workouts, I have some lined up later — but this was good, this was a good experience,” Koulechov said. “It’s honestly a little nerve-wracking at first, when you kind of have all those people watching you there shoot, kind of a little tense, but once you start getting used to it and getting in the flow, it’s kind of easier.”
More likely than not, Koulechov will go undrafted later this month — but with private workouts, multiple summer leagues and two-way contracts ahead of him, he’ll get plenty of chances to prove he belongs. Even as he works from behind the eight ball, the modern league thrives on three-point shooting, so it doesn’t seem unreasonable that Koulechov, a career 39.5 percent marksman in college, could certainly catch on with the right franchise.
But his capable combine performance helped him exhibit far more than just his long-range abilities.
“Toughness, shooting, rebounding, defense, all those things — the 3-and-D thing that’s been going around a lot,” Koulechov said. “That’s kind of what I try to portray and show those guys, but it’s just how I play. It’s not like I try really hard, it’s kind of coming natural.”
Of course, it hasn’t been an easy road for the overseas dreamer — but it’s only served to make him even stronger. Unlike most NBA prospects, Koulechov was never a highly sought-after high school prospect, nor was he chased by five or six elite collegiate programs either. And yet, he still sacrificed everything to come stateside and compete for an opportunity. Now, he stands closer than ever to the big leagues, but he almost didn’t make it here.
During that challenging season at Arizona State in 2013-14, Koulechov couldn’t stop the doubts from sneaking in.
“[I felt like giving up] many times, many times,” Koulechov told Basketball Insiders. “But after my freshman year, I was kind of like: ‘Wow, why do I need this?’ Why when I could just go back home, play pro and make decent money? But I like to think of myself as mentally tough, and I know a lot of Israeli players who came through college and came for one year and then they left — everybody leaves after one year.
“I kind of wanted to be tougher than that. I didn’t want to be just another guy that tried it and went back to the same old thing, so that’s what I really wanted to get out of it.”
He’s not wrong either, and the current list of Israeli-born NBA players is a short one. Outside of the Indiana Pacers’ T.J. Leaf — born in Tel Aviv — and Omri Casspi, who was cut by the Golden State Warriors in early April, Israeli representation remains low. Koulechov’s passion for his hometown has motivated him through years of ups and downs — but following that stellar second season at Rice, he knew he had to keep reaching for his decade-long goal.
“If I did go back to Israel, I’d have to do military service, so this right now is me trying to make it to the NBA so I can represent Israel and give them another player,” Koulechov said. “That’s my dream, that’s always been my dream since I started playing basketball at 13. So that’s why I stayed here for another year.
“I could’ve been playing pro after one year of college or even before that — but this has always been my dream so I’m just trying to give it my best shot.”
After recapping his lifelong journey up until this point — a path that took him to three countries and three colleges before the age of 22 — Koulechov paused, smiled and said: “That’s the condensed version.”
And if Egor Koulechov has his way, his story is far from over.
Pulling Out Of The Draft Isn’t A Simple Decision
Making the decision to pull out of the NBA Draft isn’t an easy one, as there are a lot of factors that go into that decision.
The Big Decision
The NCAA deadline for NBA Draft hopefuls to return to college was 12 pm EST Wednesday night, and roughly 70 players that had declared for the 2018 NBA Draft have announced their intention to return to school.
It is important to note that the NBA’s deadlines are not currently aligned with the NCAA deadlines, so an official list of players that have withdrawn won’t be issued by the NBA until after the deadline.
On the surface, for many of these players, the decision to return for one more season of college experience might seem easy. However, it’s actually a hard decision for a number of reasons, beyond just the notion of getting drafted.
It is not at all uncommon for a college team’s priorities to change from season to season. The role a player played last season may not be the same in the upcoming year. Coaches change, new players come into the program. Philosophies change.
Every player has to weigh whether the environment changes of a team will help or hurt their chances to improve, especially for the non-degree seeking players that are simply leveraging college for a chance to be a professional.
A player’s returning role becomes even more relevant for the players at huge recruiting schools like Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina, where a new crop of blue-chip recruits are coming on campus every season.
Will You Get Better?
Another factor draft prospects have to consider is this: will returning help them get better? On the surface that seems like an easy answer, but it might not be.
Some players have exhausted the coaching and training available to them at the college level. Some players need more gym time or more specialized training. Unfortunately, there are limitations imposed at the NCAA level on how much time coaches can spend with players, and if the team’s priorities are changing, will a returning player be the priority for the coaching staff that maybe they were last season?
Even if a player goes undrafted and ends up in the NBA’s G-League, they’ll have the chance to focus solely on improving as a player, and that’s a factor some players must weigh.
There is also the question of eligibility. In the case of South Carolina’s Brian Bowen, who got caught up in the on-going payment of player scandal at Louisville, He was advised that he would not be eligible to play next season as a result of the implication. And while he may go undrafted in the NBA Draft, he was not going to be eligible to play, making it an easier decision.
Unfortunately, for a number of players, their goals are strictly to get to the NBA, and they may or may not have taken the required coursework to remain eligible if they were to return.
Equally, some players find that the grind of the college athlete world isn’t worth it for them personally and they opt to stay in the draft class even if they may not get drafted.
More Than Just The Draft
It’s easy to think about declaring for the draft as a singular opportunity. However, the draft is simply one doorway into professional basketball.
After the draft, teams clamor for the chance to scoop up talented undrafted players and try to get them into their programs. This starts with Summer League invites.
Equally, it’s not at all uncommon for NBA teams to start making partial guaranteed commitments or even two-way contract commitments to secure a player they may have liked in the process but were unwilling to invest a draft pick into.
The appeal of the new two-way contracts for undrafted players is real. Even more so with the G-League increasing its base compensation for all players, making a two-way contract worth a maximum of $385,000 next season.
With 60 two-way contracts available to NBA teams, most fringe level draft prospects are seeing potentially sixty more professional jobs, making the draft pool more than just the sixty-first and second-round selections; and that is before you factor in the ten true roster spots per team in the G-League.
On the surface its easy to make pulling out of a draft class about the draft alone, but it’s a much bigger decision that a player must make. Especially when you consider that historically, most players that have “tested the waters” usually don’t improve their draft stock too dramatically the following year.
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