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NBA Daily: The Influences of College Coaches in the Pros

With March Madness in full swing, Drew Maresca speaks with current NBA players about their relationships with their college coaches and how they’ve been influenced by them.

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Many players keep in touch with their college coaches long after being drafted by an NBA team. And for those that have a close relationship with their former coaches, the benefits are apparent.

Players struggle to make major decisions, but elite college coaches are familiar with the various hurdles in place for players who have declared themselves eligible for the NBA Draft, rookies, etc. And with their newfound money and fame, players can benefit from sound advice from reliable mentors.

The relationships between players and their former coaches vary, though. Basketball Insiders recently spoke with a handful of NBA players about their relationships with their college coaches.

What drives a player to feel compelled to keep in touch with a college coach? On the surface, it appears that players from preeminent programs who played for elite coaches maintain their relationships. For example, Lance Thomas (Duke), Kevin Knox (Kentucky) and Josh Hart (Villanova) all spoke extremely fondly of their former coaches and said they make sure to speak at least once every few weeks.

New York Knicks forward Kevin Knox bragged about coach John Calipari and his staff’s ability to remain up-to-date on their players’ careers.

“After every NBA night, an assistant brings him a paper with scores and stats for each player from Kentucky,” Knox told Basketball Insiders.

“So every single day he sees what’s happened last night or the day before, how many points everyone’s scored and stuff like that. Every single day he has a paper on his desk. He probably has the most guys in the league so that paper’s long. But he keeps up with everyone.”

Los Angeles Lakers forward Josh Hart elaborated on how Villanova head coach Jay Wright still plays a major role in his life.

“Coach Wright is someone who I have a good relationship with. I probably talk to him every three weeks,” Hart told Basketball Insiders. “It’s harder now with both of our seasons winding down, but he’s someone who influenced my growth as a plyer and as a man in general. He’s been an amazing person who’s been in my life.”

But what role is there for a former coach to play in the life of an NBA player? The answer varies; however, it seems that those who have a strong bond with their college coaches, cherish it.

Knicks forward Lance Thomas spoke about the objectivity of Duke University coach Mike Krzyzewski and the lessons he learned from him.

“He’s definitely one of the best mentors I’ve ever had. He’s always told me the truth,” Thomas told Basketball Insiders. “He’s instilled a winning mind set in me. And he’s always believed in me. A lot of the things I learned from him, I’ve taken with me along this journey (in the NBA) and I’m very blessed to be one of his players and be one of his captains on a national championship team.”

One specific benefit of maintaining a dialogue with a college coach is that the player can learn from the coaches other experiences with/in the NBA, specifically ones that involve their other players. This is especially beneficial when going through the draft process and as they approach their rookie season as former coaches can advise about workouts, cities and NBA franchises.

Knox elaborated on Calipari’s influence in the draft process, which speaks to the reason Knox chose Kentucky in the first place.

“Oh yeah (we speak) all the time,” Knox told Basketball Insiders.” We have one-one-one talks. We had a good relationship because he knew where I wanted to go and how bad I wanted to get there.”

Boston Celtics guard Terry Rozier said that he may even speak with former Louisville coach Rick Pitino about free agency; Rozier will be a restricted free agent this July.

“That’s one of the guys I look to about the basketball world,” Rozier told Basketball Insiders. “He could be someone I reach out to.”

Hart reinforced the idea that a college coach can be a resource beyond the NCAA.

“Definitely (would seek out advice from Coach Wright). I had conversations with him about the draft process, (about) what’s going on in the league with me now,” Hart told Basketball Insiders. “He’s definitely someone who has been in the business for a long time, knows a lot of people, knows a lot about the franchises. So he’s great to bounce ideas off of and have conversations.”

The overall theme is that coaches with strong reputations for developing programs and players are viewed as such for a reason. And their tenures speak to that: Jay Wright has coached Villanova since 2001, John Calipari has coached Kentucky since 2009 (with major jobs elsewhere in college basketball) and Mike Krzyzewski has coached Duke since 1980.

College coaches are instrumental in preparing players for the NBA. But the better ones serve a bigger purpose. They work their way into players’ inner circles. Their opinions are valued like that of a family member’s – and sometimes even more so. And they’ve likely learned the importance of maintaining a presence in their players’ lives over decades of coaching.

The other players that Basketball Insiders spoke with not cited in this article are Knicks players Allonzo Trier and Kadeem Allen, both of whom played for coach Sean Miller at Arizona; Luke Kornet who played for two different head coaches at Vanderbilt (Bryce Drew and Kevin Stallings) and Henry Ellenson who played for head coach Steve Wojciechowski at Marquette

And that’s not to say that any of the relationships between the aforementioned players and their coaches are bad. On the contrary, some are quite positive.

Knicks guard Allonzo Trier explained his relationship with University of Arizona Coach Sean Miller.

“Me and Coach Miller have a great relationship and are very close,” Trier told Basketball Insiders.” Our bond began before me deciding to play at AZ. We’ve been through a lot together.”

But Trier also spoke about how he leverages his relationship with Miller, which is different than the other players cited.

“Coach Miller congratulated me (on my contract with the Knicks), but he’s not trying to be my agent, so he stays in his lane,” Trier said.

No discussions we had with players about their college coaches were in any way disparaging. But the there is clearly a difference between how Trier, Allen, Kornet and Ellenson view their college coaches, and the way that Knox, Hart, Rozier and Thomas view theirs.

It’s worth mentioning, though, that Coach Miller is only 50 years old, Coach Drew is 44 and Coach Wojciechowski is 42.

If any, or all, of them are to develop into a Coach Wright, Coach Calipari or Coach Krzyzewski, they can look to very best in the business for a blueprint on how to execute.

Basketball Insiders contributor residing in the Bronx, New York.

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