UConn basketball has a great presence in professional basketball. Andre Drummond is leading the league in rebounding, Kemba Walker is on the precipice of being named All-NBA and Caron Butler and Richard Hamilton are commentating games on national TV. However, in the NBA G-League, the NBA’s minor league and development arm, another former Husky is doing his part in growing the great game and great league so many fans have come to love.
Mark Daigneault made his way to UConn from Leominster, Massachusetts at the right time. He found his way with the men’s basketball program as student manager in 2003. The following year, Emeka Okafor, Ben Gordon and Jim Calhoun won the 2004 national championship. A couple years later, he was with the 2006 group led by Rudy Gay and Co. that, heartbreaking loss to George Mason aside, was an absolute juggernaut.
Daigneault is now in his fifth season as head coach of the Oklahoma City Blue, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s G-League affiliate but still points to his manager experiences for creating that reference point of success and exposure to high level basketball, be it coaching, players or support, that has propelled him on a basketball journey now residing in perennial playoff appearances at his level.
“You don’t really grasp the context of it at the time but you’re able to learn a lot from being around a lot of success, success that was for a reason. That knowledge really prepared me,” Daigneault said.
Following his time in some of the glory days of UConn basketball, Daigneault moved to back to central Mass to be an assistant at Holy Cross for three years, before Billy Donovan brought him to Florida as a graduate assistant and assistant to the head coach. When Donovan got the job coaching Oklahoma City, Daigneault was there already, preceding him in being named the Blue’s head coach in 2014.
Donovan, like Calhoun is no stranger to National Championships and winning at a high level either.
“Both hold their teams to a very high standard of excellence. Most great coaches unite guys around a way of playing and then are relentless in cultivating that belief,” said Daigneault. “I certainly observed that in both of them.”
Calhoun believed in bringing in size and strength, attaching it to his principles and then relying on that combination ruling the day. Donovan is more of a tinkerer who has a lot of ideas and sees that game as a big puzzle to be solved according to Daigneault. In his role as a G-League head coach, as well as the Thunder’s summer league entry the past couple years, Daigneault gets to live every coach’s dream in terms of experimentation.
The summer league allows for “reflection without consequence” where the staff reviews the past season, generates ideas for next year and tests them all in an environment where the losses aresomewhat irrelevant and mistaken habits able to be unwound. A coaching staff can stretch themselves and their concepts, getting a look at what may and may not work. In the G-League those choices become more intractable, but there are still numerous similarities.
“I really enjoy both. They are similar in that the players are not on stable ground which makes them highly motivated. It creates an environment where guys are trying to prove themselves and makes everyone compete,” Daigneault says.
One of those players was someone UConn fans know well: 2015 second draft pick Daniel Hamilton. Hamilton, now with the Houston Rockets G-League affiliate, was initially drafted by the Denver Nuggets No. 56 overall and shipped to OKC. He played the 2016-17 season with the Blue, and then was on one of the new two-way contracts with the organization in 2017-2018, playing six games with the parent club Thunder. This year he signed with the Atlanta Hawks on a guaranteed deal and appeared in 19 games before being waived on Feb. 8.
Still, their relationship was Daigneault’s main way of staying tied to UConn.
“I worked very closely with him. I coached him in two seasons and two summer leagues,” he said. “UConn gave us a lot of touch points and common ground. We know both know about Hilltop Apartments, we both know Larib (program aide Larib Omara-Otunnu), etc.”
Hamilton has seemingly been a fringe NBA player since turning pro, but Daigneault is confident he can make it.
“It’s tricky. What he needs to make it is an opportunity with someone who needs what he provides: A playmaker with size, rebounds for his position, and is a secondary ball handler. If someone gave him 15-20 minutes a night in a compatible role, he would thrive,” Daigneault believes. “Not to say he can’t improve, but the NBA is a zero-sum game. Some guys just make it because they end up in the right spot.”
Daigneault may be in the right spot himself. Will he be the Blue’s head coach forever? Unlikely. But he doesn’t plan out his career or his life methodically like that. He doesn’t have specific career ambitions, rather he believes one should enjoy where they are, especially like the spot he is in right now. He is amenable to returning to the college game, and says he misses the energy, forward-thinking and daily hums of a campus environment, but by no means is actively planning a move towards the NCAA or elsewhere.
The OKC Blue have a good setup relatively speaking. Some G-League teams are a couple hours away from their leading organizations. The Sioux Falls Skyforce, affiliated with the Miami Heat, are much more than that.
“In Oklahoma City, (General Manager) Sam Presti has set it up like the Blue are another department of the Thunder. All Blue employees are dedicated to our team, but there is no real separation. PR works on PR. Data Science works on Data Science. The Blue staff work on the Blue,” says Daigneault.
It has been great exposure for Daigneault and his colleagues to be in that Thunder environment and working culture. Last year, Daigneault joined Donovan’s staff on the bench for the NBA playoffs and he alluded that once the Blue’s season ends, most staffers will transition to helping the Thunder in some capacity as they make a playoff push in the Western Conference.
Daigneault was around a lot of future professionals while in Storrs. Emeka Okafor, Ben Gordon, Charlie Villanueva, Marcus Williams, Josh Boone…the list goes on. At the time his relationship with the players was professional and he was much closer with the coaching and support staff, but he still enjoys following their careers and bumps into them from time to time.
Okafor was at the G-League Showcase last year on his way to returning to the NBA for a swansong. A couple years ago, Boone’s Melbourne United played some exhibitions against the Thunder. When Ben Gordon attempted a comeback of his own in 2017 with the Texas Legends, he was a frequent foe. Now it’s Marcus Williams and the Stockton Kings he has dealt with a lot most recently.
“Just to have been at UConn at that time was cool, and that along with the name gives you a lot of connections,” he said.
He remains a fan and follower, but from a distance. He wants the program to do well, but roots for former stops Holy Cross and Florida just as well.
Along those same lines, he didn’t follow Jim Calhoun’s return to coaching this year all that closely, but understands what it’s all about
“I really respect the passion it showed. Obviously, he just loves it. Not many people would do that job with the resume he has,” Daigneault says.
His focus is away from the college game because the pro game requires it. Speaking to him in the midst of a playoff run, many G-League players are bouncing around, receiving end of the year NBA trials and 10-day contracts that make a coach’s job difficult.
“Sure, it’s a big challenge, but every other team is going through it too. It’s built into everyone’s expectations and if you are using it as an excuse, you are likely going to have a lot of other problems as well.”
The G-League is always fluctuating. The playoffs used to be a best two-out-of-three series before changing to single elimination. Daigneault, who has been to the playoffs in four of his five seasons, was briefly thrown for a loop but a shift to a different, urgent mindset fixed that.
The next big change may be an influx of young players. As Daigneault acknowledged, the NBA has been aggressively pursuing reintegration of the teenage talent it lost when David Stern implemented “19 years old and one year removed from high school graduation” standard for draft eligibility in the mid 2000s. The NBA is currently offering $125,000 contracts for elite high school graduates to play in the G-League and the “One-and-Done” rule appears it will be gone by the 2022 NBA Draft. A lot of those high schoolers, raw, will spend time with coaches like Daigneault.
“I don’t know what it will look like from a process standpoint, neither does the NBA, but I’m very excited about it,” he said. “We (OKC) are trying to have as solid a structure, environment and program as possible to increase value for the player and the Thunder. We want a framework that allows them in easily where we can help them advance as professionals and advance their game.”
Daigneault doesn’t have some of the qualms that have been posited about misaligned incentives that have been posited for G-League Select players. In particular, a player being too inexperienced or underdeveloped to contribute to winning, or a lack of reason to play them with them leaving for the NBA after the year potentially. In Oklahoma City, whether you are two-way player Deonte Burton or unaffiliated player X, you get the same amount of investment regardless of status.
There is a great amount of prestige in coaching G-League and Summer League teams, but Daigneault has embraced the grind. I spoke to him as he headed home the day their playoff opening win as he went to get ready to travel to take on the Santa Cruz Warriors in the Western conference semi-finals. They lost, but Daigneault was the G-League Coach of the Month in November, is cognizant to enjoy where he is at, and continuing those winning ways starting in Storrs, will be another Husky leaving a print in the world of basketball.
Matt Barresi is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.