Candid Coaches: Which college coach will be the next to make the jump to the NBA?

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2027


CBS Sports college basketball writers Gary Parrish and Matt Norlander spent July on the road talking to college coaches at multiple major NCAA-sanctioned recruiting events. In the weeks since, they’ve followed up with more than 110 coaches at all levels of Division I for our annual Candid Coaches series. As always, the series features a fun array of questions about college basketball, but also touches on broader issues in society. In exchange for complete anonymity, they give us unfiltered honesty. Throughout August we’ll be posting the results of the poll questions posed to coaches.

It’s a near-certainty that there are current Division I college coaches who, at some point in the next one, two, five or 10 years will wind up with an opportunity to coach an NBA team. The NBA doesn’t make an annual habit of plucking coaches from the college ranks, but we see it happen periodically. In the past 25 years, here are the guys who’ve left the lower level to give a go at the best basketball in the world and how they’ve performed once they got there.

College coaches who jumped to the NBA since 1994

Coach College NBA team Years Record
Billy Donovan Florida Thunder 2015-Present 55-27, 11-7 in playoffs
Fred Hoiberg Iowa State Bulls 2015-Present 42-40, no playoffs
Brad Stevens Butler Celtics 2013-Present 113-133, 2-8 in playoffs
Reggie Theus New Mexico State Kings 2007-09 44-62, no playoffs
Mike Montgomery Stanford Warriors 2004-06 68-96, no playoffs
Lon Kruger Illinois Hawks 2000-03 69-122, no playoffs
Leonard Hamilton Miami Wizards 2000-01 19-63, no playoffs
Tim Floyd Iowa State Bulls 1998-2002 49-190, no playoffs
Rick Pitino Kentucky Celtics 1997-2001 102-146, no playoffs
John Calipari UMass Nets 1996-99 72-112, 0-3 in playoffs
P.J. Carlesimo Seton Hall Trail Blazers 1994-97 136-109, 3-9 in playoffs

Note: Record is with the original team.

The collective record and winning percentage: 769-1,100 (.411) with a 16-27 playoff record over 27 seasons.

It’s not pretty, but among the three most recent college-to-NBAers:

  • Donovan did just take a talented OKC roster to the brink of knocking off the greatest NBA team in regular-season history
  • Hoiberg has only been in Chicago for one season
  • Stevens’ Celtics could be a top-10 team in the league next year
  • Their success, or lack thereof, in the next couple of years could play some small role in whichever college coach is next chosen to run an NBA team.

    But who is that guy? We polled more than 110 coaches and asked:

    Which active college coach is best suited and most likely to next jump to the NBA?

    Coach, college Percentage
    Kevin Ollie, UConn 20 percent
    Bill Self, Kansas 17 percent
    John Calipari, Kentucky 16 percent
    Jay Wright, Villanova 16 percent
    Shaka Smart, Texas 9 percent
    Tony Bennett, Virginia 8 percent

    Note: Other coaches who received at least three or more votes: Sean Miller (Arizona), Larry Krystkowiak (Utah) and Avery Johnson (Alabama).

    QUOTES THAT STOOD OUT

  • “Calipari wants to do it. But he wants big money, total control and the chance to win big immediately. And I just don’t know if anybody in the NBA is ever going to be willing to give him that.”
  • “Calipari. I think he learned a lot from his first gig as an NBA coach. He is coaching and recruiting NBA talent and treating them like pros. He would be a players’ coach. The Xs and Os would concern me.”
  • “(Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski) is the obvious one with his Olympic pedigree, but I’d say Kevin Ollie is next. Former player, has had some success at the college level already. (Alabama coach) Avery Johnson is an obvious throw-in too.”
  • “I think Bill Self. Obviously has a great basketball mind, but more importantly has the right intangibles to be successful at the NBA level. Relates extremely well to players, understands that players run that league, can put ego aside, and has the charisma and likeability that superstars would like to play for.”
  • “Without question (Virginia coach) Tony Bennett. He seems to get his locker room to operate extremely close all year long. His guys always appear to be on the same page, and to have no sense of individualism. He played in the NBA, so I think it would translate.”
  • “I’m sure Bill Self comes to people’s minds when this question comes up. And I think he would do great. I like Jay Wright, though. Does a great job with spacing, and while I’m sure he has an ego, I think he does a great job of suppressing it. And Villanova was underrated defensively. Kevin Ollie has a (Cavaliers coach) Tyrone Lue feel as well.”
  • “Kevin Ollie is probably next. But Cal is going to happen eventually.”
  • “I’d go Tony Bennett. I think the reason Brad Stevens and Donovan have had so much success is because they have very little ego. Not too mention they are terrific offensive coaches. I’d put Tony Bennett in that same category.”
  • “Lon Kruger or John Calipari. Bottom line if they make the jump, they need to go to a good team. Billy Donovan would have flopped in Orlando if he had not rescinded on that job (in 2007). He stayed at Florida and then took OKC. He won at OKC because he had really good players. That is not to discredit anything he did. He is one of the best coaches in the game. However, if Billy Donovan was coaching the 76ers, he would be back in college this year.”
  • “The name I hear all the time is Tony Bennett. He’d have to change his style. But he’s smart enough to do that. And everything else about him would be perfect for the NBA.”
  • MY TAKEAWAY

    Does this question sound familiar? Hardcore college hoops fans who follow our Candid Coaches series every summer will recall we asked a similar question three years ago.

    And look at that.

    Hoiberg and Donovan were two of the top three vote-getters. The other? Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski. But our question back then didn’t include the “most likely” qualifier to it. That’s why you don’t see Coach K here this time. He’s capable, but at his age, he’s never going to leave Duke until it’s for retirement. Point is, the coaching fraternity knew what they were talking about in 2013 when mentioning Hoiberg and Donovan, just as they know what they’re talking about now.

    There are nine coaches mentioned above. It would truly shock me if at least two of them hadn’t been hired to coach an NBA team by 2020, and I’d lean toward three or four of them getting a shot in the NBA before they retire.

    The Ollie pick, I think, is the right one. He is both equipped and likely. His NBA connections run deep, and superstars like Kevin Durant already have a lot of respect for him. To me, Ollie is on the board as a possibility to leave UConn for the NBA at the end of any given season. I could also see him staying with the Huskies for another five years; he fits so well there, too.

    But of all the coaches, I’d put him at the top of my list.

    Elsewhere, I will say that of all the coaches mentioned, though Bennett finished fifth, he was the coach who inspired the most insight and longer answers from others. I can see it. In fact, in my opinion, I think Bennett and Wright are the two guys who have the personality, basketball IQ and management skills best suited right now to take an NBA job.

    I’ll paraphrase what two coaches said about Bennett: He played in the NBA, has the right demeanor to handle pros, is a complete get-it guy, and he did play in the league, remember. Could be a natural fit.

    “He is about as good as it gets in all the right ways,” one coach told me.

    Bennett is 47 years old. Wright is 54.

    Calipari, who has it about as good as anyone could ever get it as a college coach, is 57. But he’s aware of the pro culture and routine.

    “Calipari is a clear No. 1.,” is the gist a few coaches gave me.

    I just don’t think he’s going to get the perfect opportunity that would inspire him to leave Kentucky. He’d have to be given coaching and front-office power, would need to be paid — at least — around $9 million annually to do so. What franchise is going to do that at this point? I do think he’d love to prove a hell of a lot of people wrong and go show he’s capable of winning at the NBA level, but it’s not essential to his legacy. He’s the coach who’s defined college basketball and recruiting in the modern era.

    You’ll notice that our top four vote-getters have all won national titles. And when you look at most of the hires in the past 25 years, those are guys who made a Final Four or, if not, previously played in the NBA. So Bennett, Avery Johnson, Larry Krystkowiak, they all fall under that umbrella. (And I think Krystkowiak is a fine candidate, too. Johnson has already coached in the NBA, and it’s practical to think he’ll get another shot if Alabama maintains relevance in the SEC.)

    So that leaves two guys among the top nine who haven’t won a title or played in the NBA: Shaka Smart and Sean Miller. Smart’s already made one Final Four. And it’s not that another Final Four will be necessary, but Miller and Smart probably need a couple more 30-win seasons to make up for it they’re to make a leap — which I wouldn’t expect for the next few seasons anyway.



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