Starting in just a little over a week, NBA coaches’ heads will roll and there will be a search in cities across the NBA for their next head coach — at least five openings will be there, and there could be as many as seven or eight (I’ve had one source get into double digits), depending upon who you talk to around the league. As those searches start, the usual list of names of former NBA coaches will come up — Jeff Van Gundy, David Fizdale, etc… — as will the names of deserving up-and-coming assistants such as Nick Nurse (Toronto), Stephen Silas (Charlotte), and Jerry Stackhouse, among many others.
Other teams will look into the college ranks, trying to find the next Brad Stevens. Which may well be impossible, but it’s something a lot of teams discuss in the wake of Steven’s success (and to a lesser extent, Billy Donovan).
Which leads us to Villanova’s Jay Wright. He has led the Wildcats to two of the last three NCAA titles, built a powerhouse in the Delaware Valley, and he knows how to develop players, all meaning he is going to get feelers, and calls, from NBA front offices.
It leads to two questions:
Does Wright want to leave Villanova?
If he decides to, would his style of play and coaching fit at the NBA level?
Sources I spoke to for this article think the answer to the second question is a resounding yes. But the first question…
More than one person used the Mike Krzyzewski example with Wright — a guy who may be tempted by the siren call of the NBA, who will consider it on some level, but who is grounded, knows what he wants, and pretty much has that where he is at right now. He’s built his perfect job at Villanova. Look at Wright’s comment after winning the title Monday night.
“I just have the best job in the country. I’m in my hometown, my wife’s alma mater, my favorite team growing up. … I just love going to work every day. Our guys graduate. You see these kids are great kids to coach. As a coach, there’s just nothing better.”
Every coach at every college program talks about “building a family” but Wright has actually done it at Villanova. NBA players from the school’s past — Kyle Lowry through Josh Hart and Ryan Arcidiacono — were in San Antonio for the title game. Wright has built a program poised for a long run of success because he’s not stocking the roster with one-and-dones, he’s getting guys maybe half-a-step or a step down the recruitment ladder and coaching them up. He has a team that believes in and plays a system (Villanova’s ability to switch up pick-and-roll coverages seamlessly on the fly in the title game was impressive). Here is what Hart said after the title game:
“He has such a legacy here, such a footprint. We love him. We don’t want him to go. It’s such a great culture. Everyone says, ‘Oh yeah, we’re a family.’ But when you see when someone falls down and four guys sprint to go pick him up, that’s a winning culture. That’s a brotherhood. Not everybody does that. People say it. But we believe it. Coach Wright’s the best coach in the country, period.”
But that siren call of the NBA is still there. If Wright has NBA aspirations, he should make the move soon. He is 56 years old, he’s got the energy, and an NBA team worth going to will close to double his current $2.6 million salary (money does always matter).
Wright is going to have teams reaching out this summer, but he’s also in a position to be a bit picky — he doesn’t have to take the first offer to come his way if he doesn’t trust management and ownership. Which is what he’s done in the past, he’s gotten calls and brushed them aside. Most publicly, thee Suns reportedly reached out in 2016 (after Villanova’s previous NCAA title) and he turned them down.
If he decides to jump into the NBA waters, he should be patient and find the right fit, much as Stevens did when leaving Butler. Let’s use the Bucks as an example — every coach looking for a better situation (and that includes some guys with NBA jobs already) sees that roster with Giannis Antetokounmpo and good role players around him and wants that job (which will be open once their playoff run ends). However, it’s also a franchise with an ownership divided enough that they had to settle on a compromise GM last summer because they couldn’t agree and there was a power struggle. (Not to diminish Jon Horst, who I think has done a good job in that role.) Is that something Wright sees as comfortable enough to leave Villanova for? When Phoenix calls (and they will) would he trust that ownership and management? Should he?
If Wright does find a fit and heads to the NBA, there is little question that he has all the tools to be a success.
The biggest adjustment for many NCAA coaches coming to the NBA is the shift in power structure. In college, the head coach is the CEO of the program and has control over the recruitment and roster, he can control the schedule, and the rest. It’s a great job for a control freak or a big ego (think John Calipari). At the NBA level the coach is not the guy with the power — a star player will have far more say and has more value to the franchise. The GM picks the roster. And the coach has many more people to answer to.
Wright is a guy who can handle that, he’s not the guy with the oversized ego, nor is he the level of control freak some coaches are.
Maybe more importantly, front offices have seen player development at Villanova under Wright that is crucial in today’s NBA. He turned Mikal Bridges into a likely lottery pick in this draft, and Donte DiVincenzo into a Final Four hero — neither was a massively high recruit. That is needed in the NBA. Look at the Warriors and, with the exception of Kevin Durant, they drafted lower and developed Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green (not to mention the rest of that roster). The teams that can sustain success develop players in house to at least be solid parts of the rotation (San Antonio is the gold standard, and you see it though coming up in Boston and Philadelphia).
On the court, you can see where Wright’s style would work, too. His teams play fast, he’s not afraid to go small, and he gets the need to use ball screens and actions to free up shooters. His teams also defend well. He can handle the Xs and Os.
The question with Wright isn’t can he be successful in the NBA, it’s does he want to make the leap?
The answer to that may be no, but suitors will come calling this summer.