Earlier this month, the NBA community converged in Chicago for the NBA Draft Combine. Along with draft prospects, much of the “who’s who” of the basketball world were in attendance.
Off the court, another competition was taking place among former players: The NBA’s Assistant Coaches Program (ACP).
Rory Sparrow, Vice President of NBA Player Development, has helped players transition into the career world many times, guiding them to other roles within the NBA. Although, he said, that is easier said than done.
“There are 30 teams, with 15 players on each team, but when it comes to coaching, there are only three assistant coaching spots, with very low turnover,” he explains. “Once you are done with basketball, the odds are also stacked against you to become a coach. While they were playing, there were guys coaching, going back to school, learning analytics.
“They have to be able to understand and develop a philosophy, communicate effectively and get players to buy in and execute.”
Since the ACP’s inception in 1988, approximately 60% of participants have secured coaching jobs at the NBA, G League or collegiate level. Phoenix Suns Head Coach Monty Williams and Jerry Stackhouse, who was named head coach of the Vanderbilt Commodores in April, are two timely examples of successful alumni.
In an effort to grow the program, Sparrow brought in his former Knicks teammate Butch Carter, who has gotten creative with the program in the last three years.
Carter claims to have kept every note from every practice and game since playing at Indiana University in the 1970s. After playing 361 NBA games in six seasons and one year in the Continental Basketball Association, he took his first head coaching job at his alma mater, Middletown High School in Ohio. Carter later landed assistant coaching jobs with Long Beach State, Dayton, the Milwaukee Bucks and eventually the Toronto Raptors. In 1997-98 he replaced the fired Darrell Walker midseason and would serve as the Raptors’ head coach for two and a half seasons, coaching a team built around young stars Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady.
Carter is an analytic savant who was ahead of the curve, developing his first model in 1998. He also started Analytics 4 Coaches, a company that helps coaches become more successful by understanding advanced stats. Carter’s model is designed to accelerate winning and player development, and it is used by the ACP’s candidates.
“If they go in and learn the software portion of the program: Slack for communication, JustPlay, FastScout, FastDraw, Synergy, SportsCode for the Basketball side and Excel and Powerpoint for presentations, they will be ready for what comes next,” Carter says. “Our goal here is to prepare them in every way possible to become the best and most qualified coaches. In fact, we want to over-qualify them.”
Analytics are just one piece of the coaching puzzle. Carter has put together an entire curriculum, including a classroom element, on-court training and mentorship portion. The ACP provides résumé building, communication training and real coaching experience for every candidate in the program. Participants learn networking skills, along with how to write scouting reports, game plans and player evaluations. At the end of the program, ACP’s decision-makers identify the two best candidates out of the group of ten and place them as G League assistant coaches. Both Sparrow and Carter hope for that number to increase in the future, and of course, that does not hold back ACP attendees from getting jobs on their own.
A number that has already shown a rapid increase: the presence of women. After all, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver just said if he had his way, 50% of incoming coaches would be women.
Becky Hammon and Nancy Lieberman have made waves at the NBA level. Former WNBA player Edniesha Curry became the first woman to serve as a full-time assistant coach at the NCAA Division 1 men’s level this past season, joining the staff at Maine. Curry trained in the ACP and is a mentor in the program.
Yolanda Moore, a 2-time WNBA champion, heard about the program through Curry.
“As a player, you are only responsible for knowing your position, sharpening what you are good at,” Moore says. “When you are a coach, you are responsible for all positions, the staff, giving the players a baseline knowledge of everything, then expanding on that knowledge and communicating.”
David Noel played at UNC and briefly for the Bucks before playing roughly a decade overseas. After retiring in 2017, he has been a coach at his alma mater, Southern High School, in Durham. But coming to the ACP can help him elevate his skills in a unique way.
“Fast Draw, Fast Scout, Synergy, SportsCode, this was my first time diving into those programs, Noel says. “The learning that we are doing here and the details that go into preparing for a game is what is used at the NBA level. As a player, you come in and your scouting report is already there, but you don’t understand the time and work that goes into preparing that report.”
Xavier Silas, who has bounced back and forth between the NBA G League and Big3 in recent years, also runs his own club basketball team in Colorado. For him, the biggest eye-opener when it comes to being a coach vs. player was understanding the hours that coaches put into their jobs.
“As a basketball player, you come in, you exert a lot of energy for three or four hours a day on the court, and you are usually done,” Silas says. “As a coach, it is not as much energy, physically, but mentally you are there all day, preparing, putting in the hours. It’s 24/7 as a coach. As a player, it is not.”
Beno Udrih, who won two NBA championships, discovered his new dream before retirement.
“I knew five years before I was done that I wanted to be a coach,” he says. “I was always trying to help guys and coach them when I was playing. In fact, I had teammates calling me ‘Coach Beno’ during my playing days, and I was like ‘Guys, cut it out, you’ll get me in trouble, we have coaches.’”
While coaching seemed simple as a player, Udrih has already met some of the challenges within the ACP.
“First, the technology,” he says. “Not a lot of former players go from player to head coach. That is why it is important for them to learn all of the softwares, especially the video component of it. Without the ACP, we wouldn’t have had all the tools we need to succeed and would have had to learn everything on our own. Second, just being thrown out there and actually coaching. Everybody’s like, ‘Oh yeah, I can coach,’ but it is very different when you are actually out there. You have to make the decisions on the fly.”
Carter calls the current program a “six-month military boot camp” and says it is a lot to process in such a short amount of time. He and Sparrow hope to turn it into a one-year program. Carter also hopes to increase the total pool of candidates. Currently, the program caps at ten candidates, despite a high volume of applicants. Carter wants that number closer to 30-40.
“Eventually we’d like to upgrade to a better software platform,” he also notes. “That upgrade will then allow us to not only increase our total number of candidates, but also have a place where all the coaches in various leagues can login to view all of the qualified candidates bios.”
Down the road, the program may include a certificate candidates earn when they “graduate” the program.
With the success of the ACP so far, Sparrow and Carter hope more former players will take advantage of the opportunity, and in turn, keep giving back to the NBA family.