More D League coaches advancing to NBA: How they’re getting there

Former Mad Ants head coach Duane Ticknor was recently hired to be the Memphis Grizzlies' assistant coach. He is one of several D League coaches to make the jump to the NBA. Photo courtesy WANE TV

Former Mad Ants head coach Duane Ticknor was recently hired to be the Memphis Grizzlies’ assistant coach. He is one of several D League coaches to make the jump to the NBA this off-season.
Photo courtesy WANE TV

By Alec Johnson

The recent hiring the Memphis Grizzlies made of former Mad Ants head coach Duane Ticknor is one of several moves this off-season of D League coaches and personnel getting a shot at the dream job of the NBA. It’s the dream of many people who work in sports, to get a chance to work at the professional level with the best of the best. Ticknor has that opportunity now to work in the NBA alongside David Joerger and the Grizzlies.

Mad Ants President Jeff Potter discussed his feelings on Ticknor’s departure.

“My thoughts are I’m happy for him and his family. He’s done all he can do on our level, and I think not only join the NBA, but work with somebody he has a close relationship a in Dave Joerger. It’s a wonderful thing,” Potter said, “but it’s tough for us. We’re losing a fantastic coach, and we gotta try to replace him. It’s not going to be easy.”

Ticknor brought a lot of great qualities to the coaching role of the Mad Ants, which helped them achieve their first winning season and playoff appearance in franchise history.

“He was a great leader, a great communicator to the players,” Potter said. “Players liked playing for him. From my standpoint, I felt (that) we saw the game the same way, which I felt was very great, made me easy to work with.”

Assistant Coach Steve Gansey also appreciated what Coach Ticknor meant to him, and was elated for him to get the opportunity, but also sad that he wouldn’t be able to work with him anymore.

“He gave me a lot of responsibility this past year in terms of our team, and I love that aspect of it,” Gansey said in an earlier interview. “I’m sad to see him go, but I’m also super excited for his opportunity to coach.

Gansey also thinks he’ll do a great job in the NBA with the Grizzlies, especially with his coaching experience of coaching over 900 professional basketball games.

“He’s well prepared, he’s very knowledgeable (about) the game. His biggest and his best quality is the way he talks to the players, and the reaction that the players get from him is remarkable,” Gansey said. “That’s one of his biggest strengths, and he’ll continue to do that in Memphis with those guys.”

The decision to take an opportunity in the NBA is certainly a tough decision for coaches in the D League like Ticknor, who develop a sense of loyalty and respect with their players, and even the community, and don’t want to leave them. At the same time, it’s an opportunity most coaches aspire to, and one that is difficult to turn down.

Gansey talked about the difficulty he would face as a coach in that position.

“For instance, I’m obviously employed by the Mad Ants, and I want to see them do well, but if an opportunity arises where, not only for myself, but any coach, the opportunity to go to the NBA is a privilege for players and coaches, and sometimes, that opportunity will not be there for very long.” Gansey said. “So it’s hard because you have a commitment to one team, then all of a sudden, one NBA team calls, and you want to go to that team, but that’s the reason why they have call-ups for players and coaches. Tough question.”

Going to the NBA for their next career move has been quite common this off-season for some D League coaches, including Nick Norse, who was recently hired as the new assistant coach for the Toronto Raptors, Jay Larranaga became an assistant for the Celtics, joining new head coach Brad Stevens; Nate Tibbets joined the Cavs, and Dave Joerger got hired as the new head coach of the Grizzlies, where Ticknor is now. Also, former Idaho Stampede assistant Scott Williams joined the Milwaukee Bucks new head coach Larry Drew, and former Austin Toros’ head coach Taylor Jenkins got hired as an assistant by the Atlanta Hawks.

“It’s proving to be a great training ground for these guys,” Potter said in referring to the D League helping prepare coaches for working in the NBA.

Gansey also agreed, saying the D League has become more popular every year, and more NBA teams are buying into it, and they’re getting better players.

“I think NBA teams will continue to look at D League coaches as potential employers (employees), and I hope it continues to do that, because that’s where I want to be one day,” Gansey said.

When the D League started back in 2001, there were only 2 coaches called up after the 2001-02 season, Bob Thornton, who became an assistant coach for the Chicago Bulls, and Alex English, who became an assistant coach for the Atlanta Hawks. Since then, 27+ coaches from the D League have gone on to become involved in the NBA as an assistant coach, video coordinator, scout, director of player personnel, director of basketball, and even general manager, in the case of Dell Demps, who was the GM of the Austin Toros, and is currently the GM of the New Orleans Pelicans (formerly the Hornets).

So what kind of qualities does a D League coach need to get to the next level? Potter discussed his criteria for getting there, among them intelligence, preparation, and great communication skills. Along with that, he mentioned having a knowledge of the game, and especially work ethic.

“You gotta work hard. You got long hours, you got (to have) dedication. It takes a long time to be prepared to beat those other teams, so those are the aspects I think would help,” he said.

Gansey emphasized the ability to make quick adjustments, as a key quality for a D League coach to be successful and have a shot at the NBA.

“I think one of the biggest things in the D League and with D League coaches strive on is, you’ll get new players every week. You gotta be able to think on the fly. Sometimes there’s players that come in two hours before the game time, and you gotta try to tell them in a small amount of time, your philosophies on offense and defense, and you gotta think on the run. I think that’s the biggest strength for D League coaches is that you have to make adjustments on the fly and you have to think quick with them,” Gansey said.

Making it to the NBA is no easy task for D League coaches, and it took a long time for most of the new hires to finally make it there. The 2013-14 season will give them the chance to show fans, the media, and anyone who loves the NBA what they can do.


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