Billy Donovan heading to the NBA is hard for both NBA fans and college basketball diehards to swallow. The diehards, especially Florida Gators fans like me who have come to revere Donovan, thought he might stay in Gainesville forever. NBA fans who remember him spurning the Orlando Magic are more skeptical about Donovan, and whether his style translates to the pros.
It's true that few college basketball coaches, even the best ones, experienced success as NBA head men. Donovan's mentor and college coach, Rick Pitino, flamed out with the Celtics after bailing on the Knicks to coach Kentucky. Recent Donovan nemesis John Calipari had to return to the college ranks after bad years with the Nets.
So what makes Donovan different? And what could he bring to the Thunder? Here are three things gleaned from his 19 years at Florida that NBA fans should consider.
1. Game-planning is one of his strengths
Donovan has been knocked for some of his in-game coaching. He takes timeouts sparingly, his point guards tended to have too much freedom in end-of-half situations and his teams have fared surprisingly poorly in close games. But he's been great at game-planning over the short and long terms, especially in the NCAA Tournament.
Since 2006, when Florida ended a string of five straight NCAA Tournament appearances without a Sweet 16 run, the Gators have gone 23-5 in seven March Madness trips and a staggering 18-1 before the Elite Eight. That's come with either a week or a day to prepare for games.
During that early-2000s lull, Donovan was knocked for his inability to beat lesser teams, but that certainly hasn't been the case over the last 10 years. Florida made a habit of smashing Cinderella's slippers from 2006 on, knocking out George Mason in the 2006 Final Four, Florida Gulf Coast in the 2013 Sweet 16 and Dayton in the 2014 Elite Eight. And, yes, Florida did fall to Butler in the 2011 Elite Eight, but Donovan went 2-1 against the Bulldogs in the NCAA Tournament over his career.
Giving Donovan the sort of talent he hasn't had since that two-year reign over college basketball could be scary indeed. He'll have to help the Thunder win a title and convince Kevin Durant to stay, but Donovan will relish the challenge of coming up with new ways to attack and defend over the course of a round.
2. Donovan has ideologies, but is flexible
Donovan is also both smart enough to have come up with systems and circumspect enough to alter them when necessary. His defensive scheme's mutation from press-heavy gambling to a more fluid style helped Florida become an unlikely defensive powerhouse in recent years. His offensive players have been more and more judicious in their shot selection, as Donovan has largely excised midrange jumpers from most of his players' repertoires and reshaped a unit that fired quickly, while running the floor in his early days into one that hunts for layups and threes.
He won't be able to press with the Thunder and surely must tailor his offense to the superlative talents of Durant and Russell Westbrook, but there's no question that Donovan is bright enough to reduce their heavy workload and the stagnation that caused some of it under Scott Brooks. Given that Donovan's hiring reunites him with Mark Daigneault, an analytics-minded Donovan assistant hired in 2014 to helm the Thunder's D-League team, it seems likely that he'll want the Thunder to nab similarly smart and forward-thinking assistants for his staff.
3. Donovan is a master developer
Most importantly, Donovan has consistently done more with less than virtually any other college coach because of his ability to develop players.
When the vaunted Oh-Fours that led the Gators to two titles arrived in Gainesville, none was consistently anywhere near the form they showed as sophomores and juniors. Donovan's coaching helped turn their flashes into beacons, and a team of talents into an unselfish band of brothers. In 2013-14, he turned a less talented band of four seniors and a host of role players into a team that finished with an even better record.
The Chandler Parsons who became one of the NBA Draft's best sleepers? You should've seen him as a freshman who didn't realize having hair was a better look for him. The Bradley Beal just now coming into his own? Donovan taught him it was OK to assert himself as the best player on the court as a freshman, despite his precociousness. The eight other Gators who are on NBA playoff teams? All of them were recruited and coached entirely by Donovan at Florida.
Donovan has occasionally missed. His inability to coax another year out of Donnell Harvey helped shorten his NBA career, and his failure to reach Chris Walker fully may curtail another one that seemed even more promising. But it's no accident that Donovan's had seven players go through at least two years in his program and spend at least five years in the NBA. And it's no accident that most of those players on the playoff teams have played significant roles for their teams.
SB Nation presents: As the NBA playoffs intensify, so do the fights