Considering the recruiting and on-court success of Michigan in two seasons under 19-year NBA veteran Juwan Howard, it’s easy to see why schools are taking swing on coaches with NBA pedigrees, despite the tenuous history of former professional stars in the college ranks.
The fraternity of former NBA players who are now college head coaches lost a couple of members this year when 15-year NBA veteran Donyell Marshall and 17-year NBA veteran Terry Porter were ousted at Central Connecticut State and Portland, respectively. However, their departures were offset by two high-profile additions in Mike Woodson at Indiana and Hubert Davis at North Carolina, who are continuing to raise the collective profile of notable former pros getting a chance to shine in the collegiate coaching ranks.
Woodson and Davis have joined Howard, Penny Hardaway at Memphis, Patrick Ewing at Georgetown and Aaron McKie at Temple as notable former NBA players who bring the added benefit of being revered former players at the schools where they now coach.
Sentimental attachment aside, that group of coaches can make a unique pitch on the recruiting trail because of their NBA playing experience that few of the other 300-plus Division I coaches are able to offer in the form of firsthand experience with making it to the NBA.
“That’s part of the aspirations and goals for a lot of young people that we’re recruiting and coaching,” said Maryland assistant coach Danny Manning, a former NBA All-Star with head coaching experience at Tulsa and Wake Forest. “They want to get to that level. So, for me, being able to share my experiences with them gives me an avenue that I think is fairly unique.”
At Maryland, Manning will be thrown into the fires of a budding rivalry with Michigan and Howard, who fished four-star center Hunter Dickinson out of Maryland high school powerhouse DeMatha Catholic in the 2020 recruiting cycle.
Dickinson ended up as the headliner of Michigan’s No. 14 ranked recruiting class in 2020. It was Howard’s first full recruiting cycle on the job, and the class would have been ranked even higher if Isaiah Todd hadn’t de-committed to sign with the G League. This year, Howard has the nation’s No. 1 class signed, and it features six top-150 prospects, including two five-star signees in Caleb Houstan and Moussa Diabate.
In 11 straight classes spanning 2008 to 2018, either Kentucky or Duke snagged the nation’s No. 1 ranked class, according to the 247Sports team rankings. However, with Michigan’s top-ranked group in 2021 and Memphis’ No. 1 class in 2019, two of the past three No. 1 ranked classes belong to coaches who are former NBA All-Stars.
Early indications from Indiana suggest Woodson, a 25-year veteran of the NBA as a player and coach, may have the mojo to get the Hoosiers in the mix for a top-ranked class soon, too. Although two of Archie Miller’s final three classes ranked in the top-15 nationally, Indiana has signed just one top-five class since 2003, which is when the 247Sports team rankings database began. For a program with five national titles, the potential for bigger recruiting wins is there.
Woodson landed four-star guard Tamar Bates in the 2021 class already, but his biggest recruiting victories have come from within the roster he inherited from Miller. First-team All-Big Ten forward Trayce Jackson-Davis said he was “almost dead set” on entering the NBA Draft following Miller’s dismissal.
“That’s part of the aspirations and goals for a lot of young people that we’re recruiting and coaching. They want to get to that level. So, for me, being able to share my experiences with them gives me an avenue that I think is fairly unique.”
Maryland assistant coach Danny Manning on the recruiting advantages a college coach with NBA experience may have
But Woodson, who has coached notable NBA big men such as Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Al Horford, Julius Randle, Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace, convinced Jackson-Davis to change course.
“He came in and he told us he doesn’t want to rebuild,” Jackson-Davis told reporters. “He wants to win right away. And he told me I’m a big piece to that. After hearing that and hearing an NBA coach tell you that, it just really was a simple decision to come back and play for him, honestly.”
Jackson-Davis said Woodson has already critiqued his game and given him feedback, including “the things that I did not want to hear” about how he can improve even after averaging 19.1 points and nine rebounds this past season. With recent immersion in the NBA and an understanding of what’s required to play center professional in today’s game, Woodson should be able to nudge Jackson-Davis to further expand his game.
“I think maybe the lack of college experience and him being a little older was a bit of a surprise,” 247Sports national basketball director Eric Bossi said of Woodson. “But you can’t question the guy’s credentials and acumen as a coach based on what he’s done in the NBA. The NBA sells with kids.”
The question is how much the NBA sells with prospects. Landing a coach with an NBA pedigree can give fans visions of an endless parade of five-star prospects coming to campus. But on the flip side, the old guard of college coaches like Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, Bill Self at Kansas and Mark Few at Gonzaga continue to thrive in recruiting despite having no NBA playing or coaching experience, and it’s not as if Ewing and Jerry Stackhouse showed up at Georgetown and Vanderbilt and immediately started landing elite talent.
“It’s probably somewhere in the middle between how much fans think it resonates and how much the naysayers say it doesn’t matter,” Bossi said. “When you’re dealing with kids, they want to hear about the NBA. But if you’re talking about dudes who played in the NBA 30 years ago, that really doesn’t carry much impact with them.”
Howard, Ewing, Woodson, Fred Hoiberg at Nebraska and Stackhouse have all been on NBA benches within the last five years. While Hardaway’s last NBA experience came as a member of the Heat in 2007 and Davis’ last NBA experience came with the Nets in 2004, both enjoyed distinguished careers that could still resonate with prospects.
Davis remains second all-time in the NBA in 3-point shooting percentage, while Hardaway’s accolades as a player are still relevant enough to keep his signature shoe line in circulation. Collectively, the group will determine if the historically mediocre track record of former NBA players as college coaches will improve.
Some of the notable flame-outs include Clyde Drexler at Houston and Mike Dunleavy Sr. at Tulane and this year’s departures of Porter and Marshall at Portland and Central Connecticut State. All four from that group failed to register a winning season in their tenures. But each inherited tough situations.
Somewhere in the middle fall the tenures of Avery Johnson at Alabama, Manning at Tulsa and Wake Forest. Both made NCAA Tournament appearances in their collegiate head coaching stints but struggled to maintain long-term success.
Their biggest victories, however, may have come with the individual players they helped shepherd onto the NBA paths they once traversed. Johnson landed Alabama’s highest-ranked prospect of all-time in Collin Sexton and helped develop him into the No. 8 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, while Manning recruited helped develop a three-star prospect named John Collins into a first-round pick in 2017 and now a budding NBA star.
“I like to tell the kids from time to time, to know the road ahead, ask somebody that traveled it,” Manning said.
With Woodson and Davis now at the helm of historic college basketball powers, it appears that message will play an increasingly prominent role in the recruitment of top prospects moving forward. How those coaches and their peers fare with the talent it attracts remains to be seen and may influence whether the NBA to college coaching pipeline continues.
“I think as long as you continue to see guys making it work, yeah it will continue,” Bossi said. “I think what’s eventually going to happen is we might start seeing a lot more young guys from the NBA coming in, like younger assistants who know grassroots basketball.
“Just from speaking to people here and there that are involved in college job searches, I think good athletic directors and good search firms are starting to their homework now on assistant coaches in the NBA who can fit the profile of someone who can come in and be successful in college.”
Notable college coaches with NBA experience
Juwan Howard, Michigan
One-time All-Star and two-time champion during 19-year NBA playing careerSix seasons as an NBA assistant42-17 in two seasons as Michigan’s coach
Penny Hardaway, Memphis
Four-time All-Star during 14-year NBA playing career63-32 in three seasons as Memphis coach
Patrick Ewing, Georgetown
11-time All-Star during 15-year NBA playing career15 seasons as an NBA assistant62-59 in four seasons as Georgetown’s coach
Jerry Stackhouse, Vanderbilt
Two-time All-Star during 18-year NBA playing careerTwo seasons as an NBA assistant + two seasons as an NBA G-League head coach20-37 in two seasons as Vanderbilt’s head coach
Mike Woodson, Indiana
11-year NBA playing career14 seasons as an NBA assistantNine seasons as an NBA head coach
Hubert Davis, North Carolina
12-year NBA playing careersecond all-time in NBA 3-point percentage
Fred Hoiberg, Nebraska
10-year NBA playing careerFour seasons as an NBA head coach 129-101 overall record in seven seasons at Iowa State and Nebraska
Damon Stoudamire, Pacific
13-year NBA playing career1996 NBA Rookie of the YearTwo seasons as an NBA assistant71-77 in five seasons as Pacific’s head coach
Bobby Hurley, Arizona State
Five-year NBA playing career145-100 overall record in eight seasons at Buffalo and Arizona State
Mo Williams, Alabama State
One-time All-Star and one-time NBA champion during 13-year NBA playing career4-14 in one season as Alabama State’s head coach
Lindsey Hunter, Mississippi Valley State
Two-time NBA champion during 17-year NBA playing career Two seasons as an NBA assistant, including a 41-game stint as Suns interim head coach5-48 in two seasons as Mississippi Valley State’s head coach
Aaron McKie, Temple
One-time NBA Sixth Man of the Year during 13-year NBA playing careerFive seasons as an NBA assistant19-28 in two seasons as Temple’s head coach
Johnny Dawkins, UCF
Nine-year NBA playing career94-60 overall record in 13 seasons at Stanford and UCF
Eric Musselman, Arkansas
Three seasons as an NBA head coachSeven seasons as an NBA assistant155-53 overall record in five seasons at Nevada and Arkansas
John Calipari, Kentucky
Two and a half seasons as an NBA head coachOne season as an NBA assistant339-93 overall record in 29 seasons at UMass, Memphis and Kentucky
Rick Pitino, Iona
Five seasons as an NBA head coachTwo seasons as an NBA assistant655-277 overall record in 33 seasons at Hawaii, Boston, Providence, Kentucky, Louisville and Iona