Oklahoma City’s Billy Donovan will coach his Thunder on Wednesday at Target Center for the 48th time this season, eight more games than he coached even during a 35-5 season when his Florida team won an NCAA championship in 2006-07.
They talk about young NBA players hitting a rookie wall, a concept apparently inconceivable to a first-year pro coach who now is focused only on the game in front of him.
“Somebody asked me about the amount of games and how quickly they come,” said Donovan, hired last spring after the Thunder fired Scott Brooks. “There are a lot of things I don’t even touch here in the NBA that I had to deal with in college.”
The NBA landscape is littered with college coaches — Rick Pitino, John Calipari, Mike Montgomery, Tim Floyd, Lon Kruger among them — who failed to make the transition to the pro game. But Donovan this season has joined Fred Hoiberg in following to the NBA former Butler coach Brad Stevens, who is turning heads and finding success in his third pro season because of his smarts and savvy.
In college, Donovan’s teams regularly went four or five days and sometimes as many as 10 days between games. Wednesday’s game against the Wolves is the Thunder’s third in four days, and its third in 15 days against the Wolves.
“In between those [college] games, I could be going on a flight out recruiting or I could be coming back home,” Donovan said. “I could be making recruiting calls at night. I could be dealing with a player situation. I could be dealing with academics. There’s so much that’s going on there.”
In leading the Thunder to a 33-12 season start, Donovan at age 50 now coaches superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, who are approaching a decade into their NBA careers. Veteran Nick Collison is 35. Donovan’s only rookie in his playing rotation is Cameron Payne.
“These guys have absorbed so many games and minutes under their belt,” Donovan said. “College guys coming out of high school and leaving home for the first time, there’s so much they go through. These guys obviously are grown men. They’re professionals. They have a job to do. These guys are great to work with. They’re really smart. They want to get better. They want to be coached. They want to find ways we can help them get better.”
And that’s Donovan’s job now, almost exclusively even though he acknowledges there’s far less practice time given the NBA’s 82-game season.
“Once these guys leave practice or leave the game, they’re on their own,” Donovan said, “and I’m allowed to focus on our team and how we’re going to get better.”
Donovan has not experienced such a long, demanding season before, but he said his relationships with coaches who have done so have prepared him: He played and coached for Pitino, played with Dallas coach Rick Carlisle and played for Jeff Van Gundy in the NBA and was friendly when he was at Florida with Erik Spoelstra in Miami and Stan Van Gundy in Orlando.
“I feel like I’ve been around it in terms of having an understanding,” said Donovan, who agreed to coach Orlando in 2007 but changed his mind. “Obviously, it’s my first time going through it. It’s very different than college, but I didn’t think it was going to be the same.”
NBA Short Takes
Welcome back, Kerr
Golden State coach Steve Kerr returned to the bench for Friday’s home victory over Indiana, coming back to a team that went 39-4 under interim coach Luke Walton while Kerr healed from two summertime back surgeries.
Walton was the Western Conference’s Coach of the Month in November on his team’s way to a league-record 24-0 start, but NBA rules say the victories and losses are attributed to Kerr, whose lifetime record now officially is 106-19.
“Great coaching,” Kerr told reporters after watching Steph Curry make two shots from midcourt — one that counted, one that didn’t — while scoring 39 points.
To hack with that
Calls for rule changes concerning that Hack-a-Whoever strategy will resound after this last week when Houston sent Detroit center Andre Drummond to the free-throw line 36 times and Cleveland sent the L.A. Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan there 15 times.
Drummond made just 13 of those 36 Wednesday, Jordan made six on Thursday. The Pistons won 123-114, the Clippers lost 115-102.
“I admit I did say I didn’t like it,” then-Cavaliers coach David Blatt told reporters, “but those are the rules and we felt we could use the rules to our advantage.”
In good hands
Kawhi Leonard entered the NBA in 2011 most noted for his enormous hands. Now the San Antonio forward probably is the league’s best two-way player.
“The way he handles the basketball, it’s like an orange,” TNT analyst Reggie Miller said. “His hands and broad shoulders … he’s bigger than he looks. He’s a big 6-8. Magic [Johnson], [Larry] Bird, they were a big 6-9.”
WOLVES WEEK AHEAD
Monday: 6 p.m. at Cleveland
Wednesday: 7 p.m. vs. OKC
Friday: 8 p.m. at Utah
Player to watch: Kyrie Irving, Cleveland
The All-Star point guard and the Cavs’ most dynamic player has been back from injury for nearly a month with an Eastern Conference-leading team that fired head coach David Blatt on Friday and replaced him permanently with assistant Tyronn Lue. Monday’s game will be the Cavs’ second since Friday’s big move.
“He’s going to be great.”
— Wolves forward Shabazz Muhammad after teammate Karl-Anthony Towns’ 27-point, 17-rebound, six-blocked shot game at Dallas on Wednesday.