Billy Donovan's off-season hiring brought out a myriad of feelings for the Thunder faithful. Above all other emotions, the biggest question that lingered was, "Can a college coach make the jump to the NBA, remake one of the most successful franchises in the league over the past 5 years, contend for a title in year one, AND provide enough substance to convince Kevin Durant to stick around in OKC?" Heavy stuff.
However, that is only one side of the coin. The other side is what was going on in Donovan's mind and heart as he had to go through a rigorous interview and vetting process in a hotel on Amelia Island while remaining off the grid from both his Florida Gators program as well as the rest of the NBA media landscape. How did Thunder GM Sam Presti target Donovan? How did Donovan come to decide to leave his tailor-made situation in Florida to take the plunge into the high-risk world of the NBA coaching fraternity?
To those questions, USA Today's Sam Amick provides a compelling read after speaking to Donovan at length:
A few choice quotes to help entice you to read the whole thing:
"It was amazing," Donovan, who signed a five-year, $30 million deal with the Thunder, told USA TODAY Sports recently of the interview process that led to his hiring. "It wasn't like, 'What are you going to do on offense? What are you going to do on D? How are you going to use this guy?' It was just more like, 'You know, we want to be in an environment and a situation in this building where everybody is raising each other's level, where everybody is making each other better, and we would like for you to help make our building better, and the people around here better, and we want the people around here to make you better, and everything is about trying to make the players better.' But it was always about this relationship, about everybody being in that position to be able to do their best work.
"Mr. Bennett never talked to me once about basketball. He asked me about my family. He asked me about what my spiritual background was. He talked to me about the city. He talked to me about the state of Oklahoma. He talked to me about the organization and its vision and what kind of impact they could make, what kind of legacy they wanted to leave. I was just like, 'Wow.'"
As Amick writes, Donovan's coaching acumen is likely on point, but the biggest hurdle was to encaptivate one Kevin Durant. So far, writes Amick, the returns are positive, but this quote from Durant is telling:
"When you’re with somebody every single day, and you’re emotionally invested in something every single day, a month feels like a year," Durant said. "That’s what it has felt like so far with Coach Donovan. Every single day we’re just grinding it out with him, and he’s learning, we’re all learning. We’re in this thing every single day. He sees us more, I’m sure, than he sees his family sometimes, and vice versa. It feels like he’s been here for a while. It’s different, man, when you’re coming from dealing with teenagers to grown men. He has adjusted very, very well. First of all, he’s a great man. He knows how to talk to people. He knows how to deal with people. And he loves people. That’s the first thing you have to get as a coach, is relationships, and he has that down pretty easily. And the next part is us listening to him. We’ve got to do a better job of that."
Durant's admission is as honest as it is filled with trepidation. Donovan knows how to coach, but can he do it at the pro level? Durant and the gang know they need to listen and follow, but will they be willing to unlearn in order to rebuild something that has a championship ceiling?
It is only December. And yet, it is already December.