Kevin Ollie, just 41 years old and fresh off a NCAA tournament title in his second year as head coach at the University of Connecticut, is picking up a lot of fresh buzz as we get ready to head into the coaching carousel part of the NBA season.
That would be the part of the season consisting of the first round of the playoffs for those 16 teams that qualified and coach evaluating season for the 14 that didn’t.
Ollie’s a hot name right now because of what he did at Connecticut after taking over for Hall of Famer Jim Calhoun as an interim coach to start the 2012-13 season.
He led the Huskies to a 20-10 record in his first season at the helm and wound up landing a five-year contract with UConn. But the Huskies were banned from the postseason in 2013 because of inadequate academic progress within the program under Calhoun.
But Ollie kept the program together, kept standout guard Shabazz Napier in the program for his senior season, kept junior guard Ryan Boatright in the program, kept a lot of guys from jumping ship and his reward was a national championship to cap off a 32-8 season.
Now there are those in the NBA who think that Ollie will be one of the next big coaching search targets.
He’s got an NBA pedigree, having played 13 years in the league as a role player, a combo guard who was comfortable not being the star.
I mean, he grinded out a 13-year NBA career despite not being drafted coming out of UConn in 1995 and spending two years in the old Continental Basketball Association before getting his NBA shot.
And he’s a guy who won a national title in just his second year as a head coach with just two seasons as an assistant coach under his belt, despite being put in the position that swallows up many a player or coach. Ollie was the dreaded “guy who followed the guy” in replacing Calhoun at Connecticut and thrived in the role in ways that didn’t happen for such collegiate coaches as Craig Escherick when he followed John Thompson at Georgetown or Gene Bartow when he replaced John Wooden at UCLA.
The NBA equivalencies to this would be to look at the coaching careers of Randy Pfund (Pat Riley’s replacement with the Lakers) or Ron Rothstein (Chuck Daly’s replacement with the Pistons).
Ollie has some high-profile supporters in the NBA, most notably his former teammate in his last NBA season in 2009-10, Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“Kevin Ollie, he was a game-changer for us,” Durant told Grantland’s Bill Simmons on the B.S. Report in February. “He changed the whole culture, I think. He might not say it, but I think he changed the whole culture in Oklahoma City.
“His mindset, his professionalism, every single day. And we all watched that, we all wanted to be like that and it rubbed off on Russell Westbrook, myself, Jeff Green, James Harden. And you know, everybody that comes through now, there’s a standard you’ve got to live up to as a Thunder player. And that started with Kevin Ollie.”
Heady praise to heap upon a player who appeared in only 25 games with the team.
But in many ways, Ollie is much more an NBA guy than a college guy. Ollie lasted 15 years in professional ball, 13 of them in the NBA, despite never averaging 10 points in a single season, not even during his four years at UConn.
His transactions log reads like an NBA travel guide: He was waived six times, traded three times and played for 11 different franchises, including two stints each with Orlando, Philadelphia and the Seattle/Oklahoma City franchise and stays in Cleveland, Milwaukee, Chicago, Minnesota, Indiana, New Jersey, Dallas and Sacramento. That doesn’t count spending time in Golden State’s training camp as an undrafted rookie in 1995.
Kevin Ollie was the journeyman’s journeyman, playing 662 games in 13 years while averaging 15.6 minutes, 3.8 points and 2.3 assists per game.
Never a star as a player, there are some who forecast him as a future star on an NBA sideline.
“It’s just a matter of time,” one unnamed NBA general manager told ESPN.com’s Jeff Goodman. “The league will come calling. He’s a great communicator and has a calm demeanor. This win alone (the national championship), however, doesn’t just tilt the scale. It breaks it.”
Another factor in Ollie’s potential NBA future is Durant, with one NBA executive telling Goodman that whatever teams decide to make a run at Durant as a free agent “will throw the whole ATM after [Ollie].”
A long NBA career as a journeyman reserve doesn’t necessarily make one a coaching star.
But when a player with as high a profile as Durant is giving you credit for changing the culture of one of the most successful franchises in the league four years after you played a single season there?
That’s someone worth keeping an eye on when the coaching carousel begins to spin.
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