Billy Donovan’s reputation as an ace recruiter is well deserved. A resumé that includes two NCAA championships and dozens of players drafted from the University of Florida speak to Donovan’s ability to find and develop talent.
It makes sense. The small market Oklahoma City Thunder logically need a recruiter to convince players to play for the team.
But Donovan doesn’t see it that way.
“I really have never looked it as recruiting,” Donovan said at Thunder Summer League practice on Wednesday. “It’s more the relationship part for me because when you’re going through competitive situations, there’s going to be ups and downs and a lot of emotions. You want to be able to have relationships with guys that in those times you can work through it.”
Building relationships has been a common theme with Oklahoma City. General manager Sam Presti has spoken multiple times about Donovan’s ability to connect with his players.
“He has an intense passion for the team and for the organization,” Presti said at his exit interview in May. “I think he comes in guns blazing every day looking for ways to get better, looking for ways to continue to build relationships with his players. I think he’s done an excellent job of that, as well.”
Recruiting seems to be a bad word within the Thunder organization. The connotation of recruiting implies the necessity of convincing players to come or stay in Oklahoma City because of the obvious factors. While fans and national media may see it that way, the Thunder do not.
Paul George’s decision to remain in Oklahoma City has brought that culture of relationship building over recruiting to light.
“I think the notion was to look at the season as a recruiting process,” George said in his ESPN mini-doc My Journey. “But it wasn’t. Them just being hands on, open and honest, keeping that relationship authentic. I think I really built a relationship and a brotherhood in that organization.”
While it is true that if George had not been traded to the Thunder, a future with the combination of both was near impossible. Despite what many believe, Oklahoma City did not convince George to stay through promises or being on their best behavior, but rather through honesty and the confidence in their culture.
Donovan’s ability to adapt seamlessly with that culture along with his personal charisma has been contagious. Even to players from his actual recruiting days at Florida.
“Definitely I took that into consideration,” Nerlens Noel said Wednesday when asked about Donovan’s role in him deciding to sign with the Thunder. “Going back to the recruiting process (coming out of high school) I had built a relationship with him. Coach Donovan has always had my back.”
“He’s a a player’s coach, he’s such a personable person. He just wants me to go out and play my game,” Noel added.
Last season was disappointing. Players and coaches as well as members of the organization will tell you that. Donovan along with Carmelo Anthony were the easy scapegoats amongst fans.
Regardless of if you like him or want him fired, Donovan’s role as the head coach for Oklahoma City has been pivotal in retaining Russell Westbrook, George as well as weathering the apocalyptic storm of Kevin Durant’s departure.
“The one thing I love about the organization is that everyone is there to help everybody,” Donovan said. “As a coach you want to be able to help anyway you can. I appreciate that they have helped me and allowed me to be involved with the free agency process and they have very much included me in all that.”
Presti has his ‘scared money don’t make none,” meme. The relationship between George and Westbrook has been widely discussed as the sole reason for George’s return. But little has been talked about concerning Donovan’s role in all this. Maybe it’s time we give him his due.
Through Donovan’s humility and patience he has been rewarded with continuity. After inheriting the 2015-16 Thunder squad, Durant left. The following year was the Westbrook show. Last year saw George and Anthony added to the fold. Now with a foundation of Westbrook and George firmly in place, Donovan will be able to continue development rather than start from square one when training camp begins.
“Well, let’s see what the roster looks like,” Donovan said with a smile. “We aren’t done yet.”