BLOOMINGTON – Mike Woodson had a good day Monday.
IU’s coach landed a spring commitment from five-star forward Malik Reneau, a one-time Florida signee and Montverde Academy teammate of fellow five-star (and incoming IU signee) Jalen Hood-Schifino. Joining Hood-Schifino, CJ Gunn and Kaleb BanksReneau gives Woodson the Big Ten’s highest-rated 2022 class, for the 247Sports Composite.
He’s also the third player that metric ranked No. 30 or better to commit to IU in the 13 months Woodson has been in charge, a pretty direct rebuttal to questions about Woodson’s recruiting capacity when he was pulled from a decades-long NBA career to lead his alma mater last year.
More:Picking UI a ‘no-brainer’ for Malik Reneau; gives Mike Woodson a top-5 class
Scouting report:Malik Reneau can dominate around the rim, but there’s more to UI commit’s game
But there is something more fundamental signaled by Monday’s news, something basketball needs to acknowledge: It’s time to stop saying pro coaches can’t succeed in college.
It’s become a precariously lazy position to begin with.
Popular opinion has for some time been that the game’s best and brightest minds all gravitate to the NBA, so wearisome are the headaches that come with coaching in college, and so that’s where all the innovation happens. Therefore, players and coaches should get there as fast and stay for as long as they can. Reality is not so black and white, but it is presented (and often accepted) to be that way.
Yet some within the college game — and this includes within the media — have continued to prop up the idea only college coaches are capable of coaching in college.
If they can leave for the NBA then by all means do. Life is better there. They won’t have to deal with nosy boosters or recruiting calendars or pesky parents. But while they’re here, in collegethey are the only people capable of handling the demands of running a bigtime program.
Sure, a lot of the biggest innovations in the game — from Xs and Os to skills development to player welfare — are happening in the NBA. But this is university. You have to attend AAU tournaments in university. And know recruiting rules in university. And build relationships with young people in university. Not like the young people in the NBA who are the same age, and products of the same developmental pipelines, and sometimes literally the ex-teammates of players still in college. No no, this is different.
There are no headaches in the NBA, you see. Not egos. No players frustrated about playing time or roster status. Not administrative politics. No petty ownership disputes that can linger like a dark gray cloud over a franchise. Well, there was the exhausting Atlanta Spirit saga orbiting the Hawks for virtually all of Woodson’s tenure in Atlanta, where he took a previously moribund franchise to the playoffs three years in a row, but that’s not a booster dinner so it’s not the same thing.
Doesn’t this all sound even just a little bit silly? Do you really think the conversation between an 18-year-old Malik Reneau and an 18-year-old Marvin Williams, even if they’re approaching it from opposite directions, is that different? When NBA players young and old spoke glowingly about Woodson’s coaching ability after his hiring at IU, or when Knicks players, one by one, embraced him when he went back to New York for final goodbyes last spring, was that all a show?
Or is it possible a lot of this is just basketball, and translates, and isn’t as mutually exclusive as it is sold to you?
Reneau’s commitment vaulted Indiana to fifth nationally in the 2022 class, per the 247Sports Composite. A quick scan of that top 10 finds three teams led by coaches whose resumes are grounded in the NBA.
In his first season in Bloomington, Woodson led the Hoosiers to 21 wins, a Big Ten tournament semifinal appearance and the program’s first NCAA tournament berth in six years, on top of the aforementioned recruiting success.
Juwan Howard had what has become by Michigan’s standards a down year this winter, only managing to grab a No. 11 seed before advancing to the Sweet 16, beating dark-horse Final Four contender Tennessee along the way. This is Howard’s second-straight top-10 recruiting class, after his second-straight season in the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.
Fresh from back-to-back Elite Eight appearances of his own, Eric Musselman has the No. 2 class in the country in 2022 at Arkansas. He has walked a slightly different path, given his time at Nevada before moving to Fayetteville. But prior to taking over in Reno, he’d spent most of his career in the NBA (12 seasons, including three as a head coach), and it was Musselman’s ability to develop pro-level talent at Nevada that helped him gather 110 wins and three NCAA tournament appearances in four years before getting the Arkansas job.
Whether Woodson will be so successful long term misses the point.
Every hire comes with risk. Archie Miller looked like a no-doubt home run when Indiana plucked him from Dayton in 2017 but he never even made the NCAA tournament before his firing four years later. Coaches that look like sure things can fail, and others can be successful without being unqualified successes.
Yet when college programs, especially bigtime college programs, reach into the NBA, there is an immediate suggestion in some quarters that any college coach of note would’ve been better. If an NBA coach comes down here to take on one of the sport’s big jobs, he’s almost required to be that unqualified success simply to avoid being called a failure. why? Because this is college.
What that usually means is that NBA coaches don’t have to recruit. There are other differences — they aren’t hamstrung by the NCAA’s 20-hour rule or academic schedules, for example — but recruiting is the one that gets brought up most often, because it seems to cast the largest shadow.
There’s the nuts and bolts of it. Will NBA coaches be willing to sit in gyms and watch prospects all day, learn and play by NCAA rules, foster strong relationships with teenagers by putting in extensive time getting to know them and their families, etc.?
And then there’s the broader theoretical stuff: selling your program, mapping out a player’s careers, convincing them you’re the right person to develop them.
This came up when Woodson was hired. The suggestion was the long-days-short-nights part of the job would be too much for a 60-something without a day of college coaching experience before March 29, 2021, NBA coaches famously never having to work long hours.
Set aside for the moment that some of those comments, spoken in another context, would not feel so harmless. And ignore the degree to which Musselman does not seem to face so many of these criticisms as Howard or Woodson, and not just because of his time at Nevada.
Even then, the notion is pretty silly, isn’t it? Basketball is still basketball in the NBA. Players still need mentoring. They still need sold on your methods, the difference being here it’s called recruiting and there it’s called free agency. And if the NBA is where all the cool stuff in the sport is happening anyway — again, that’s not necessarily true, but it is perception — then does it not stand to reason high school players will find someone deeply rooted at that level appealing?
It’s almost as if the job is roughly the same: Build a good staff, work hard at evaluations and then coach what you have to the best of your ability. Woodson has done those things, not least the first, with assistants Kenya Hunter and Yasir Rosemond key figures in a lot of Indiana’s early success in Woodson’s tenure.
This isn’t a promise every major NBA-to-college move will win big long-term. It’s not even a promise this one will. But after watching multiple coaches, including Mike Woodson, come from the pro game to college and have immediate and substantive success in recruiting, development and results, let’s stop acting like these moves are a fool’s errand when increasingly, it’s defending them that looks foolish.
Follow IndyStar reporter Zach Osterman on Twitter: @ZachOsterman.