Florida’s Mark Daigneault on cusp of NBA’s next great turnaround with Thunder

The Sunshine State’s footprint in the NBA’s coaching ranks goes beyond Miami’s Erik Spoelstra and Orlando’s Jamahl Mosley. And it’s OK if most fans haven’t heard of Oklahoma City’s Mark Daigneault yet.

Because that’s probably going to change in the near future.

Daigneault, the 38-year-old in his first NBA head-coaching role with the Thunder, worked for the Florida Gators as he was breaking into the business. Under then-coach Billy Donovan, Daigneault was an assistant in Gainesville for four seasons before graduating to the NBA.

And now, though the Thunder failed to advance past the NBA Play-In Tournament last month, Daigneault is potentially in charge of the league’s next great turnaround.

Oklahoma City, a young team largely seen as ahead of schedule in its rebuilding phase, was the surprise of the regular season. The Thunder finished 40-42 and secured the No. 9 seed in the Western Conference before they were ousted.

The 40 victories were an 18-win improvement from last season, as Daigneault’s balanced approach allowed his youthful roster to develop on the fly. He uses his bench, he maximizes his roster, and though the Thunder doesn’t have many superstars, the depth shines through.

“I think him instilling those things in us when we were a 15-win team to when we were a 22-win team until now has made it easier for us to grow because it’s instilled in us habits that we carry forward,” guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said during the Play-In round. “And I think he’s done a great job of that.”

Daigneault was the coach of the Thunder’s developmental team in the NBA G-League before his promotion. He understood the culture that Donovan instilled in Oklahoma City after leaving Florida, and he’s carried that tradition forward.

Coaching the second-youngest team in the NBA is not easy. But Daigneault has been able to win the trust of his players and create a system that plays well in the West.

Having Gilgeous-Alexander on his roster certainly helps. A first-time All-Star, Gilgeous-Alexander averaged 31.4 points, five rebounds, and 5.5 assists per game.

“Shai is a great leader,” Daigneault said during the Play-In round. “He’s got a great, steady temperament through all the ups and downs of the season.”

Gilgeous-Alexander is the focus of the club in a city that is used to having NBA stars on its billboards. Over time, the Thunder have had Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden on their roster, though at the end of their careers, their time with the Thunder will likely seem like an afterthought. That could be different for Gilgeous-Alexander, who has the potential to be paired with Daigneault for years.

He’s not alone. Chet Holmgren, the second overall pick from the 2022 NBA Draft, has yet to play a single NBA game with the Thunder. Once he’s officially in the fold, Daigneault will have another weapon in his arsenal.

“He learned a ton,” Thunder general manager Sam Presti said of Holmgren this season. “Just the day-to-day approach. Walking into a building where you’re seeing everything else you want happening in front of you every day and staying that consistent. He’s got a mind that’s different.”

Holmgren suffered a season-ending injury during a Seattle Pro-Am game before his rookie season. But he was around the club all season, bonding with his teammates, and will be a key piece to next season’s team.

Within the next seven years, the Thunder have 23 first-round draft picks on the way, as well.

“Give guys opportunities,” Daigneault said, summing up his philosophy during the season, “and allow them to develop and play.”

So far, so good.

Pablo Hernandez was born in Cuba and raised in Miami, Florida. He has a huge love for sports and aspires to be a sports analyst on television in the future.