Leominster’s Daigneault earns assistant coach job with Thunder

Leominster native Mark Daigneault cuts down the net at the O’Connell Center in Gainesville, Fla., after a March 8, 2014, win over Kentucky capped a perfect 18-0 Southeastern Conference regular season for the Gators. (University of Florida / Ron Irby)

The dream of coaching in the NBA is coming true for Leominster native Mark Daigneault.

After spending the past five years as the head coach for the Oklahoma City Thunder’s G-League affiliate, Daigneault is ascending to the Thunder bench alongside longtime mentor and colleague Billy Donovan.

Daigneault is now serving as one of the team’s assistant coaches, and is excited for the upcoming NBA season. Already having familiarity with the organization, however, it doesn’t feel too much different moving up in the coaching food chain.

“I’m really content to be in a really good organization,” Daigneault said. “It’s been fulfilling work, and they’ve taken really good care of me. It’s a new role in the same organization and it doesn’t feel a whole lot different yet, because the day-to-day is so similar. It doesn’t feel like as much of a jump as you might think at the moment.”

Daigneault started his career at the University of Connecticut as a graduate assistant before taking on an assistant’s position at the University of Florida under Donovan. Later, shortly after Donovan became the head coach of the Thunder, Daigneault was hired as the head coach of the team’s G-League affiliate, the Oklahoma City Blue.

As head coach of the Blue, Daigneault amassed a 143-107 record, good enough for a .572 winning percentage, and posted a 4-7 record in the playoffs. His career in the G-League started in 2014, and ended with the announcement of his promotion in the organization in late July.

Daigneault says all of the coaches play a role in player development at the NBA level and that the assistant coaches all have different roles in terms of the team development. He will work individually with certain players and have responsibility in terms of some offensive and defensive aspects to the team.

“To be honest with you, a lot of the staff this season is new,” Daigneault said. “The specifics of our roles will evolve somewhat naturally. I’ll have a much better idea by mid-season of what exactly I’m doing. I’ve worked with coach Donovan before and I’ve been in the organization for five years, so I can bring some of those experiences to the table.”

Having prior experience as a head coach has given Daigneault some insights into running a professional team. Daigneault says being an assistant involves much more narrow and specific tasks, and the head-coaching role is much broader in approach.

He says as an assistant you need to know the nuances and details, and work hard toward those goals, and also work collaboratively with the head coach to offer ideas for improvements. It differs from the head coach, who makes a lot of in-game decisions on the fly, is the final decision maker, and has a broader view of the team.

“Having coached the past five years in the G-League gives me a certain perspective on player development,” Daigneault said. “It gives me a certain perspective on how hard it is for players to make the NBA, succeed in the NBA, and the lens of a head coach. …

“Having the experience of being a head coach will help me to empathize with Billy and see his perspective a little differently than I did when I was an assistant for him before. It’s a shift in perspective, for sure, but I’m looking forward to it.”

The Thunder roster will have a new look this year after some pretty big trades in the organization. Daigneault will have the pleasure of coaching elite veteran Chris Paul, veteran Danilo Gallinari and highly touted prospect Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. He’ll also coach Steven Adams, who may be familiar to local fans from his days on Fitchburg’s Notre Dame Prep team.

“We’ve got some really good guys, and competitive players,” Daigneault said. “We’re optimistic about where we are headed. … Adams is a (heck) of a player, turned into a great player.”

Mark Osowski, a Leominster native and former NBA assistant coach (Charlotte, Golden State, Cleveland), held a summer camp in Leominster when Daigneault was young and planted the seed of coaching, and even coaching at the NBA level. Osowski served as an early mentor, and Daigneault continued his legacy, running his summer camp for as long as he could after Osowski passed away suddenly at a young age.

“Osowski was a good man and was very good to me when I was very young,” Daigneault said. “I’m certainly very grateful for the role that he played. Good coach, better person.

“When you’re trying to pursue something that seems daunting at first, which it does when you first set out to do it, having somebody who is from your hometown who didn’t have much handed to him and had to go the long way to get there gives you a little more confidence that it can be done.”

Although Oklahoma City is 1,670 miles away from Leominster, and Daigneault is coaching at the highest level of basketball in the world, he still hasn’t forgotten his roots in his hometown.

“I’ve always felt a lot of support from the local community, family and friends,” Daigneault said. “I’m extremely grateful for their support, and continued support over the years.”