The Austin Toros won the NBA Development League title last year, but to refer to them as defending champions might be a bit misleading — only guards Justin Dentmon and Jamarr Sanders returned to the Toros to start this season, and Dentmon has since been traded.
The new-look Toros also include a new head coach; Taylor Jenkins, who spent four years as a Toros assistant, was hired after Brad Jones took an assistant coach’s role with the Utah Jazz.
With 11 games to play in the regular season, the Toros (22-17) are in third place in the Central Division and in the thick of the playoff race. On Friday, they host a rematch of last year’s championship series against the Los Angeles D-Fenders.
Jenkins’ story is not one of a journeyman assistant who finally got his shot, but of an up-and-comer within the San Antonio Spurs’ organization. The Spurs, who previously had hired him as an intern for the Spurs’ basketball operations department, hired him at the age of 28, which makes him the youngest coach in the D-League.
“He was one of the most driven interns in the program,” Spurs general manager R.C. Buford said. “There were a couple of projects we gave him that he knocked out of the park. He was impressing people the whole way. After the first year, he spent time rebounding and helping people on the floor. He came back … and said ‘I want to see what this coaching thing is all about.’”
Jenkins was hired as a Toros assistant in 2008. After two years working under Quin Snyder, he took on a bigger role under Jones — coordinating the defensive side of the ball.
“It was a unique situation because Taylor was already an assistant coach when I got there,” Jones said. “Usually the head coach gets to choose his assistants, but he was a young up-and-comer and had the backing of R.C. Buford and Pop (Greg Popovich), so therefore, he had my support, too. … Once I realized he coaches from a place of pure heart, I was able to help him grow as an assistant.”
Historically, the Toros have led the D-League in getting players called up to the NBA. They are still awaiting their first call-up this season, but Jenkins hopes they will see some call-ups now that the Feb. 21 trade deadline has passed, freeing up NBA roster spots. Last season, the Toros had five players get called up a total of nine times.
The Spurs work closely with the Toros and keep close tabs on player and coaching development. Buford is a frequent spectator at the Cedar Park Center. Former Longhorns standout Cory Joseph was with Jenkins at the end of last year and most of this year; he was recently recalled by the Spurs and has been the starting at point guard with the recent injury to Tony Parker.
Coaching in the D-League presents a set of challenges not experienced at other levels of basketball. Last year, the Toros had 30 different players on their roster. While this season has not been as dramatic, there has still been a fair amount of player shuffling.
“When you come off a season where you just won a championship, it’s very difficult to keep a team,” Buford said. “The interesting thing about the D-League is at some point in the year, you may have the worst team talent-wise, and at some point you may have the best team talent-wise.”
The D-League has been a feeder to the NBA for not only players, but coaches as well. Snyder and Jones both left for roles in the NBA. Jenkins eventually wants to follow a similar path.
“I want the highest challenge in my life. I’ve always wanted that,” he said. “But the other thing I recognize is embracing the opportunity that I have now, just trying to get better. Even as the head coach, a lot of people can say ‘Oh, you’ve done enough.’ But I’m not satisfied. I want to be the best head coach I can be, the best player development coach, whatever is asked of me, just continue to get better and as enjoy this opportunity.”
Austin Toros vs. Los Angeles D-Fenders, 7:30 p.m. Friday, Cedar Park Center