Mark Daigneault was a UConn manager in 2004. He should be NBA Coach of the Year in 2024.

The Connecticut men made the Final Four same as 20 years ago, when the 2004 Huskies beat Georgia Tech for their second national championship in program history.

That UConn team was loaded.

Ben Gordon and Emeka Okafor — both top-five picks in the 2004 NBA Draft — were the stars. Freshman Charlie Villanueva, who played 11 NBA seasons, came off the bench. Three more Huskies from that team, Hilton Armstrong, Josh Boone and Marcus Williams, also played in the NBA.

And then there was a freshman manager named Mark Daigneault.

Twenty years later, from freshman manager to fourth-year Thunder head coach, Daigneault is the favorite to win NBA Coach of the Year after finishing second for the award last season.

Orlando’s Jamahl Mosley, Boston’s Joe Mazzulla and Minnesota’s Chris Finch all have a Coach of the Year case, but none is stronger than Daigneault’s. You don’t have to make a patented Daigneault squint to see it.

The Thunder (52-25), with five games to play, has already blown past its preseason over/under win total of 44.5. The Celtics, Timberwolves and Magic have similarly surpassed preseason expectations, but the Thunder has done it after entering the season as the second-youngest team in the NBA.

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Head coach Mark Daigneault speaks to reporters at the Oklahoma City Thunder training facility in Oklahoma City, on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024.
Head coach Mark Daigneault speaks to reporters at the Oklahoma City Thunder training facility in Oklahoma City, on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024.

Orlando’s core is similar in age to OKC’s, and Mosley would be No. 2 on my ballot, but the Thunder went into the weekend with a seven-game advantage over Orlando in the loss column.

The Thunder made a 16-game improvement last season, from winning 24 games the year before to 40 games. Health might not allow for it, but the Thunder is still within reach of winning 56 games this season in what would be another 16-win improvement.

One of those leaps is remarkable. Two is almost unheard of.

Sam Presti built it and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been the engine, but Daigneault has calmly steered this Ferrari of a team.

Some NBA coaches specialize in strategy. Others in the softer skills like leadership, building relationships and problem solving.

Daigneault is adept at both. A genius tactician who knows his players, which creates a two-way lane of trust between player and coach.

How a guy who never even played college basketball, much less pro hoops, is able to relate to and manage the best players in the world is part of Daigneault’s mystique.

We know him here, but outside of Oklahoma City and Boston, Daigneault remains anonymous among most NBA fans. That’s exactly how he and the Thunder prefer it.

Daigneault has mostly operated behind the scenes, dating back to his UConn days. His role as manager would expand throughout his college career, but Daigneault’s job as a freshman was minimal. Rebound for players and help assistants with prep work.

“I was there every day,” Daigneault said, “and it gave me a great sense of what a great team looks like.”

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Daigneault remembers the work those players put in. Ben Gordon in particular.

“He had this one manager that would rebound for him,” Daigneault said. “(Gordon) would call him at 2 in the morning and the guy would go. Gordon would be in there, and he’d do a full workout with the college ball and he’d do the same workout with an NBA ball. He had this unbelievable vision for himself.

“That was the first time that I realized there was invisible work,” Daigneault continued. “There’s a reason people are able to perform when the lights are on, and he was a great example of that.”

From picking up on Gordon’s practice habits, Daigneault also got to pick the brain of coach Jim Calhoun, imposing as he might have been.

“There’s a tendency to want to overcoach, and to want to be good at everything and teach everything and fix every mistake in a very imperfect game,” Daigneault said.

Calhoun showed Daigneault the importance of prioritization.

“In reality you have to be really good at what you’re really good at,” Daigneault said, “and he had that right off the bat.”

From Connecticut, to Holy Cross, to Florida to the Oklahoma City Blue and onto the Thunder, Daigneault is at the top of an already-exclusive profession.

That UConn freshman manager from 2004? He might very well be the NBA Coach of the Year in 2024.

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Joe Mussatto is a sports columnist for The Oklahoman. Have a story idea for Joe? Email him at Support Joe's work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today at

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Mark Daigneault should go from UConn manager to NBA Coach of the Year