Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Sielski: Wright's USA Basketball connections could mean big things for his future

Throughout his week in Las Vegas earlier this month, Jay Wright hustled from coaches meetings to team meals to practices, keeping company with the power people in USA Basketball, and not once did he experience a moment alone with the most powerful of them all.

Throughout his week in Las Vegas earlier this month, Jay Wright hustled from coaches meetings to team meals to practices, keeping company with the power people in USA Basketball, and not once did he experience a moment alone with the most powerful of them all.

Wright spent those seven days in the desert as an assistant coach with the USA select team, the group of 23 young NBA players charged with preparing the U.S. national men's team for the Rio Olympics next month. He had time and opportunity to discuss basketball strategy and coaching techniques with national coach Mike Krzyzewski and Krzyzewski's successor, Gregg Popovich. And sitting in on those meetings, watching those practices, immersing himself in all of it, was Jerry Colangelo: managing director of USA Basketball, special adviser to 76ers ownership, father of Sixers general manager Bryan Colangelo. Yet Colangelo never pulled Wright aside to congratulate him on Villanova's national championship run, to share a private conversation, to do anything other than be a presence in the room while Wright was speaking and listening and teaching.

"Rarely, rarely one-on-one," Wright said in a phone interview Thursday. "It's really never one-on-one with Jerry, to be honest. We're always in a group as a staff."

He paused.

"I'm thinking about it."

He paused again.

"No, never."

This is how Colangelo does business - a subtle sizing-up of each person he meets and knows, a process that could have a profound impact on Wright's future. Wright's stint in Vegas marked the fourth time he has worked with USA Basketball, the second time with the select team, and the longer he remains involved in the national program, the longer he keeps Villanova among the country's elite college basketball teams, the easier it becomes to believe that he'll someday have the chance to coach in the Olympics, either as an assistant or a head coach. Or, perish the thought, in the NBA.

"I would always love to be a part of [the Olympics], and they know that," Wright said. "I've coached all of the teams - Pan-Am, World University Games. They kind of use me as a journeyman, and they know they can call me at the spur of the moment. But I'm pretty sure that an NBA guy will always be the Olympic coach, and I think it should be that way."

It will be for another four years at least. Krzyzewski, of course, wasn't an NBA coach when he took over the national team in 2006, but few coaches in the league and none at the college level could match the cachet and esteem he held among NBA players. He's now 69, and Popovich will be 71 by the time the 2020 Summer Games roll around, and yes, it's hard to see USA Basketball going back to a college coach after giving the job to a man with five NBA championships. But that's what makes the possibilities so intriguing with respect to Wright. He's just 54, which means he'll be just 62 in 2024, and who knows where he'll be by then?

"I've just got to think of myself as a college guy right now," Wright said, "and I've got to live that way."

Understand: Wright loves Villanova. He loves what he does and, most of all, where he gets to do it. He was raised in Bucks County as a Big Five fan, and he recognizes that the culture at Villanova and college basketball's place in the firmament of Philadelphia sports afford him advantages he would never enjoy at Duke, Kentucky, or North Carolina. The day after a tough Villanova loss, no one's speed-dialing the sports-talk stations here to demand Wright's firing, and he's shown that he can construct a national championship team without the same resources and reputations that those powerhouse programs have.

If anything, though, those successes have made him a more attractive candidate to continue his ascendance in international basketball and into a promising pro coach. As long as the Wildcats keep winning, Wright's loyalty to and appreciation for Villanova will never stop the overtures from the NBA, and they certainly won't quell the speculation that will arise if the Sixers don't take a significant step forward this season under Brett Brown.

Remember: Bryan Colangelo isn't finished reshaping the organization, bringing in his people and clearing out Sam Hinkie's, and he didn't hire Brown. Hinkie did.

That truth has the potential to create a delicate situation for Wright and Brown. They're friends, trading text messages frequently, traveling to Israel last year to teach basketball together. There's no professional jealousy or feud between them. Each roots for the other, and after three seasons with so little talent at his disposal and so much roster turnover, Brown deserves a reasonable grace period to demonstrate to the Colangelos that he's worthy of a long-term commitment. Hell, Wright probably wants the Sixers to make that commitment to Brown, because it would take the prospect of choosing between Villanova and his hometown NBA team off the table for a while. It would clear his mind completely.

But there's a reason, as Yahoo Sports reported in April, that the NBA acted to limit Colangelo's ability to communicate with NBA players outside of the auspices of USA Basketball. His leadership of the national program gives him access to great athletes and coaches. It gives him an opportunity to observe them up close, to wield his influence with them, and after more than a half-century at basketball's highest levels, he doesn't necessarily need a long stretch of private time with Wright to learn what he needs to know about him.

Jay Wright thinks of himself as a college guy. He'd be happy forever to remain a college guy at Villanova, and for now, coaching in the Olympics is just a dream deep in the distance. But you never know what can happen over time, as powerful people make plans.