Adam DeJoode remembers Toronto Raptors first-year assistant coach Brittni Donaldson as a feisty ninth-grade point guard in Iowa with an ability beyond her years to see plays developing before they happened.
DeJoode wanted her on his team the first time he saw her play, so he invited her to join his statewide all-star team that would play in summer showcase tournaments. It meant travelling over three hours from her home in Sioux City, Iowa, to Des Moines for Sunday practices, but that didn’t deter the basketball-crazed teen.
“She always had the ability to see things before they happened and was one of the best passers of the basketball that I ever coached,” DeJoode said. “But what separated Brittni was that she always watched a lot of NBA basketball.”
These days, whether it’s inside the Raptors practice facility in Toronto, or before a game at Scotiabank Arena, the 26-year-old Donaldson is on the court zipping around with players during individual workouts. She rebounds, or dribbles up the court to deliver them crisp passes, working in tandem with development coach Jim Sann as he leads a drill.
“Her energy and effort are fantastic,” Raptors rookie guard Terence Davis said. “I have fun working with her. She’s a very spirited person, a real professional.”
Donaldson played her NCAA basketball as a 5-foot-7 guard for the University of Northern Iowa Panthers (UNI). It’s the same school where Raptors head coach Nick Nurse played in the 1980s and began his coaching career, although the two Iowa natives had never met back in their home state. This season, Nurse added her to his coaching staff – one of 11 current female assistant coaches across the NBA.
“She’s a basketball junkie and that’s why she’s here,” Nurse said.
That list of 11 includes women who have been superstars in the WNBA or at the Olympics, such as Becky Hammon, Kara Larson and Teresa Weatherspoon. Others have coaching experience from overseas, with NCAA women’s teams or in the NBA’s G League. Donaldson’s path to an NBA coaching staff is unique.
She studied statistics and actuarial science at UNI and the Raptors hired her in 2017 to their analytics department, but she hardly remained tucked away with her computer in an office mulling the numbers. Donaldson was a regular presence around the facility, talking analytics with players in the gym and the lunchroom. She played in pick-up games with other staffers and jumped in to help rebound for players when they needed extra hands on court.
An assistant coaching spot on Nurse’s staff opened up over the summer as Eric Khoury, assistant coach and director of analytics, shuffled over to a key assistant role with the G League Raptors 905. Nurse, president Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster thought Donaldson would be a natural fit as an assistant coach.
“The benefit for me having her in that position is she really understands that it’s more than just the numbers. She has lived through it, prepped for games. When you look at those numbers sometimes, you wonder how they got there and you review some film,” Nurse said. “Her basketball experience links really nicely with that and it fills a huge gap for us. Any analytics questions we have, she’s the one we go to.”
Donaldson is the NBA’s youngest assistant coach. She doesn’t have much actual coaching experience.
“I test her quite a bit. I spend a lot of time asking her why we’re doing stuff, getting her to come back to me quick in end-of-game situations. ‘Who are you going to and what play are you running?’” Nurse said.
“I always say in that instance, you can’t not have an answer, you have to be able to charge in there and give an answer, something like ‘I’m going to Norm [Powell], and this is why.’ Then we may review, okay, was that the right answer, and why? I try to get her to watch games that way, watch end of games when she’s watching other teams.”
Donaldson had starred at North High School in Sioux City, was named first-team all-state in 2009, 2010 and 2011, and helped lead the way to a state championship. She was also a standout volleyball player there and carefully debated about which of the two sports to pursue in college. Basketball eventually won her heart.
“I loved the team aspect of basketball, I loved being a playmaker and a passer. It gave me a huge charge to give somebody the ball and watch them do something well,” Donaldson told The Globe and Mail in an interview at training camp. “I was a point guard for most of my career, a facilitator and I liked calling the shots. I liked high-pressure situations and having the ball in my hands at the end of a game.”
DeJoode, her club coach, eventually took a job as an assistant for the women’s team at UNI and Donaldson chose to play there. On the many long bus trips, Donaldson often chatted about NBA basketball – a passion she shared with her dad, Jeff, a big Boston Celtics fan.
Iowa doesn’t have an NBA team and DeJoode calls its citizens “sports free agents,” ripe to be captivated by the nearest clubs, from the Chicago Bulls to the Minnesota Timberwolves. DeJoode said most of the young females playing for the Panthers back then didn’t tend to watch much basketball on TV, and if they did, it was more likely a college game. But Donaldson was different – she loved to consume and discuss the NBA.
She played four years at UNI, arriving as a savvy passer who specialized in playmaking. But she suffered mightily with injuries and endured four knee surgeries.
“When I was unable to play I needed to keep in the game somehow, so I watched a lot and kept learning,” Donaldson said. “I really elevated my knowledge of the game. I loved watching Rajon Rondo, Manu Ginobili, Steve Nash – playmakers, facilitators.”
After the injuries, DeJoode watched her change her game.
“She had to become a different player – more cerebral – because her body no longer allowed her to do all the things she once could do,” DeJoode said. “The best part of her game was passing and driving and making plays, but because she couldn’t do those things the same way anymore, she became an elite three-point shooter. I remember a game where she made eight of them.”
She worked briefly after college analyzing data for CBE Companies in Cedar Falls, which specializes in outsourced call centres. But she quickly ended up at Chicago-based sports data provider Stats LLC, working with basketball statistics. Then she landed in Canada, on the Raptors analytics staff.
Donaldson’s connections with the Raptors players and coaches built naturally, as she would send them numbers on stats categories of interest. Her modern knowledge of the game was apparent and she had an easygoing way of expressing herself.
The story by now has been often told – when centre Marc Gasol arrived via a trade in February, Donaldson was asked to give him his first workout in Toronto, since the coaching staff was on a road trip. It helped put her top of mind when the assistant coaching job opened.
“I work for a team that takes chances on people and puts people in positions to empower them,” Donaldson said. “Nick gives people different responsibilities and shifts people through different things. That’s what I really like and respect about Nick – he doesn’t pigeonhole his staff into one role each. He enables us to sharpen our tools in lots of different areas.”
She worked with players in the summer and travelled abroad with coaches who did youth camps for Masai Ujiri’s Giants of Africa youth basketball program.
Joining the Raptors coaching staff has been a big lifestyle change for Donaldson, who had travelled sparingly with the team as its data analyst. Now, she is with the players and coaches every day, helping plan practices, providing analytics support, doing scouting reports and helping develop players.
“She’s here for a reason; she knows the game really well. You can tell she’s played,” Raptors guard Malcolm Miller said. “When we’re laying out a drill, she knows how she’s supposed to come off the ball screen, where she’s supposed to pass and who she’s looking for.”
Nurse says Donaldson is a great shooter, which will help her teach shooting at some point in her career. During games, she sits in the second row of coaches, right behind the players, often consulting with them during timeouts.
“She’s really bright,” Nurse said. “She’s going to have a great future here.”