With former Jayhawk at the helm, NBA’s Nets are rolling

Jacque Vaughn, who starred at the University of Kansas before playing and coaching several years in the NBA, has overseen one of the league's biggest turnarounds as head coach of the Brooklyn Nets.

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December 27, 2022 - 12:47 PM

On Nov. 5, 2022, Brooklyn Nets head coach Jacque Vaughn looks on against the Charlotte Hornets at Spectrum Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images/TNS

NEW YORK — When Jacque Vaughn was at the tail end of his NBA career as a backup point guard for the San Antonio Spurs, Mike Budenholzer was an assistant on Gregg Popovich’s staff.

Budenholzer, now an NBA championship-winning head coach for the Milwaukee Bucks, remembers Vaughn vividly.

“As a player, his work ethic and his attention to detail was just off the charts,” he said on Friday. “He’s about as sharp as anybody I’ve ever been around as a player, and his thirst for game plans and little moments where he can make a difference and impact winning, it was high-level.

“And as a coach, it’s kind of the same thing.”

Vaughn was not the candidate the basketball world saw coming.

He amassed just a 58-158 record as a first-time head coach with the Orlando Magic. The Nets had passed on Vaughn after firing Kenny Atkinson, hiring Steve Nash despite Vaughn’s success in the Orlando Bubble. They were set to overlook him a second time after dismissing Nash seven games into the season.

Vaughn, himself, even joked he was the “write-in candidate” after the Nets chose not to hire Ime Udoka.

“But I’m OK with that,” Vaughn said. “I said to my wife, I might have not been her first choice and we’ve been together 20 years, so you know, it could all work out. So off we go.”

And off the Nets have gone.

The Nets are a league-best 20-7 since Vaughn replaced Nash. They enter Christmas on an eight-game winning streak coming off a signature victory over Budenholzer’s No. 1 seeded Bucks on Friday.

They are now the scariest team in all of basketball — because they’re winning at a high rate and haven’t yet fully put the pieces together.

Kevin Durant’s production (and his career-high shooting efficiency) has been the only constant.

Save for Royce O’Neale and Nic Claxton, important role players have all missed time due to injury, plus Kyrie Irving served an eight-game suspension as a result of a controversial social media post. Not to mention the many iterations of Ben Simmons, who is vital to the Nets’ success but continues to work back into form after offseason back surgery.

Under Vaughn, the Nets are proving they are not just the names on the back of their jerseys. They have finally become a cohesive team. Just when everyone began counting them out, Vaughn flipped the script.

“Jacque’s made it very clear,” Irving said. “If you’re not playing hard enough, he’s gonna let you know about it.”

IRVING’S initial reaction was to “call cap.”

About a month before Friday’s matchup against the Bucks, Vaughn gave his players a reality check.

The Nets are one of the smallest teams in basketball. It allows them to play fast and switch screens on defense, but it leaves the team susceptible to getting drilled on the glass.

So Vaughn used a practice day to call his players out. Securing a rebound starts with boxing out an opposing player, and the Nets just weren’t doing that enough.

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