From Graduate Assistant to Head Coach: The Rise of Connor Johnson


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From Graduate Assistant to Head Coach: The Rise of Connor Johnson

Kevin Gamgort

Very rarely do people know what they want to do in life from a young age. Connor Johnson is an exception to this common belief. 

For as long as he can remember, Johnson knew that he wanted to coach basketball. This summer, his dream became a reality when the Delaware Blue Coats (76ers G League affiliate) named him head coach of their freshly rebranded team.  

Growing up in San Diego, California, Johnson played high school basketball at Torrey Pines High School, one of the most dominant programs in the country. During this time, Johnson played under head coach John Olive, who played college basketball at Villanova and served as an assistant under Rollie Massimino from the 1985 Championship run to 1992. Olive had a significant impact on Johnson’s desire to become a coach. 

“I knew I wanted to be a coach and have kind of known my whole life that I wanted to be a coach, especially since playing for [John Olive],” Johnson said. “The way he did it and the success he had was remarkable, and it fired me up about the idea of being a coach.”

Following high school, Johnson played four years at Amherst College and continued to improve his knowledge of the game both on and off the court. 

Upon graduating, Johnson got in touch with Olive, who helped him connect with the Villanova basketball program. This resulted in him getting the opportunity of a lifetime, to be a graduate assistant and work alongside one of the top coaching staffs in college basketball.

“I knew I wanted to be a graduate assistant,” Johnson said. “I played Division III basketball and wanted to get some experience on the Division 1 level, and you couldn’t choose a better place than Villanova.”

As a graduate assistant, Johnson was able to become a member of the Villanova coaching staff and get his first experience from behind the bench. 

“It’s a tough job because a lot falls to you,” Johnson said. “It’s the lowest member of the coaching staff totem pole, and you do a lot of the grunt work that falls down to you.” 

Although it was hard work, especially while balancing getting his Master’s Degree in Public Administration at the same time, the graduate assistant role was a crucial step in Johnson’s progress toward being a coach. 

Johnson’s arrival at Villanova in 2012 marked four years before Villanova’s first National Championship since 1985.

“When I got there, [Ryan] Arcidiacono was a freshman, Daniel Ochefu was a freshman, and they were this new blood getting into the program, and now, of course, you know how successful they’ve been in both their collegiate and professional careers,” Johnson said.  

With experience working under now a two-time NCAA winning coach, Johnson learned a lot from Jay Wright during his two years with the Wildcats. He got an in-depth view of the recipe for success from Wright himself.

“He’s good in all aspects, and that’s why he’s had so much success,” Johnson said about Wright. “I was most impressed by his commitment to the team culture and making sure that the guys understand how important it is for them to be together as a unit.” 

Wright’s commitment to team culture inspired Johnson, who looks to take a similar coaching approach into this upcoming season.

“The way he instilled that in the players on a daily basis is something that I’ll never forget and try to re-create as much as I can.”

After his time at Villanova, Johnson made the leap from college to the NBA, spending the next four years working as a Video Coordinator and Director of Player Development and Coaching Administration for the Philadelphia 76ers. Many would assume moving from college to professional basketball would be a big adjustment. However, Johnson’s time at a top Division 1 program in Villanova, made the adjustment period a breeze. 

“I think it’s far more similar than different,” Johnson said. “The common thought is that they’re worlds apart (NCAA and NBA) but to me, it’s very similar.” 

As for the future, Johnson looks forward to his first head coaching experience and strives to keep moving up the coaching ladder. 

“To have a few years of coaching professional basketball under my belt as I hope to keep progressing through the NBA will hopefully be an added plus,” Johnson said.  

As head coach of the Delaware Blue Coats of the G-League, Johnson looks to continue focus towards developing players and maximizing their potential.

“Our team in Delaware is really developmentally focused,” Johnson said. “The development focus has been a huge focus of Coach [Brett] Brown since he’s been here, and it’s the same thing you see in college with Coach Wright, that he gets these guys for 3-4 years and develops them into NBA players.” 

Playing under a new name, logo and in a brand-new arena, Johnson knows how important it is for the Blue Coats to come out strong and form their new identity as a winner. 

 “We have a unique opportunity with the new building and a new team to get a fresh start and develop a winning program and a winning culture, which we are all very excited about,” Johnson said. 

Johnson’s debut as a head coach will come on November 3rd, as the Blue Coats tip-off their season on the road against the Raptors 905, Toronto’s G-League affiliate.