University of Kansas

Inside former Kansas guard Aaron Miles’ rapid rise in the NBA coaching world

Aaron Miles on his coaching career

Former Kansas star Aaron Miles talks about his rapid rise in the coaching world at NBA Summer League.
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Former Kansas star Aaron Miles talks about his rapid rise in the coaching world at NBA Summer League.

Aaron Miles’ coaching career originally began as a rehab stint.

After Miles tore his labrum while playing overseas in 2015, Kansas basketball coach Bill Self invited his former point guard back to Lawrence, where Miles could both rehab and work as a graduate assistant for the Jayhawks.

“If you get healthy, you can go back and play,” Miles remembers Self saying. “If not, you have your foot in the door.”

Self’s offer has turned into a meteoric rise in the coaching ranks for Miles, who on Wednesday landed a spot on the Golden State Warriors coaching staff. Miles, 36, will serve in a player development role for coach Steve Kerr and one of the NBA’s most successful organizations. Miles has proven that experience only goes so far and that traits such as personality and drive go further, which is how he’s been able to advance in a cut-throat industry.

“He’s on a very accelerated pace,” Self told The Star. “I would not be surprised at all if he’s an NBA head coach at some point.”

After leading Kansas to the Final Four as a freshman, on a team that had one of the best offenses in the country, Miles has always been known for having a high basketball IQ. Recruited to KU by Roy Williams, Miles played alongside Nick Collision, Kirk Hinrich and Keith Langford on a team that lost to eventual national champion Maryland in the Final Four.

Miles graduated from KU in 2005 after playing for Self. Then he went overseas and played all over Europe. But he never could stick with an NBA team, partially because of nagging injuries. Even when he was battling through pain, his basketball smarts won over coach Eric Musselman, who let Miles run the 2011 Reno Bighorns’ offense. The NBA D-League team featured a number of future NBA players in Jeremy Lin, Hassan Whiteside and Danny Green. Miles tore his ACL a few days before he was due for an NBA call-up, ending his season and perhaps his best shot at making it to the league.

Still, Miles’ stint with the Bighorns planted the seeds for his coaching career. His knowledge of the game and personality impressed many, including Bighorns staffer Ryan Atkinson, who thought Miles would make a great coach. When Miles went to another team overseas, the two kept in touch.

After spending one year on Self’s staff, Miles caught on with former KU assistant Joe Dooley, who was then the head coach at Florida Gulf Coast. Despite Miles being just 33 and with only one year as a graduate assistant on his resume, Dooley said Miles’ college career already gave him a leg up on other candidates. His ability to relate to players made his age and resume easy to overlook.

“How many guys do you know have played four years of college basketball and played for two coaches in the Hall of Fame?” Dooley said. “He’s been very well-coached. A lot of people are hung up on experience. What if you’ve had a small amount of great experience. Isn’t that better than a guy with a lot of experience that isn’t very good? It’s all how you flip it.”

At FGCU, Miles helped a NCAA Tournament team while playing a key role in the development of star player Brandon Goodwin. While Miles was helping coach the program known as “Dunk City,” he was becoming part of a bigger conversation out west.

In 2017, the Santa Cruz Warriors, Golden State’s G-League affiliate, were searching for a new head coach. The franchise wanted a coach with G-League experience and the ability to connect with players. Throughout the search, one name kept coming to general manager Kent Lacob: Aaron Miles.

Miles and Lacob had briefly met at Game 6 of the 2016 NBA Western Conference Finals in Oklahoma City. Miles was there to support Collison, who was playing with the Thunder, but connected with Lacob before the game through Atkinson, who had recently been hired as Lacob’s assistant general manager.

“After the first interview, Ryan and I had a feeling that this might not have been the plan going in, but he feels like the right guy,” Lacob told The Star.

Miles nailed the interview in every way the Warriors wanted. He sold his ability to connect with the entire roster and what he had learned from Dooley, Self and Musselman to succeed. Miles fully acknowledged his shortcomings, saying he lacked a lot of experience and had never dealt with a front office, installing his own system and making adjustments.

But his experience in the league and his short, but successful track record in player development made Lacob think Miles could grow into the job. He was young enough to relate to the players, who remembered him from his college years, but old enough to command respect.

As a player, Miles wore many hats; he was the team’s best player at one point and and the oft-injured one at another.

“I’ve sat in their seats as a player, every one of them,” Miles said. “I’ve been a starter, the star player, a role player, the guy that didn’t get no minutes. I’ve played every role.”

When he sat down for lunch with Kerr, one of the final stages for getting the G-League head coaching job, the two connected over their injury-plagued playing careers and unique path into coaching. Shortly after that meeting, Miles received the job offer.

Miles beat his predecessor, Casey Hill, in his first game with Santa Cruz but struggled during his rookie season. The G-League was a lot different than FGCU and Miles had never prepared a game plan in college or had to make adjustments in one. He always had Self or Dooley to make the final call. He called both of his former bosses frequently, picking their brains on everything from inbound plays to coaching philosophies. Miles knew where he wanted to take the team, but he didn’t know how to get there.

“When we got there, Aaron was all over the place,” said Michael Lee, Miles’ lifelong friend, teammate at KU and assistant in Santa Cruz. “He had a lot going on. Just prioritizing what was most important. The rules are different, it’s officiated different. It’s just a lot. That’s what took him time. It’s about learning how the game works at that level.”

The Warriors went 23-27, but Miles began to have success late in the season and went into his second year more prepared. He blamed himself for a number of losses, but rebounded shortly after, which encouraged Lacob that he made the right hire.

Miles’ coaching job his rookie year got him on the radar of multiple NBA and college jobs, but he declined them. He was just figuring out how to do the job and didn’t think he could offer a head coach much help if he couldn’t work through his own issues.

Miles’ second year was a breakthrough as the G-League Warriors went 34-16, which tied for the league’s best record. Things that plagued him months earlier, such as his in-game adjustments, became his strength. His ability to relate to players made for a healthy locker room, allowing him to spend more time drawing up plays and watching film to correct mistakes.

“I can’t say that there’s a specific formula to winning,” Lee said. “But if there is, it’s wired in his DNA.”

Miles said he never had aspirations of coaching in the NBA when he first joined Self’s staff. He has simply followed the best opportunity throughout his career. Self famously said that 90 percent of college coaching has nothing to do with coaching but more fundraising and recruiting. Miles has come to agree with him.

He said he would never have been able to grow so quickly as a coach had he still been at the college level, where he would have to make phone calls to high school prospects shortly after coming home from a game or practice.

“You have so much to offer in the college game,” Miles said. “The professional level, when practice is over, your (players) go home, you don’t see them as much. I miss that part because you can really impact the college kid like that. But I damn sure don’t miss that recruiting. When practice is over I go home and watch film. That’s it.”

Miles doesn’t identify as an offensive- or defensive-minded coach, saying as a point guard, he had to set the tone on both sides. He’s taken aspects of Self’s and Dooley’s offenses but said the biggest thing Self has taught him is to prioritize his family over coaching. Had he not, he said he would be a bad coach with no support system. At the NBA Summer League, with a slew of NBA personnel trying to talk to him after a game, Miles made sure to kiss his wife and play with each of his four kids before his postgame obligations.

While his new job is his fourth in five years and presents new challenges, neither Miles nor the Warriors are worried. Lacob said during some of Miles’ struggles, he often thought of something Self told him when he was considering Miles for the Santa Cruz job.

“Aaron Miles might not be the best coach that you can hire right now today,” Self told Lacob. “But he will be the best coach when it’s all said and done 10 years from now.”

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Alex Schiffer has been covering the Missouri Tigers for The Star since October 2017. He came in second place for magazine-length feature writing by the U.S. Basketball Writer’s Association in 2018 and graduated from Mizzou in 2017.